Militias are leading the ground fight against Islamic State.

Photographer: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

Shiite Militias Also Carry Out Atrocities in Iraq

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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General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would do well to read a story posted Wednesday from the ABC News investigative unit that documents war crimes by what appear to be Iraqi army soldiers.

The network's investigation is based on a trove of social media posts that show atrocities committed by men wearing Iraqi military uniforms, in some cases with authentic patches for the elite special operations units.

The Iraqi military is the U.S.'s most important ally at the moment in the fight against Islamic State.

Dempsey, as the top U.S. military officer, is required to brief Congress on progress in President Barack Obama's operations against Islamic State.

On Wednesday, Dempsey acknowledged to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he worried about "what happens after the drums stop beating," and Islamic State is defeated in the upcoming campaign in Tikrit. Specifically, he said he was concerned the militias that have led much of the fight against Sunni jihadis could commit atrocities as retribution against the Sunni minority.

But Dempsey also hedged his bets. "What we are watching carefully is whether the militias -- they call themselves the Popular Mobilization Forces -- whether, when they recapture lost territory, whether they engage in acts of retribution and ethnic cleansing," he said. "There's no indication that that is a widespread event at this point, but we're watching closely."

ABC News has found evidence of atrocities in the past. The library of phone videos and photos document unthinkable violence. Severed heads are attached to the front of Humvees. One photo shows a lifeless body being shoved from a tower. Another shows a man smiling as he holds two severed heads by his side.

The collapse of the Iraqi army before Islamic State in Kirkuk and Mosul in June has allowed sectarian militias backed by Iran to lead the fight against the jihadi group. In some cases, the militias -- which have histories of ethnic cleansing in Iraq -- are commanding Iraqi military officers.

Although this development has helped Obama keep his promise not to send large contingents of ground troops back into Iraq, it also means that the army the U.S. trained is now under the influence of Iran, which has supported and sustained the militias now accused of committing atrocities against the minority.

Now that Iranian military advisers, Shiite militias and a weakened army are leading the fight to recapture Tikrit from Islamic State, it's strange that Dempsey would talk about the potential for atrocities as a hypothetical. Atrocities are occurring, despite the new Iraqi prime minister's commitment to a more inclusive government.

James Gordon Meek, the reporter who began searching social media in September, told me he has found dozens of atrocity photos and videos, many of them showing events that took place after Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi took office in August.

The ABC News investigation is already having an effect. A Pentagon spokesman told the network that some Iraqi military units that were scheduled to receive U.S. assistance and training had been cut off because of concerns about atrocities. The Iraqi government has said it was opening an inquiry, too.

But it's unclear if the message is getting to the top. Dempsey ought to know how dangerous the situation is becoming. Between 2005 and 2007, he was in charge of training the Iraqi military. When I embedded with U.S. units training the Iraqi military in 2007, I observed conditions that were far from ideal. Yet Iraqi officers also behaved better because U.S. officers were fighting at their sides.

In 2007, during the so-called surge, the Shiite militias that committed the worst atrocities against the Sunni minority were targeted at times with the same ferocity as al-Qaeda and other Sunni militias that terrorized the Shiite majority. Today, those Shiite militias are taking over Iraq's military. Is it any wonder that members of that military are boasting of their atrocities on Facebook?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net