Iran’s Shia Militias in Iraq May Be a Graver Threat Than the Islamic State


By Brian Brinker:

With the Iraqi national army and Shia militias now pushing into Mosul, and Kurdish forces providing support on the outskirts, the downfall of the Islamic State in Iraq seems imminent. While most observers expect the fighting to be fierce, conventional wisdom suggests that the Islamic State will eventually lose out.

Still, even as the hard-lined Sunni group is being pushed out of Iraq, the real battle for control of the country has yet to even begin. In spite of whatever cataclysmic aspirations the Islamic State might have, the group was always destined to be an aberration. The Shia militias controlled by Iran, however, will likely prove to have far more staying power and influence within Iraq. These Shia militias now supposedly fighting to “liberate” Iraq from the Islamic State may, in fact, deliver the country right into the hands of the Iranian regime.

One of the biggest mistakes the George W. Bush administration made in the lead up to the war in Iraq was underestimating the fissure between Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq. For the record, President Obama would also later underestimate these tensions when ordering the withdrawal of the American ground forces that had largely kept a lid on sectarian violence. Beyond the brutal repression of the Shia community under Sunni Saddam Hussein, the conflict between these two communities extends back to the early days of Islam. After Mohammad died, Islam split into two factions arguing over who had the right to succeed the Prophet. Fast forward several hundred years and the divide between the two communities has only grown.

To understand the conflicts now raging across the Middle East, from Turkey to Yemen, to Syria and Iraq, you have to ground it in the power struggle between Shias and Sunnis. The premier Shia power, Iran, has been propping up and supporting Shia rulers and forces across the region, including Bashir Assad in Syria, and the Houthis in Yemen. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries have been funneling money into Sunni groups, possibly including the Islamic State.

Iraq is the “Mecca” of Shia-Sunni Violence

In Iraq, Shia-Sunni tensions have come to a head. Shia Muslims comprise a majority of the population and the post-Saddam government is dominated by Shia Muslims. Despite American efforts to minimize Iran’s influence, and to force a sort of peace between Shia and Sunni Muslims, the Iraqi government has slowly gravitated towards Iran, and under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also suppressed the Sunni population. Among other missteps, the Iraqi government forcefully disbanded the “Sons of Iraq”, a Sunni militia force that was crucial for defeating Al-Qaeda and other radical groups during the American occupation.

When the Islamic State first invaded Iraq, and specifically the Sunni triangle, the largely Shia national army units based in the region fled when the Islamic State invaded rather than fight for the Sunnis. Lt. General Mahdi Gharawi, who was in command of the roughly 30,000 strong government security forces in the city, would later be charged for abandoning his post. During the occupation, the United States tried to force the Iraqi government to bring Gharawi to trial for human rights violations, including torture, and extra-judicial killings. Most of this violence was directed, often indiscriminately, towards Sunni Muslims. Instead of charging him, then Prime Minister al-Maliki put him in charge of much of the so-called Sunni triangle.

It should come as no surprise then that when the Islamic State invaded, many local Sunni leaders stood aside, not calling militias to arms or otherwise support the Iraqi army. Many of these tribal leaders initially preferred the Sunni Islamic State to the Shia Iraqi government. In hindsight, many may regret the decision not to fight off the Islamic State, but it explains the Islamic State’s rapid advance and easy conquest of Mosul. In total, roughly 1,500 radical fighters transported by pickup trucks were able to oust an army 30,000 strong and further conquered a city that was home to more than a million people.

Shia Militias Are Puppets On Iranian Strings

In the face of the Islamic State and its widespread terror, Iraq has turned to Iran for support, which has been quick to oblige, sending resources and soldiers. Now, Iranian-linked militias are forming the backbone of the fight against the Islamic State. These battle-hardened units have proven to be more effective than the national army at times, but have also been accused of widespread human rights abuses, again directed primarily at Sunni Muslims. In theory, these militias answer to the Iraqi government under the banner of “Hashid Shaabi”, a government-backed popular fighting force. In reality, they follow the commands of their local leaders, many of which are linked to and supported by Iran.

How bad is the situation? The Shia militias have repeatedly been accused of rape, murder, and torture. There is even some evidence that they have participated in the ethnic cleansing of Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking ethnoreligious community based in Northern Iraq who practice a religion influenced by pre-Islamic Assyrian traditions, Sufi and Shiite Islam, Nestorian Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. Amnesty International has accused the militias of numerous human rights violations and perpetuating a “shocking rampage”, while also alleging that the Iraqi government has turned a blind eye to their atrocities.

