All the Ayatollah’s Men

All the Ayatollah’s Men

Armed men posing with severed heads, massacres of mosque-goers during Friday prayers, massive reliance on transnational jihadists — these are crimes that are usually associated with the Islamic State (IS). However, they’re also the actions of some of Iraq’s growing Shiite militia organizations, which are playing an increasingly prominent role in fighting the Sunni jihadists. These groups, many of which have deep ideological and organizational links to Iran, are sweeping away what is left of any notion of the Baghdad government’s authority — and represent a massive challenge to President Barack Obama’s stated goal of working with an inclusive Iraqi government to push back IS.

Over 50 Shiite militias are now recruiting and fighting in Iraq. These groups are actively recruiting — drawing potential soldiers away from the Iraqi army and police and bringing fighters into highly ideological, anti-American, and rabidly sectarian organizations. Many of these trainees are not simply being used to push back Sunni jihadists, but in many cases form a rear guard used to control districts that are supposedly under Baghdad’s control. 

Shiite militias have embedded themselves within the structures of the Iraqi government, which has become far too reliant on their power to contemplate cracking down on them. Together, they have committed horrifying human rights abuses: In early June, Shiite militias, along with Iraqi security forces, reportedly executed around 255 prisoners, including children. An Amnesty International report from June detailed how Shiite militias regularly carried out extrajudicial summary executions, and reported that dozens of Sunni prisoners were killed in government buildings.

The militias also played a leading role in the liberation of the besieged Shiite Turkmen town of Amerli. Kataib Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist group and direct Iranian proxy, even used Iraqi government helicopters to deliver arms and other supplies during the battle. Just as IS has captured and used U.S.-supplied vehicles, U.S.-made M1A1 Abrams tanks provided to the Iraqi government have flown sectarian Shiite banners and supported Kataib Hezbollah operations. Those tanks are not alone: U.S.-made armored Humvees, which Kataib Hezbollah once targeted during the Iraq War with rocket-propelled grenades (when driven by Americans), have also been taken by the militia and used in operations.

Iran has led the way in developing Iraq’s Shiite militias. Since May 2013, Tehran has bolstered its network of new and old Iraqi proxy groups to provide a steady flow of fighters to Syria. Some of these Iraqi forces, who had been fighting on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, redeployed back to Iraq and form the nucleus of newer militia groups which are currently fighting the Baghdad government’s Sunni enemies.

Due to Iran’s Syria-focused recruitment efforts, Tehran’s proxies also had a leg up on pulling in new fighters for the Iraq front. In April, Iran-backed groups such as Kataib Hezbollah, Badr, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq called for fresh recruits to fight in Iraq. Eventually, these calls morphed into Iraqi Shiite militias spinning off popular committee-based militias under their command. While the creation of so many groups may seem unnecessarily complicated, it actually helps create the image of wide-ranging popular support for militias promoting Iran’s policies and ideology. Furthermore, it allows established groups to more easily separate new, less-experienced volunteers from career militiamen.

For example, Kataib Hezbollah — a militia formed with the help of Lebanon’s Hezbollah in 2007 — recently announced the creation of the Popular Defense Companies. The new group was crafted to take Iraqi Shiite volunteers under Kataib Hezbollah’s management, and today it boasts large deployments south of the cities of Baghdad, Diyala, and Amerli.

The Badr Organization, an armed group in the thousands and one of Iran’s primary clients in Iraq, is another pillar of Tehran’s efforts to develop Shiite militias. During the Iraq War, through its domination of government offices, the group ran a number of sectarian death squads. Badr has also been involved in the fighting in Syria, creating the Martyr Baqir al-Sadr Force for that purpose. 

But it is in Baghdad where the Badr Organization’s influence is strongest. The group’s sway extends deep into Iraq’s Internal Security Forces, where it is said to directly manage many police and special operations-type groups. Badr also has great influence in the political sphere: It has secured key positions within the Iraqi government, and is part of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s State of Law alliance — Abadi even wants to appoint its leader, Hadi al-Amiri, as the country’s interior minister. 

Badr’s militiamen have spread far and wide among the constellation of Iraq’s Iranian proxies. Its alumni include Kataib Hezbollah leader Jamal al-Ibrahimi; Ali al-Yasiri, the leader of a Shiite militia fighting in Syria called the Khurasani Unit; and Wathiq al-Battat, leader of the Mukhtar Army, a hyper-sectarian group that once launched a rocket attack against Iranian dissidents at Camp Liberty.  

Former Badr militiamen are also deeply embedded within Iraq’s political leadership. Sheikh Adnan al-Shahmani, an Iraqi parliamentarian and member of the Iraqi parliament’s National and Defense Committee, is himself a former Badr fighter and leader of the Tayyar al-Rasuli political party, which also has a militia. As early as September 2013, he had called for sectarian militias to protect Shiites living in Sunni areas. The parent parties of Khurasani Unit and Tayyar al-Rasuli are both members of the State of Law coalition — portions of a nebula of allied organizations created to impose Iran’s will within Iraq.

Iran’s most powerful proxies in Iraq have worked closely together to prop up the Assad regime in Damascus. Kataib Hezbollah and Badr formed the Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada ("The Master of the Martyrs Brigade," or KSS) in early 2013 to fight in Syria. KSS is led in part by Abu Mustafa al-Sheibani, a commander affiliated with both Badr and the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force. The group’s secretary-general, Mustafa al-Khazali, deployed to Syria and was wounded in the suburbs of Damascus.

