Iraqi government pressured by Iran-backed militias
BAGHDAD - Concerned over the safety of his family, Abu Ahmed fled his Iraqi home town of Muqdadiya hours after Shia militias launched reprisal attacks against his Sunni community following explosions that killed scores of people at a café in a predominantly Shia district.
Security forces did not provide protection to stop the rampage by powerful Iran-backed Shia militias, widely known as al-Hashd al-Shaabi, Arabic for Popular Mobilisation Forces, which acts as a state within a state.
With absolute loyalty to Iran, they are funded, trained and equipped by Tehran. They have their own units, vehicles, leaders and uniforms. They set up roadblocks, separate from those of the army and police, to control neighbourhoods. When they arrive in troubled areas, police show up only after they leave.
The Muqdadiya rampage started on the evening of January 11th with the abduction and killing of several Sunni men. Sunni mosques were torched in the city, 80km north-east of Baghdad, in Diyala governorate.
The next day, Abu Ahmed, 45, drove his eight-member family out of town after spotting Shia militiamen near his house. They were stopping cars and checking identification, clearly to identify Sunnis.
“Although police were called for help, none showed up as the militias burned more mosques and killed more men. Most were picked from their homes,” Abu Ahmed said, speaking to The Arab Weekly by telephone from a relative’s house in the remote village he fled to.
Abu Ahmed said most of those killed were chosen by name, not killed at random in the street, which indicates they were targeted. “The militias are being used by some Shia politicians to settle old scores with the Sunni community,” he said.
The head of the Sunni Endowment, cleric: Abdul-Latif al-Himaim, said Shia militias were no different from Islamic State (ISIS) militants. “Both groups are terrorising and killing innocent people,” he insisted.
Several Sunni lawmakers reached by The Arab Weekly in Baghdad declined to comment on acts committed by Shia militias — a sign that few politicians dare to speak out regarding the heavily armed groups whose duty is to ensure that Iraq’s Shia-dominated government continues to reign.
The London-based watchdog Amnesty International has accused Iraqi authorities of ignoring the revenge attacks by Shia fighters in Muqdadiya.
“Instead of holding Shia militias to account, the authorities have turned a blind eye to this shocking rampage. In some cases, abductions and killings took place in full view of local authorities, who failed to intervene,” said James Lynch, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.
The Muqdadiya killings and arsons are the latest sign of the weakness of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government and Iran’s significant influence in Iraq. The militias rose to power after dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled in the US-led invasion of 2003.
Under Saddam, the country’s Shia majority — divided in allegiance to Iran or to its Arab roots — was completely sidelined. The rival Sunni minority had the final say in all matters, although the regime was largely secular, having been affiliated with the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party.
Now, militias control almost everything in Iraq. Their presence is heavy at the Interior Ministry and in the intelligence service. Their men take the lead in the fight against ISIS, which captured more territory in Iraq as the Shia-led Iraqi Army capitulated in 2014.
Since then, militias have played a crucial role in recapturing territory in central and western Iraq from ISIS, backing Iraq’s embattled military and police forces in several places.
The price for having such a powerful force is high: Violations and crimes range from abductions for ransom to seizures of homes that belonged to the Christian minority.
Baghdad-based political analyst Bassim al-Sheikh said that despite their vital role in the war against ISIS, the militias represent a serious danger to the state.
“The militiamen are loyal to their groups, not to the state. Therefore, they are tools in the hands of political groups to blackmail and make gains, even from the government,” Sheikh said.
“Militia leaders are even trying to become powerful in foreign affairs to shape Iraq’s foreign policy,”
Some militia leaders openly criticised the Iraqi government’s decision to allow the reopening of the embassy of Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional foe. They vowed to resist plans to expand the US military presence in Iraq, even if those plans were at the invitation of the Baghdad government.
Clearly, the process of taking a higher profile in the state has started. A few months ago, two powerful Shia militia leaders — Hadi al-Amiri and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis — complained in a meeting with Abadi about insufficient state funds allocated to the militias in the battle against ISIS.
Adding more pressure, some militia groups threatened to quit the fight or to escalate local tensions by cutting off highways linking Baghdad with other cities.
Baghdad’s cash-strapped government quickly bowed. In early February, the cabinet decreed a 3% salary cut for all public servants, saying the funds will go to the army and the militias.