Iraqi government pressured by Iran-backed militias

Friday 19/02/2016
Iraqi Shia fighters from Popular Mobilisation Forces

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.