Shiite militias with American blood on their hands are leading the charge to drive the Islamic State out of Tikrit. But are they doing more harm than good?
- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
BAGHDAD — “We’re moving on Salahaddin,” said Badr Organization spokesman and military commander Karim al-Nouri. “And there are three names that strike fear in the heart of daesh: Hajj Qassem Suleimani, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and Hadi al-Amiri.”
These three figures might not be household names in Indiana, but in Iraq they are the biggest stars within the constellation of Shiite militias that are now trying to drive the Islamic State out of Tikrit, the capital of Salahaddin province. Suleimani, who is the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, regularly travels around the Middle East to lend support to Tehran’s allies; Muhandis, who is the leader of the Kataib Hezbollah militia, was convicted for the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait; and Amiri is the commander of the Badr Organization, one of Iraq’s largest and most prominent Shiite militias. Together, they form the backbone of Iranian influence in Iraq, which is at its highest point in almost four centuries.
Iraq’s Shiite militias have seen their influence skyrocket since last summer, as they have played a central role in beating back the Islamic State’s advance in Baghdad and the surrounding area. Tikrit, however, presents them with new challenges: It is the largest predominantly Sunni city that they have sought to reclaim, and U.S. officials have warned of a sectarian bloodbath if the militias launch an offensive there.
The battle for Tikrit has now gone on for four days, with both Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias progressing slowly in their attempt to encircle the jihadi fighters in the city. Nouri, reached again by phone after an original interview while in Salahaddin, said that the fight was “going according to plan,” and that forces may enter the area of al-Alam, north of Tikrit, tomorrow. He added that roughly half of the 30,000 troops attacking the city were Shiite militiamen and volunteers from the popular mobilization committees.
The militias’ prominent role, and that played by Tehran, has put the United States in an awkward position. Suleimani has stationed himself near Tikrit to advise the commanders of the offensive — pictures of him allegedly taken near the front lines circulated on social media on Wednesday, March 4. Meanwhile, U.S. officials said that soldiers from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps are also present on the ground, operating artillery and surveillance drones in the area.
The Pentagon, however, is taking a back seat on the Tikrit operation; it is not providing air support for the attacking forces, and a U.S. official told Foreign Policy that the heavy influence of Shiite militias was “cause for concern” in an area riven by sectarian tensions. An aide to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi hit back on Tuesday in the New York Times, criticizing Washington for “procrastinating” and saying that, if necessary, “Iraq will liberate Mosul and Anbar without [the United States].”
“We have little insight into what these people will do when they move into civilian Sunni areas, so we don’t want to be facilitating that,” said James F. Jeffrey, who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq in 2010 to 2012 and is currently a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “On the other hand, objectively, if these people take Tikrit back from ISIS, that’s a good thing. So you’re in a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation, which is common in Iraq.”
Although Iraq’s Shiite militias all largely share the same Islamist ideology and all boast some degree of connection to Tehran, they are also divided on important questions central to Iraq’s future. In conversations with officials from the Badr Organization — as well as those from Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Sadrist movement, two groups that waged an insurgency against U.S. troops in Iraq — the militias diverged over whether to accept U.S. help in the fight against the Islamic State, and how seriously to take Sunni concerns of abuses by their fighters.
The Badr Organization represents a particular conundrum. It was created by Iran as a military proxy during its war with Iraq during the 1980s, and Jeffrey identified it as the Shiite militia most closely tied to Tehran. At the same time, it is now one of the Shiite militias most open to cooperation with the United States in the war against the Islamic State. Nouri, the Badr Organization commander, said that he would accept help from whoever offered it. “We thank anyone who comes to stand by our side,” he said. “America, Saudi Arabia, or anyone else.”
Does that mean that he would accept help from U.S. military advisors on the ground, just like Suleimani helps guide offensives now? Nouri paused. “If we trust them,” he said skeptically, in a tone that suggested that trust would be far from forthcoming.
Nevertheless, Nouri made the case that Badr’s reliance on Iran was due to Tehran’s speedy offer of help after the fall of Mosul last summer, rather than his organization’s preference.
“If your house catches fire and someone brings you a bucket of water, you don’t ask, ‘Where are you from?’” he said.
