In Iraq There’s a Shi’ite Militia for Everybody

At least four such forces will help try to liberate Mosul from ISIS. Too bad the army can't do the job alone without interference from Iran.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Islamic State group militants in a commandeered Iraqi military vehicle in Fallujah, Iraq, March 30, 2014.
Islamic State group militants in a commandeered Iraqi military vehicle in Fallujah, Iraq, March 30, 2014.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

A U.S. investigative committee that visited Iraq in September concluded that only about half the Iraqi army’s 50 brigades are worthy of military support. The rest are mired in ethnic and religious politics with dubious loyalty to the national interest.

Reports during the following months reveal an even more chilling picture: Only five of 14 divisions are battle-ready, and between 60 and 240 battalions have “vaporized,” that is, they exist only on paper.

Meanwhile, at least 50,000 Iraqi soldiers are “ghost soldiers” — they don’t actually serve in the army. The purpose of this fuzzy math is to obtain more funding, which goes into the pockets of commanders and is typical of the corruption in which the Iraqi government and army are enmeshed.

It’s clear from all this that the U.S. government, which has invested more than $20 billion in building the Iraqi army since the fall of Saddam Hussein, fell into a deep slumber from which it was rudely awakened by the Islamic State’s capture of Mosul in June. Some 60,000 soldiers ran away from some 2,000 Islamist fighters.

From the remnants of this army, the international coalition plans to train about 25,000 soldiers who will bear the burden of freeing Mosul from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. An assault is planned for the end of April or early May.

The problem is that the Iraqi army is by no means the only armed entity in Iraq. Kurdish battalions, Shi’ite militias, the Sunni Awakening forces, hundreds of Iranian “advisers” and gangs of armed criminals form independent forces.

The biggest players are the Shi’ite militias — tens of thousands of fighters who seek to liberate the areas taken by the Islamic State. At least four large Shi’ite groups are part of this force — the Peace Brigades (formerly the Mahdi Army) led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, battalions under the aegis of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the Iraqi Hezbollah, and Badr, an organization founded in the 1980s as the military wing of Shi’ite opposition to Saddam.

The militias also include thousands of volunteers who don’t belong to a specific faction. In any case, all fighters receive a salary, food and health care; if someone is killed or badly wounded, his family receives a pension from the state.

Ultimately these fighters are directed by the Iranian Quds Force under Qassem Suleimani. Iran is their main supplier of training and weapons; this includes artillery, advanced communications and drones. Iranian instructors are on hand for all military operations.

The headquarters is located in Iraqi government buildings but is not officially a government entity. Still, last week the government allocated $60 million to finance these fighters, despite the harsh criticism of militia members’ looting and murder.

The militias, considered better trained and organized than the Iraqi army, are slated to take part in the assault on Mosul. According to militia spokesman Karim al-Nuri, they have already reached a cooperation agreement with the Kurdish Peshmerga.

The Kurds, for their part, fear that the militias have their eye not only on Mosul, but also on Kirkuk, a bone of contention between the Kurds and the central government. And so the entry of Shi’ite militias could start a war among Iraqi forces.

Not everyone in the Iraqi government is happy that there are such powerful Shi’ite militias, especially because they’re considered Iran's military wing not under government control, despite the government funding. Still, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has rebuked anyone who criticizes the fighters.

Washington, meanwhile, is turning a blind eye to the Shi’ite militias, in the same way it doesn’t oppose direct action by the Iranian army in Iraq against the Islamic State. But the concern is that the fighting will be used as a cover for a Shi'ite takeover of parts of Iraq and a deepening of Iran's presence.

Not only are the Iraqi Sunnis concerned; so are Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, which are now discussing with Jordan the establishment of an Arab force for rapid intervention in Iraq.

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