Iraq’s Shia militias could prove bigger test than Mosul
Baghdad - In early June, two Iranian-backed Shia militias under the nominal control of the Iraqi government stormed into an Iraqi military airbase north of Baghdad. Driving armoured vehicles and wielding rocket launchers, they took over a building on the base.
The Iraqi commander at the base, near the town of Balad, asked the militiamen to leave but they ignored him as well as orders from the central government in Baghdad, two army officers in the Saladin Operations Command, the regional military headquarters, said.
The June standoff grounded four Iraqi F-16 fighter jets and pushed more than a dozen US contractors, who were there to help local pilots bomb Islamic State (ISIS) militants, to flee, the officers and an Iraqi military intelligence source said.
It also underscored one of the biggest challenges ahead for Iraq.
Iraq is battling ISIS for the northern city of Mosul. In that struggle, government troops are fighting alongside the country’s Shia militias, as well as Kurdish and US forces.
However, the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi knows that, even if it defeats ISIS, it needs to bring the Shia militias under greater control. Iraqi and Western officials alike say episodes such as the one in Balad raise serious questions about Abadi’s ability to do that.
The militias came together in 2014 after ISIS seized one-third of Iraq. Officially, the militias form a government-backed popular fighting group called the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), which has been instrumental in protecting Baghdad and pushing back ISIS.
The militias have also created headaches for the government. Many of them have ties to Iran and have vast military and political influence. Sunni Iraqis and human rights groups have accused some of rights violations, torture and killings.
The militias deny the charges of abuses and say they are simply battling ISIS.
At the Balad airbase in June, Iraqi Army troops dealt with the rogue fighters by walling off the section of the base they had seized. The fighters eventually agreed to leave for a local farm after the intervention of their boss, Qais al-Khazali. He leads Asaib Ahl al-Haq, one of Iraq’s fiercest Shia militias.
Abadi has promised to rein in the militias. Technically, the PMF reports to the prime minister through long-time national security adviser Falah al-Fayyad. Other Hashid leaders have official positions. Spokesman Ahmed al-Assadi, for example, is a lawmaker.
But Western diplomats say money for Shia fighters is regularly dispensed through commanders, giving them de facto control of the purse strings, and the PMF routinely presents itself as loyal to the Iraqi people rather than the state. Fayyad’s deputy, Abu Mahdi al- Muhandis — many militia members see him as the PMF’s real leader — is a veteran commander with long-standing ties to Iran.
Iraqi and Western officials say Abadi is too weak to take on the militias directly. When he first came to power in 2014, the prime minister tried to integrate the PMF into the regular security forces but that plan quickly died.
Now he is pursuing a softer approach. In February, he issued an executive order meant to nudge militias into accepting government control. Diwan Order 91 directs the PMF to become “an independent military formation, part of the Iraqi armed forces and linked to the commander-in-chief of the armed forces… on the current model of the counterterrorism service.” In November, parliament passed a law to that effect. It also calls on fighters to cut party affiliations and refrain from practising politics.
The militias control at least half a dozen prisons, local officials, police and army sources said. One is in Jurf al-Sakhar, a town south of Baghdad that was captured by security forces and militia fighters in 2014.
A national security official said the town and surrounding area is controlled by Kataib Hezbollah, one of the most secretive of the Shia militias in the PMF. The US Treasury calls the group a terrorist organisation.
Ahmed Salmani, a lawmaker from the nearby Sunni town of Qaim, said about 2,200 people are being held there. He said he had discussed their fate, including incidents of torture, with the Defence and Interior ministries as well as Abadi.
Kataib Hezbollah spokesman Jaafar Hussaini said reports of secret prisons were “baseless and a shameless attempt to distort the image of Kataib”.
Western diplomats say the PMF’s ranks could be halved if Iraq defeats ISIS but they also fear a hard core could evolve into something resembling Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. That would help cement the influence Tehran has gained in Iraq.
Militia leaders themselves are split, with some suggesting they will not lay down their arms even if ISIS is defeated.