The Badr Organization’s willingness to work with the United States is also in keeping with the group’s recent history. The group largely did not launch attacks against U.S. troops, instead entering the political game to build influence in Iraq’s fledgling security institutions. Its members embedded themselves within the Interior Ministry, using their positions of power to strike at their enemies. In a 2009 U.S. Embassy cable, Amiri was accused of personally ordering the deaths of thousands of Iraqis — yet he has also met publicly with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq and even visited the White House.
Other Shiite militias quite openly describe the United States as their enemy — and, in fact, see their struggle against it as part and parcel of the war against the Islamic State. In a well-appointed meeting room in a chic Baghdad neighborhood, Naim al-Abboudi, a spokesman for Asaib Ahl al-Haq, told me how the Islamic State was “a product of the CIA and Mossad.” He added, “The one who benefits most from [the Islamic State] is the Zionist entity, which is the spoiled child of the United States.”
The idea that the Islamic State was created by the United States is a fairly common trope in Iraq. Hakim al-Zamili, a parliamentarian from the Sadrist bloc and the chairman of the parliament’s commission on security and defense, alleged recently that coalition aircraft had been dropping supplies to the Islamic State “in order to prolong the war.” On a popular level, meanwhile, Iraqis have made videos showing President Barack Obama giving Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi a foot massage.
Asaib Ahl al-Haq also boasts close ties to Iran, but unlike Badr, played an active role in the insurgency against the United States. It has claimed responsibility for over 6,000 attacks against U.S. and allied forces, including the kidnapping and murder of five American soldiers in the city of Karbala in 2007. The hostility carries over to this day: Abboudi said that his organization wanted no U.S. help in the war against the Islamic State.
With U.S. forces out of Iraq, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and groups like it have been accused of turning their guns on fellow Iraqis. Over the past year, Shiite militias have allegedly created “killing zones” in the rural areas around Baghdad, where they have forcibly evicted Sunni residents and engaged in summary executions. Sunni residents have been prevented for months from returning to supposedly “liberated” areas, such as the town of Jurf al-Sakhr, as the military and the militias fear that they could pave the way for a return of the Islamic State.
Nouri, the Badr Organization commander, described any abuses committed by the militias as isolated “crimes” that would be punished, and said it was important that residents be allowed to return to areas like Jurf al-Sakhr when they had been cleared of explosives and could be protected from the Islamic State. Whether the Badr Organization will live up to those commitments, of course, remains to be seen. Abboudi, however, did not even pay lip service to human rights concerns.
“It’s daesh and the terrorists who are killing the Sunnis,” he said. “We are protecting the Sunnis.”
Even some of Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s Shiite rivals aren’t convinced by that line. Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, for instance, announced last month that he was withdrawing his militia, the Peace Brigades, from the front lines “as a show of goodwill” following repeated abuses by Shiite militias. The declaration came shortly after the murder of a Sunni tribal leader and his son, almost certainly by Shiite militias. Sadr repeated his criticism of the militias on March 3, amidst the Tikrit offensive, accusing “brazen militias” of resorting to “dirty” tactics to defeat the Islamic State.
But while the Sadrists may be trying to build bridges with the Sunni community — a cause U.S. officials have long supported — they are as hostile to the United States as ever. In his office in Sadr City, Sheikh Ibrahim al-Jabiri, one of Sadr’s advisors, added a new twist to the explanation for his militia’s withdrawal: It was a step to avoid working with the United States, which still occupies Iraq.
“The occupation forces have killed women, and killed children,” Jabiri said. “They did not leave — we know, and the Iraqi people know, that Iraqi airspace is under their control.”
The United States, apparently, is still grappling with how to handle the ascendance of these Shiite militias. If it intervenes on their side in the battle for Tikrit, it would be empowering pro-Iranian forces that could commit atrocities against the local Sunni population. If it does not intervene, it would be ceding leadership of the fight to these groups and Iran.
“It would be good if we had a relationship with [Prime Minister Haider] Abadi, and frankly if we had a back channel with the Iranians, to basically say, ‘Look, there’s a way to do this that will keep Iraq united,’” said former Amb. James Jeffrey. “And if you keep on pushing this way, we frankly won’t be able to help you, and you may be stuck alone fighting ISIS in the entire Sunni Middle East.”
No matter what Washington does, it will have a difficult time convincing some of these militias that it wishes Iraq well. Jabiri, in making the case that the United States had created the Islamic State to distract the Arab world from America’s plans for world domination, reached for a metaphor steeped in fire and brimstone.
“We say the devil wants to control the whole world, to turn it all into hell,” he said. “And the American government is hell.”