The Iraqi Army is intensifying its campaign against the so-called Islamic State, driving on towards the main prize, the second city of Mosul.
The campaign was given a boost this week when US Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced the deployment of 560 more American troops, to add to 4,000-plus already there.
But it is also supported by a much larger contingent, a group whose ranks are estimated to number anywhere between 90,000 and 140,000.
Iraq’s militias are key to the fight against IS, and to the political landscape of the fractured country. But they are little understood. Often referred to as Iranian-backed Shiite militias, they are neither all supported by Iran nor exclusively Shiite.
Here’s an expert briefing:
Where did they come from?
When IS began taking Iraqi territory at terrifying speed at the start of 2014, it met little resistance from the army.
A few days after the fall of Mosul in June of that year, Iraq’s most powerful Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a fatwa (religious edict) calling on believers to fight IS and protect holy sites.
Tens of thousands came forward, but the vast majority didn’t enlist in the army, seen by many as corrupt and ineffective. Instead, they joined a group of militias that now fall under a broad government umbrella group known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (al-hashd al-shaabi), or more simply as “the hashd”.
Officially, there are now around 140,000 militia members. But Renad Mansour of the Carnegie Middle East Center, who has followed their rise closely, estimated that there are only 90,000-100,000 fighters in 60-70 militias. He told IRIN the discrepancy is partly explained by the fact that many people just put their names down as a mark of duty after Sistani’s fatwa. “That doesn’t necessarily mean they are fighting,” he said.
Many of the militias were well established far before IS came along, as both fighters and political forces. Some had been set up to counter the rule of Saddam Hussein, others to oppose the US-led invasion in 2003 (or both).
But many new groups also sprouted up following Sistani’s call to arms. “They thought this was an opportunity to fight IS and an opportunity for funding, to develop a paramilitary organisation,” Mansour explained.
Other militias launched to protect their neighbourhoods or holy sites. And while they are seen as mostly Shiite, groups hailing from other sects and religions have taken the hashd name, too.
Overseen by a commission attached to the office of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the militias are nominally headed by a national security advisor and their members are meant to be paid $750 a month (although that’s not always forthcoming).
While it’s easy to oversimplify them into the shorthand of “government-allied Shiite militias”, the reality is much less coherent.
“Some are getting paid but they are not very centralised,” said Mansour, adding that effectively any group that wants to use the name “hashd” and take on IS can. “It’s hard for them to present themselves as one group with a clear mandate.”
Kirk Sowell, an Iraq expert and political risk analyst, agreed that the militias are far from a single entity. “This is not anything like a genuinely professional military organisation,” he told IRIN. Some hardly follow the dictates of the prime minister’s office. “It is a collection of militias with loyalty to whoever their chief is,” Sowell explained.
Here are a few of the key militias:
Sarayat al-Salaam (Peace Companies) Before there was IS and before there was any organised government body for the Shiite militias, there was the Mahdi Army. Formed in 2003 by the influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to oppose the US-led invasion, it was disbanded after several years and reappeared under a new name in 2014.
Of late, Sadr has drawn attention for mobilising thousands of supporters to protest against a political system paralysed by sectarian divisions, breaking into the heavily fortified Green Zone and parliament in late April.
This group is distinguished by its nationalist ideals, which put it at odds with other unabashedly pro-Iranian militias. Some Sadrist leaders have said they think the militias should be disbanded after the fight against IS. Others don’t even consider themselves part of the hashd system at all.
Asaib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Family of the Righteous) Having split off from the Mahdi Army with leader Qais al-Khazali before it was disbanded, AAH are considered to be one of the more brutal groups on the battlefield.
Khazali himself was captured by coalition forces and released after three years in 2009, reportedly in exchange for British citizen Peter Moore.
AAH is seen as close to Iran, and Khazali has boasted that his fighters honed their skills on the battlefields of Syria. Former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki is also an important ally.
Human Rights Watch singled out AAH and another militia for criticism after it said they abducted and killed “scores” of Sunnis and demolished Sunni homes, stores, and mosques as retribution for a January bombing claimed by IS.
At the time, HRW’s deputy Middle East director Joe Stork said: “again civilians are paying the price for Iraq’s failure to rein in the out-of-control militias”.
Badr Organisation Both a political and a military operation, Badr has members of parliament, and its commander, Hadi al-Amiri, was Maliki’s transport minister.
Amiri has been around since the group was founded in the 1980s. These days he makes no bones about the fact that he can’t be controlled by Baghdad.
While Badr has taken part in its fare share of misdeeds and is close to Iran – HRW also called them out in January – Mansour said it has high-ranking members who are nationalists and others willing to compromise. It may be willing to integrate into some sort of state apparatus, given the right conditions.
Hezbollah Brigades As one might expect from its name, this one causes a fair bit of controversy. Led by Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes (a nom de guerre) and designated a terrorist organisation by the US, Hezbollah enjoys significant support from Iran, and has sent fighters to fight alongside President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Mohandes (“engineer” in Arabic) is the deputy commander of the hashd commission and arguably more influential than the national security adviser, who is technically above him. His ties to Iran are undeniable: he is said to have lived in the country after the first Gulf war.
The day after
Speculation about the militias’ future is very much part of Iraqi discourse. They have arguably caused as many problems as they have solved. In the aftermath of the March and April battles to take back Tikrit from IS, militias (including AAH, Hezbollah, and others) were accused of looting and torching civilian homes, as well as unlawful detentions.
Abadi has tried to bring the groups to heel. Ahead of the army’s recent offensive on Fallujah, Iraqi officials said they would keep the militias on the outskirts of the battle to avoid stirring up sectarian tensions in the majority-Sunni city. Iraqi forces were sent in first, but reports suggest some militias eventually made their way in and were engaged in looting and arson, not to mention summary executions and beatings on the city's edges.
These alleged abuses as well as the sectarian tensions already on display in the government and in the country at large mean there’s growing pressure to figure out what happens next.
Abadi talks of voluntary integration into a national guard, a plan that was backed by both the US and various Sunni politicians, possibly signing its death warrant.
The prime minister has announced an investigation into what happened in Fallujah and a number of arrests. For Mansour, what emerges from the wreckage of Fallujah will be key to the future, especially for a large Sunni minority already highly suspicious of the militias.
“They are waiting to see what happens,” he said. “If it becomes like Tikrit (with large-scale abuse), or if there are not many reports of crimes.”
Sowell noted that no matter what the buy-in to any plans to unify or disband the militias, some leaders at least (he mentioned Mohandes) won’t go for it. “They are not going to give this up,” he said. “They want to be a permanent institution.”
Once the common enemy is gone, there’s bound to be a power struggle. “There will probably be some fighting between the groups, particularly after ISIS,” said Mansour. It won’t be the first time – there has been plenty of sniping already on the battlefield and swiping at each other in the media.
The truth is that, for now at least, the Iraqi Army (only some 50,000 strong) needs the militias. “They can’t fight without them,” Mansour said, bluntly. “They’re just not strong enough.”