Iraq: the problematic nature of Shia militias

TRANSLATED BY MARIE PELTOMÄKI AND PROOFREAD BY RHONA KAPPLER

In post-Daesh Iraq, the difficult task of political reconstruction has begun. The Shia militias, who played a major role in the defeat of the Islamic State, now intend to make their mark. The regaining of territories has given way to a new, equally crucial conquest: that of power.

In June 2014, ISIS was at the height of its power. Ayatollah Al-Sistani, the highest authority of Shiism, initiated a fatwa urging the faithful to take up arms to fight against the advance of jihadism. More than 60,000 volunteers responded to his call and joined the ranks of existing paramilitary groups, bringing the number of militiamen to 140,000. This just goes to show the power of the religious leader’s words and influence.

The magnitude of Iraqi Shia militias

What are these “Shia militias”? Without counting neighborhood groups or small tribes, there are 7 or 8 truly organized militias in Iraq, a country whose population is 60% Shia Muslim. While many emerged as a result of the US invasion of 2003, others date back even further. For example, The Badr Organization – the largest of them, with about 50,000 men – was founded in 1983. In terms of religion, not all militias claim to be Shiist: some are Sunni or Christian in majority. In fact, the overwhelming majority depend totally, or partially, on Iran. The Hezbollah Brigades are for example the Iraqi counterpart of the Lebanese Hezbollah, faithful devotees to the Persian power.

In addition to their religious character, the militias are based on nationalist sentiment; many have been created on the precondition of defending the Iraqi nation against the American occupation or ISIS terrorists. Finally, they have a social function. In territories where ISIS withdrew after 2003, the militias have rebuilt Shia communities, often providing employment opportunities.

A leading role in the fight against Daesh

In a military sense, Shia militias played a vital role in the fight against ISIS. On the ground, they were in the front line, heroes of the recapture of cities like Falluja, Tal Afar or Mosul alongside the regular forces. However, their victory is tainted by the war crimes of which they are accused. Raids, summary executions, massacres of Sunni civilians; their reputation is less than sterling in the eyes of human rights organisations.

And yet, through armed conflict, they have gained a new and irrefutable legitimacy that they intend to use in order to obtain seats in Parliament during May’s legislative elections. Some of their leaders have already resigned from office in order to run for candidacy.

A major challenge for the future of Iraq

The question of the integration of the militias is thus somewhat provocative today. In 2016, Prime Minister Al-Abadi’s attempt to incorporate them into the national security apparatus was unsuccessful. More recently, Al-Sistani, France and the United States have, in vain, urged the militias to lay down their arms. One of the major challenges of tomorrow’s Iraq will be its ability to demilitarize these paramilitary groups while integrating them into institutions.

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