Iraq: In the shadow of ‘Abu Azrail’
BEIRUT - Iraqi fighter Abu Azrail — in English “the Father of the Angel of Death” — has been depicted by television station France 24 as “a vigilante hero, one man against the terror organisation of the Islamic State (ISIS)”.
In spite of the accolades showered on the Shia militiaman who has “Rambo” status in Iraq, he is another face of the infernal cycle in which two concepts of martyrdom are fighting in the name of God.
The motto Ila Tahin (ISIS), Grind you to Dust has made Abu Azrail famous across Iraq. He can be seen on videos standing beside a rocket launcher with his two high-tech mobile phones or working out at a Baghdad gym.
In spite of his apparent combat successes, Abu Azrail has come to symbolise the polarisation within Iraqi society where identities are increasingly defined by religion instead of nationality and have been exacerbated by ISIS’s operations in the murderous civil war in neighbouring Syria.
That conflict pits a rebellion largely supported by the majority Sunnis against the regime of President Bashar Assad, a member of the minority Alawite community which is considered to be an offshoot of Shia Islam. The bloodshed has spilled into Iraq, inflaming already fierce religious passions and triggering atrocities on both sides of the sectarian divide.
Abu Azrail is a stark reminder of another Shia militant known as Abu Deraa, once dubbed as a Shia Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the brutal Jordanian leader of ISIS’s mother organisation, al-Qaeda in Iraq, who was renowned for his savagery until he was killed in a US air strike in June 2006.
Abu Deraa sometimes favoured hand-held electric drills to dispatch his victims, who not only included high-value targets but also hundreds of ordinary Sunni citizens.
On both sides of Iraq’s religious divide, jihadists have relied on similar arguments to justify what they see as a never-ending war of conviction. Whether Sunni or Shia, fighters believe they are following Quranic directives: “And We ordained for them therein a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and for wounds is legal retribution” (5:45).
Abu Azrail, like other members of Shia militias, adheres to a narrative combining radical ideology, nationalist themes and the demonisation of the other side, in this case the Sunnis. ISIS’s war crimes have spurred atrocities by Shia militias in a fearsome circle of violence.
Members of Abu Azrail’s group, the Imam Ali Brigade, have posed in videos with the severed heads of their enemies in Saladin province. The organisation is led by Shebl al- Zaidi, described as one of the most vicious sectarian leaders in the now-disbanded Mahdi Army of the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The Imam Ali Brigade has been also linked to a video, which recently went viral, that shows its fighters in the al-Karma district of predominantly Sunni Anbar province abusing what appears to be the lifeless body of a man who has been strung up over an open fire.
The group denies any connection to the fighters but the images remain a horrifying reminder of the killing of shot-down Jordanian fighter pilot Lieutenant Muath al- Kasasbeh, who was burned alive in a cage by ISIS militants in January.
Human Rights Watch has accused Shia militias of being involved in ”possible war crimes” in Sunni areas such as Diyala province where civilians are believed to have been killed by the groups.
These days, monstrous crimes are not the preserve of ISIS or Shia groups alone because violence has been “normalised” among all segments of Iraqi society. An ABC investigation recently unveiled evidence of atrocities committed by the Iraqi military with photographs showing severed heads attached to the hoods of army Humvees. One photo showed a lifeless body being tossed from a tower.
Someone identified as “Sunni Tribes” recently proudly uploaded on Twitter pictures of alleged tribal fighter Hassan Obeidi, dubbed “the Daesh Burner,” standing next to the body of an ISIS fighter enveloped in flames.
Both Shia and Sunni jihadists who seem to take pride in such crimes against humanity have forgotten other Quranic teachings, which remind the faithful that while “the repayment of a bad action is one equivalent to it. But if someone pardons and puts things right, his reward is with Allah.” Quran, 42:40
Jihadists on both sides of the religious divide have masked what is essentially a struggle for power in a battle within Islam, the religious narrative undoubtedly sabotaging any hope for the long-term viability of a terrorised and tortured land.