Even if the Iraqi government wanted to reign in the militias, it’s doubtful that they could muster the manpower to do so. The government has tried various methods to bring the militias under their command, but have so far largely been unsuccessful. In fact, in one incident, a Shia militia group invaded and occupied an Iraqi government airbase north of Baghdad, refusing the regular military’s demand to leave. In an ensuing standoff, American contractors were forced to flee and Iraqi F-16’s were grounded. The militia men only left when their boss, Qais al-Khazali, who is linked to Iran, ordered them to leave after some behind-the-scenes wrangling.

At least one militia group, the Kata’ib Hezbollah, has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States Treasury Department. The militia is operating its own “prison” south of Baghdad, where as many as 2,200 people, many of them Sunni, are being held captive. Allegedly, many of the prisoners were essentially kidnapped by the militias, and some have been subjected to torture.  Families report having to pay huge bribes for the safe return of their family members. Numerous other militias have been accused of operating “prisons” and acting with little oversight from the central government in Baghdad.

Given Iranian Support, Militias Unlikely To Disband After Defeat of Islamic State

In theory, the militias emerged to fight the Islamic State, and will disband after the militants are defeated. While many irregular militia members will likely go home, there’s a growing sense and fear within the intelligence community that more hard-lined groups won’t lay down their arms. Many of these groups are the militias most closely associated with and supported by Iran, and have been accused of the most grievous rights violations.

So even after the Islamic State is defeated will the Iraqi government regain control of the country? Already, the Iraqi government itself is heavily influenced by the Iranian regime, and given its influence over the Shia militias, it will control perhaps the most powerful military force on the ground in Iraq. The Iraqi government, among others, has tried to portray these militias as natural, Iraqi-borne groups allied with the Iraqi government, but many other experts disagree.

Alireza Jafarzadeh, deputy director of the National Council of Resistance of Iran’s Washington branch has stated:

“While the United States has been paying the cost, and expending the effort to liberate Mosul, the misguided policies pursued so far have regrettably enabled the Iraqi militias affiliated with the terrorist Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to gain the upper hand. The Iraqi Shiite militia groups have been the brainchild of the ruling mullahs in Iran and financed, trained, and armed by Tehran since the 1980s. Their allegiance is not to the government or to the people of Iraq, but to the Iranian regime’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei. They have been the primary source of sectarian violence in Iraq and have perpetrated countless crimes against Iraqi civilians, giving rise to the emergence of ISIS. As such, confronting the mullahs and evicting them from Iraq and Syria is indispensable to destroying ISIS. The failure to do so is not only wrong, but outright dangerous.”

The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) is the political branch of the Iranian dissident group the Mujahadeen e-Khalq (MeK), a vocal proponent for regime change in Iran. The group was placed on the United States Foreign Terrorist Organization watch list in 1997, but was removed by Secretary Clinton after a court challenge. The organization has long alleged that its listing was a politically motivated move to curry favor with the Iranian government.

Others have echoed the need for regime change in Iran, including John Bolton, the former U.N. Ambassador and influential Trump backer.  Bolton has claimed that “the ayatollahs are the principal threat to international peace and security in the Middle East,” and that regime change is the only long-term solution. Bolton further elaborated that “I don’t think the regime is popular, but I think it has the guns.” Bolton has argued for supporting Iranian opposition groups, including the MeK, to spur regime change, and has previously called for bombing Iranian nuclear sites.

Is regime change possible? While the Iranian government is among the most repressive and antagonistic regimes in the world, it’s questionable whether the United States could afford another costly war. These wars have already cost the United States an estimated $3.2 trillion dollars and will likely cost trillions more in the future. In Iraq alone, over 3,500 soldiers have died in combat and over 32,000 have officially been wounded. A war with Iran would almost certainly prove more difficult than the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Iran and its Revolutionary Guard will represent a much greater challenge than the decrepit Iraqi military the United States faced in the 2003 invasion. And while the majority people of Iran may not support the regime, it does have many hard-lined supporters, making insurgencies likely even if Iran’s standing armies are defeated.

Regime change, at least for now, may be out of the United States’ reach. That doesn’t mean that the Iranian government can’t be overthrown. As the ouster of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak proved, change can come at anytime, anywhere. Likely, for regime change to occur in Iran, a homegrown revolution must be the primary driver. Either way, Iran and especially its influence in Iraq promises to be among the chief concerns for the incoming Trump administration. For better or worse, the United States is now committed to Iraq in terms of money and most importantly, the blood of American men and women and must work to ensure that their sacrifice to stabilize the country was not made in vain.

Brian Brinker is an OpsLens Contributor and political consultant. Brinker has an M.A in Global Affairs from American University.

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