Now, the commanders who cut their teeth in Syria are returning home to play a political and military role in the struggle for Iraq. Khazali went on to win a seat in parliament during Iraq’s parliamentary election in April, when his group took on the role of political party and ran in the city of Basra on then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law electoral list. KSS commanders are also engaged in fighting against their domestic enemies: Abu Mujahid al-Maliki, a KSS veteran from Syria and Khazali’s campaign manager, was killed fighting in Iraq in August.

Asaib Ahl al-Haq ("The League of the Righteous," or AAH) has been another major Iranian proxy in Iraq. The group began during the Iraq War as an Iranian-backed splinter from radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, and quickly grew into a formidable fighting group. During the war, it gained a degree of infamy for its kidnappings and executions of British contractors and American soldiers. The group has sent many fighters to Syria, and in early 2014 started to deploy in Iraq’s restive Anbar province to combat the government’s Sunni enemies.

The growth of these pro-Iranian Shiite militias, and many more like them, helps demonstrate Iran’s goals for the domination of Shiite Iraq. These groups not only benefit from Iran’s patronage and organizational capabilities — they also all march to Tehran’s ideological tune. They are loyal to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Iran’s ideology of absolute wilayat-e faqih, which grants the supreme leader ultimate political and religious authority. They also follow the model of Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, and are intent on executing Iran’s will in the region and furthering Iran’s "Islamic Revolution."

Just as IS’s stated aim is to erase the borders that were drawn in the Middle East following the end of World War I, Iranian-backed Shiite militias are also taking part in this process. The cross-pollination between Syrian and Iraqi Shiite militias has eroded national boundaries as surely as the Sunni jihadist campaign: From the beginning of their involvement in both conflicts, Shiite militias have adopted a narrative that they will "defend shrines" or "defend Shiites," no matter their geographic location.

Damascus’s oldest and most prominent Shiite foreign fighter militia, the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade (LAFA), has played a key role in promoting this grander notion of sectarian war. In August, the pro-Iranian organization announced its own Iraq-based organization, which claims to be deployed south of Baghdad and possibly near Amerli. Abu Ali al-Darraji, one of its former commanders from Damascus, also started his own LAFA affiliate with fighters who had previously been engaged in Syria. Often, these LAFA offshoots have been hazy regarding their own ideology, but their links to Iran’s networks certainly suggest that Tehran exerts a strong pull on them.

While Iran has extensive links to most, if not all, of Iraq’s Shiite militias, other powerful Iraqi Shiite elements that do not share Iran’s absolutist ideology have also invested in their own groups.

Moqtada al-Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam ("The Peace Brigade") was established this June, at around the same time Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa calling for a jihad against the Islamic State. Sistani’s fatwa, however, was clarified to say that Iraqis should join the Iraqi army, whereas the fighters in Sadr’s new brigade have no loyalty to Sistani. Nevertheless, with the ability to draw on tens of thousands of Sadrist supporters, Saraya al-Salam certainly will not lack for fighters.

Despite reported cooperation on some levels with Iranian proxies, Sadr’s forces have had years of conflict with AAH, Badr, and other groups. Additionally, his political party is currently in an alliance with a political bloc that opposes the State of Law coalition.

When Saraya al-Salam was initially formed, Sadr called for it to engage mainly in defensive actions. In the past month, however, the group has been more heavily invested in offensive actions. Today, its deployments have occurred across Iraq, from the shrine city of Samarra, to the recently liberated Amerli, to the city of Jurf al-Sakhr, to Diyala in the east. Saraya al-Salaam’s large numbers, increasing activity in the conflict, and Mahdi Army background suggest the group could re-engage in sectarian mass killings.

Following Sistani’s fatwa, Ammar al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) established the Ashura Brigades. The group has engaged in recruitment efforts using ISCI’s media and political apparatus, and its forces have deployed to Baghdad and Samarra. In July, the group’s recruits from the southeastern province of Maysan suffered heavy casualties during fighting in Anbar Province.*

As political and clerical leaders have established their own militias throughout Iraq, fringe groups have at times come in conflict with the government. One of the more unusual cases was that of the marginal Shiite cleric Mahmoud al-Sarkhi. His supporters engaged in firefights with members of Iraq’s internal security forces in southern Iraq, resulting in seven deaths. While the example of Sarkhi is unique, the risk of intra-Shiite conflicts rearing their head is very real.

Iraqi Shiite militias are also on a collision course with the Kurdish community, a major U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State. Harakat Hizballah al-Nujaba, another Iranian proxy group spun off of AAH, and Kataib Hezbollah both accused Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani of coordinating with IS and Baathist groups, and issued stern warnings against any Kurdish moves in Kirkuk. Harakat Hizballah al-Nujaba’s spokesman went so far as to say, "the rockets of the Islamic Resistance will strike at Erbil" if Barzani continued to "coordinate" with the jihadists.

The growing power of these militias is a sign that, despite Maliki’s removal as prime minister, the Iraqi government remains beholden to deeply sectarian forces. These militias have generally retained their operational independence from Baghdad, even as they exploit the country’s nascent democratic system to gain support through their domination of official bodies. They are not simply addendums to the state — they are the state, and do not answer to any authority in Baghdad, but only to their own clerical leaders or Tehran.

While ostensibly focused on defeating the Islamic State, these armed factions also promise to be hugely influential in shaping the future of Iraq’s Shiite community. Their radical ideology and organizational ties suggest that they will allow Iran a greater influence in Iraq than ever before. If Washington does not take steps now to check their growth, it may discover too late that it has effectively ceded Baghdad to Tehran — and that there is no going back.

Correction: This sentence originally stated incorrectly that the fighters were killed in Maysan Province. It has been corrected to reflect that they were recruits from Maysan Province who were killed in Anbar Province. (Return to reading.)