Islam vs Islam.

Photographer: Ali Mohammed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Inside Iraq's Iranian-Backed Militias

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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On the bank of a canal across from a row of gated homes in the Iraqi village of Sinsil, a group of  volunteers with the Badr Organization psych themselves up for battle with the Islamic State. In their loose-fitting camouflage fatigues, the men follow the lead of a commander in his mid-50s, raise their AK-47 rifles into the air and chant: “Crush the Islamic State and honor Sistani.”

The praise is for Ali al-Sistani, the grand ayatollah of the Shiite faith, who resides in Najaf, Iraq. And the symbolism is telling that these warriors pledge their allegiance to him rather than the fracturing multi-ethnic state being governed out of Baghdad. 

During the U.S. led occupation of Iraq, Sistani was a calming figure who urged Shiites to participate in elections and leave the defense of the country to the army the U.S. was training and equipping. But last June, Sistani took on a new public role, urging Iraqis to volunteer to defend Iraq against Islamic State's offensive. His call to arms followed the collapse of the Iraqi army Mosul and Kirkuk, where the jihadists captured a vast trove of U.S. rifles, military vehicles and artillery. It was that call, many of the men told me, that led them to don these shabby uniforms.

Yet, contrary to much reporting, the plan for the militia defense predates the fall of Mosul and Sistani's declaration. It dates back to an April 7, 2014, meeting between then-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Iraqi Shiite leaders. Maliki privately said something that he was loathe to say publicly: He did not trust the Iraqi army or its officers in a fight against the Islamic State. He informed those assembled that he was beginning to mobilize the Shiite militias to protect cities and positions in and around Baghdad. 

I confirmed the account of the meeting from minutes shared with me by an Iraqi politician, and also with a Shiite Iraqi leader who was there. Last April, Reuters reported on the meeting as well.

Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the Badr Organization, the most powerful militia, told me this week that he was not at the meeting, but that he knew about it. "We were telling the Americans to do more" to stop Islamic State fighters in Syria and in Iraq, he said, "but they were too slow, they would not listen."

Earlier this week, the Iraqi parliament took a step toward gaining formal control of the militias by passing a bill that would shift the Iraqi volunteers, as they are called, into a new National Guard. In addition to funding for Shiite volunteers, the bill would set aside money to pay the salaries of Sunni Arabs forming groups to fight Islamic State jihadists. U.S. officials are hopeful this legislation will begin the process of absorbing the Shiite militias into the national army. But other observers are more skeptical. 

Erin Evers, the Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch, said she thinks Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi is sincere but questions his political power. "I believe Abadi is a reformer, and I believe he wants to reign in militias and that he wants Iraqi security forces conducting these on the basis of rule of law," she told me. "But clearly, what is happening on the ground is showing the limits of the implementation of his reform agenda.” 

Iraq's shift last year to a militia strategy has benefited men like Amiri, who as I reported yesterday is now commanding ground forces in Diyala Province. Amiri has close ties to Iran and his organization has been accused of significant human rights abuses. But he has also maintained ties with American diplomats over the years, and is not as hostile as many other Shiite militia leaders to a U.S. presence in Iraq.

The same cannot be said for Qais al-Khalazi, founder of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq network, aka the "League of the Righteous." Khazali was one of the most wanted men in Iraq during the U.S.-led counterinsurgency known as the Surge, in part for his role in the 2007 roadside murder of five soldiers outside of Karbala. He was released from U.S. custody in 2010 in exchange for a British hostage held by the group.

Today, according to group spokesman Naeem al-Aboudi, Khazali is fighting alongside the Iraqi army and even helping coordinate combatagainst the Islamic State with Iraqi generals. "Of course his excellency Qais al-Khazali is leading the fighting with the Iraqi army against the Daesh," Aboudi said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. Unlike Amiri, Khazali at least does not command Iraqi army divisions.

Aboudi told me Khazali makes no apologies for the deaths of the Americans in Karbala. "It was not only these five, we killed many Americans," he said. "Every American who carried a gun is a target for us."

He added that the initial 2007 plan was to kidnap the Americans, but when they saw U.S. helicopters overhead, the raid's leader opted for murder instead.  "We don’t kill for the killing," Aboudi told me. "We love life and peace, but the people and the citizens have the right to defend themselves."

The Badr Organization fighters I talked to in Sinsil were far less hostile. Captain Assam al-Hashem, who left his job as a grocer seven months ago to join the war, said he was grateful Americans were helping deter Islamic State's advances. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Hashem said, he manned an anti-aircraft gun in Saddam Hussein's army, even though he is both a Shiite and a Kurd, two groups tormented over the years by the Iraqi dictator.

But after two homemade bombs nearly destroyed his family's home near the Iranian border this summer, he is happy today to fight with a militia that has been trained and equipped by the Iranians. "We fight the Islamic State today," he said. When asked about Iran assisting in this new war: "What can we do?"

(Corrects that U.S. troops killed were not Marines in 10th paragraph.)

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To contact the author on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net