Iraq’s Shiite militias say they will be part of Mosul battle despite war crimes claims
BAGHDAD // Iraq’s Shiite militias have made clear they will not be left out of the battle for Mosul, even though this could exacerbate the sectarian conflict in Iraq and stiffen ISIL’s defence of the largely Sunni city.
The militias stand accused of sectarian killings in every major battle they have fought against ISIL, and are viewed with heavy suspicion by the US-led coalition and Iraq’s Sunni population. Yet there is every chance they will be part of the biggest operation against the extremist group so far.
After a series of defeats, ISIL is on the ropes in Iraq, and Mosul is the only sizeable city still under its control. Government forces are readying themselves for an assault on the stronghold, which could come as early as this autumn.
Earlier this month, the leader of one of the most powerful militia groups pledged to be part of the impending assault on Iraq’s second largest city, which was taken by the Sunni extremists in June 2014.
“We will definitely participate in it,” said Hadi Amiri, the head of the Badr Organisation, which, like other Shiite armed groups, has close ties to Iran.
Gen Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the foreign operations wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, has been leading Tehran’s war effort in both Iraq and Syria and will help direct Hashd forces in the Mosul operation, according to Iran’s Fars News.
Iraq’s Shiite majority heeded the call to arms by influential cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani in response to ISIL’s conquest of a third of the country in a whirlwind offensive in 2014. As the army collapsed, thousands of Shiite men joined the ranks of various militia groups. They soon notched up military successes, such as the retaking of Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein. But from the outset, their battlefield gains were accompanied by strong evidence of war crimes, including the wanton destruction of property and the summary executions of Sunni civilians.
Weary of the divisive role played by the militias, also known as the Hashd Al Shaabi or the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), the US pressured the Iraqi government to limit their involvement in the recent campaign to push ISIL out of the Sunni city of Fallujah. Instead of entering Fallujah, the militias were tasked with forming a cordon sanitaire around the city to prevent the extremists from breaking out or being reinforced.
But in spite of these restrictions, evidence of unlawful killings of Sunnis soon surfaced. It will be little consolation to Mosul’s civilians, then, that leading Hashd figures look to Fallujah as a template for the upcoming battle.
“The Hashd Al Shaabi will play the same role in Mosul that it has in Fallujah,” Mueen Hameed Kadhumi, a senior leader of the Badr Organisation, told The National in his office in Baghdad.
Mr Kadhumi acknowledged concerns about the Hashd’s behaviour during the Fallujah campaign, and said 500 militiamen were under investigation. But he dismissed most of the accusations as pro-ISIL propaganda.
In a recent report, Human Rights Watch lists evidence of the killing and torture of civilians captured on the city’s outskirts. Sunni men detained by the militias returned bearing the marks of torture, while many are still missing, presumed dead. Witnesses tell of summary executions of civilians after the Hashd took the areas surrounding Fallujah.
“Militias that form part of the PMF have repeatedly carried out horrific, sometimes wide-scale abuses, most recently in Fallujah, with no consequences despite the government’s promises to investigate,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, which urges the government not to deploy the Hashd at Mosul.
For the pro-Iran Hashd, Mosul matters not for strategic purposes, but for the propaganda value that a victory would bring, analysts say.
“These militias ... have cast a narrative where the US and her allies support, if not created, IS, while only Iran and its allies can and have defended the Iraqis, specifically the Shia,” said Kyle Orton, an Iraq expert and research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based conservative think tank.
“It would be a mortal blow to that worldview if the US and allies push IS from Mosul without the involvement of the militias.”
Iran’s interest in expanding its influence in Iraq through the fight against ISIL was underlined by reports that Gen Suleimani, one of Tehran’s most influential commanders, would play a “major role” in the battle for Mosul.
Given Iran’s sway with Iraq’s Shiite-led government, it is unlikely that Baghdad will try to keep the Hashd out of the Mosul operation. Strong doubts over the ability of the Iraqi army and police forces to take a city the size of Mosul also make militia involvement more likely.
Mr Kadhumi claims that the Badr Organisation, which is so close to Tehran that it fought on the Iranian side during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, is fighting to prevent government control from weakening. If local Sunnis were instrumental in kicking ISIL out of Mosul, they would be tempted to push for more regional autonomy, he believes.
The former governor of Mosul, Atheel Al Nujaifi, called for a federalisation of Iraq along sectarian lines after being chased out of the city by ISIL. Mosul harbours strong resentment about the loss of power and privileges enjoyed under Saddam Hussein’s Sunni minority regime, and an aversion to centralised rule by Baghdad.
“We want to be part of the Mosul operation because we represent the unity of Iraq. We don’t want people to say ‘We liberated the city, now we want our own region’,” said Mr Kadhumi.
But instead of tying Mosul closer to Baghdad, the presence of the Hashd in the theatre of operations could drive the city’s inhabitants into the arms of ISIL, despite the fact that the group’s brand of Sunni extremism has done much to alienate Mosul residents.
“The knowledge that the Hashd militias will commit sectarian human rights abuses, as they have in every operation from Tikrit to Fallujah, means that their mere involvement in a Mosul operation would help IS by inflaming sectarian polarisation that makes IS appear as the least-worst option for Sunnis,” said Mr Orton.
Updated: August 15, 2016 04:00 AM