Off to Mosul?

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Why Iraq Doesn't Prosecute Militia Atrocities

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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Since Iraq began sending tens of thousands of volunteer fighters in 2014 to battle the Islamic State, evidence has mounted that some of these militias have committed atrocities against civilians. But so far, the Iraqi legal system has turned a blind eye.    

Basam Ridha, the Washington representative of what are officially called the Popular Mobilization Forces, told me last week that no Iraqi suspected of murder, torture or arson against the civilian population has been prosecuted by courts or sent to prison. Instead, suspects have usually been detained at military bases for a few weeks and then set free.

Ridha does not dispute the accusations of abuses by the largely Shiite volunteer forces. “I am not saying it’s not happening, it does happen,” he told me. “We do have revenges, some of these people volunteer because they lost their loved ones. That’s going to happen, we can’t stop this.”  

He also acknowledged that investigations into these cases have not produced results: “No one has gone to jail. They go inside prison, inside the military camp and usually they get let go.”

The issue of militia abuses is particularly important for the U.S. now. The Barack Obama administration has privately expressed its preference to the Iraqi government that uniformed military, not sectarian militias, retake Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. Ridha, however, says the volunteers want to launch the Mosul campaign in the next three months.

If the U.S. works directly with the militias, congressional statute requires that Obama will have to certify that no U.S. aid is going to units that have committed abuses, or that perpetrators of such abuses have been punished.  

So far, this sort of accountability has been lacking. Ridha said this is because it’s almost impossible to persuade witnesses to come forward, or to get other volunteer fighters to testify. “The reality is they do cover for each other,” he said of the fighters. “They have done a lot of vicious activities, a lot of bad crimes, but they get away with it.”  

Despite several promises since December 2014, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has not been able to bring these volunteer forces under the yoke of the Iraqi military. Today, Ridha estimates, there are 200,000 Shiite volunteers who participate in what are officially known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces. He said another 40,000 fighters from the Sunni tribal areas have offered to take up arms. (It’s hard to get a firm count, however, because volunteers are employed under contracts of 90 days or less.)

The militias fighting the Islamic State formally began in June 2014, after the jihadist group conquered Mosul. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest ranking cleric among Shiites, urged his followers to take up arms. Since then, volunteer forces have filled the void left by Iraq’s collapsing army, which abandoned its positions in Mosul and Kirkuk in 2014 and has been trying to rebuild ever since. When I visited Iraq a year ago, I reported how militia leaders were even commanding Iraqi army units in Diyala Province northeast of Baghdad.

The volunteers technically report to Abadi’s office, but the real head of the Hashd al-Shaabi is Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who serves as the deputy head of the government’s Popular Mobilization Committee. Muhandis is a former militia leader and a close ally of Iran’s Quds Force.

Publicly, the U.S. has taken no position on whether Iraqi militias should participate in the campaign to free Mosul, a multiethnic metropolis of over 1 million. American officials were quick to publicize that militias were not in Ramadi late last year when the U.S. helped drive the Islamic State from the city. Ridha, however, said fighters under the command of a leading Shiite militia, the Badr Organization, participated in the battle, although they didn’t enter the city itself.

Militia abuses have been drawing more attention recently. Humanitarian groups are documenting abuses from past campaigns. A Human Rights Watch report issued in September found the effort last spring to liberate Tikrit from the Islamic State involved militias who unlawfully detained 200 men and boys, 160 of whom are today missing.

The speaker of Iraq’s parliament, Salim al-Jabouri, told me last week there is now a special parliamentary investigation into militia abuses. “We have names, locations and photographs,” of torture and other crimes, he said. Al-Jabouri, a Sunni, told me he has discussed this issue with U.S. officials at the American Embassy.

Ridha, the militia representative, said he was aware of the allegations against militias in Tikrit, but pointed out that some videos that purported to show militias beheading detainees were Photoshopped. He also told me that in Tikrit in particular, some of the Sunni residents considered civilians had actually harbored Islamic State operatives in their homes. Ridha said that the parliamentary investigation did not provide this context. “What is more important,” he asked, “to free Tikrit from ISIS or a couple of people who got hurt during the course of the liberation?”

Ridha, who was born in the U.S., worked on the prosecution of Saddam Hussein and advised three Iraqi prime ministers, says that his hope going forward is to persuade the U.S. government to directly support the volunteers. “We are asking for every kind of support,” he told me. “We want training, equipment, moral support, everything.”

This will be a difficult task. A law first drafted by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy prohibits any U.S. assistance to military units that commit human rights abuses. Leahy informed me in a statement Monday: “There are credible, persistent reports of Iraqi militias that commit serious abuses against prisoners as well as civilians. Some of them have received U.S. weapons and other assistance, and we have reason to believe that the Leahy Law is not being applied as it needs to be. When such crimes occur using our equipment and nothing is done to punish those responsible, it makes a mockery of the law and indirectly implicates us.”

Michael Rubin, a Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official, said the Leahy Law puts the Iraqis in what he called a Catch-22. “If we want the Iraqis to do things our way, we need to be more involved,” he said. Rubin predicted a militia-led campaign without U.S. involvement would resemble the siege of Stalingrad.

In any case, the Leahy Law isn’t the only good reason for Iraq to take militia abuses more seriously. The U.S. intelligence community’s annual report on global threats released on Tuesday says that Iraq’s Sunni minority fear that Shiite militias will “play a lead role in retaking Sunni-majority areas.” This suggests, the report says, that Iraq’s Sunnis "will remain willing to endure some deprivation” under Islamic State rule.

In other words, if it wants more Sunnis to participate in the fight against the Islamic State, Iraq must punish Shiites who have committed atrocities against them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Eli Lake at

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