Pro-Iran militias engage in ISIS-type practices in Baghdad

Observers say that the Iran-backed militias are using these tactics exclusively in Shia-dominated areas to set the ground for a campaign of intimidation ahead of upcoming general elections.
Saturday 28/11/2020
 A liquor store oin Mosul, Iraq. (REUTERS)
A liquor store oin Mosul, Iraq. (REUTERS)

BAGHDAD--The Iraqi capital witnessed Thursday a dangerous incident that brought back to mind horrendous memories of the Islamic State (ISIS) group’s practices against civilians in the areas under its control, usually performed under the guise of implementing Sharia law.

According to Iraqi officials and footage of the incident that was later released online, dozens of baton-wielding men, reportedly belonging to Iran-backed Shia Rab’ Allah militia, raided a massage parlour in an upscale neighbourhood in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, assaulting its female employees and pulling at their hair before setting the facility on fire.

The massage parlour, known as Shilan Massage Centre, is situated inside Baghdad’s Mount Beirut Hotel in Karrada, a relatively safe neighbourhood where churches and international business are located.

Rab’Allah initially claimed responsibility for the attack, issuing a statement in which the militia said it was its duty to “stand against societal corruption” and fight against those who are “inspired by the corrupt ideas of America and Israel.”

Later on Friday, the militia made a u-turn, issuing another statement to deny it was involved in the storming of the massage parlour.

Massage parlours, which usually house illegal brothels in Iraq, have been targeted by religious hardliners in the past. In 2014, more than 20 female sex workers were killed in Baghdad in a brutal massacre carried out by such armed groups.

Rab’Allah, known for its strong links with Iran, is believed to be responsible for a recent attack on the Kurdistan Democratic Party offices in Baghdad as well as the shooting and wounding of a young Iraqi activist on Wednesday.

Political implications 

The attack on the massage parlour coincided with news that Iran-backed militias have launched a campaign against shops selling alcoholic beverages in Baghdad.

According to media reports, a string of attacks apparently perpetrated by Iran-linked armed groups on Christian and Yazidi-owned liquor shops took place across the capital, the latest of which took place late on Thursday night in Baghdad’s Karada district.

According to local reports, a stun grenade was used in the vicinity of one of the many alcohol shops in that area, defacing the shop entrance and damaging a vehicle nearby.

Based on local media reports, more than 10 attacks were carried out on alcohol shops since October.

Sources with the local police told The Arab Weekly that informers provided details about the militia’s intention to attack large stores and main stores selling alcoholic drinks in Baghdad through stun bombs and canisters to destroy them or intimidate their owners and force them to close their businesses.

The recent violent actions of Iran-backed militias resemble what ISIS did in Sunni areas that fell under its control in the summer of 2014, when smoking was banned and harsh penalties were imposed on those who violated the group’s edicts.

The attack on the massage centre, which occurred before security officers’ eyes, was a shock to the people of Baghdad, and many considered it an announcement of the birth of a “Shia ISIS” bearing the name Rab’Allah.

Rab’Allah is a formation under which the Iraqi militias backed by Iran mobilise their elements and fighters when they want to organise a rally or besiege the headquarters of a media institution.

The militias say that Rab’Allah is their “unorganised supporters,” but the security services have repeatedly proven that all of the elements of this formation are fighters in armed factions supported by Iran.

Observers say that Rab’Allah is a living example of the impunity enjoyed by Shia armed groups  in Iraq, compared to formations of all other sects.

The attack on the massage parlour and the campaign against liquor stores did not receive sufficient coverage in Iraqi media, a clear indication of the strong Iranian control over this sector, with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) keeping in check dozens of satellite and radio stations, news agencies and media platforms in the country.

With the news of the recent violence, many in Iraq have begun to question the government’s ability to hold fair elections in such an atmosphere.

In addition to Rab’Allah, Iraqis raised concerns about another group called Abu Jadhah, whose mission is to burn down offices of Iran’s opponents, politicians, media institutions and others.

Observers say that Iran-backed militias are using these tactics exclusively in Shia-dominated areas to set the ground for a campaign of intimidation ahead of upcoming general elections.

Iran, they say, will use these groups to determine who can vote in the elections, ensure victory for its agents, and weaken all its rivals and opponents within the Iraqi Shia political camp.