Iraq’s ‘Good Sunni’

Yazan al-Jabouri, with help from Iranian weapons and U.S. airstrikes, built a Sunni faction of Iraq's Shiite militias. But the fight against ISIS won't be his last.

SHIRQAT, Iraq — At 4 a.m. on Sept. 19, the young fighters of Liwa Salahaddin could barely stand still. The air was cold, the sun had not yet risen, and the battle to liberate their northern Iraqi hometown from the Islamic State was about to begin.

“My house is just there, over the hill,” said 19-year-old Salam, swinging his rifle excitedly from one side to the other. “It is literally 10 minutes from here. I asked if I can go before the others last night, if I can just go in by myself and they can all follow me this morning, but they said no.”

“I’m not scared, I’ve been waiting and training for this moment,” he added. “Today is going to be joyous day.”

It certainly was a festive atmosphere. Music blasted loudly from the cars as fighters danced on the front of their vehicles, while others dedicated their time to posing with their comrades with their weapons and Iraqi army tanks. This would be the first battle of its kind, an offensive led by the Sunni faction of the Popular Mobilization Forces, the predominantly Shiite volunteer units created to beat back the Islamic State.

 When the Shiite faction Jund al-Imam showed up, the fighters from Liwa Salahaddin greeted them elatedly.

“They are like our brothers, we have been through many battles together,” said Ahmad, a 26-year-old fighter with Liwa Salahaddin, as he scrambled atop one of the Jund al-Imam vehicles to hug his friend.

Yazan al-Jabouri, the leader of Liwa Salahaddin, had assembled a force of over 1,000 fighters for the fight and armed them with an array of sniper rifles, AK-47s, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, as well as Katyusha rockets, howitzers, and Kornet anti-tank guided missiles. They also had 400 vehicles at their disposal, including armored Humvees.

Demining vehicles led the convoy. The rest of the vehicles followed slowly behind, heading through the sand dunes across the six miles of desert toward Shirqat. What followed were several days of clashes in the desert and in the city.

Iraqi helicopters and American F-16 jets roamed the skies, firing at explosive-laden cars hurtling in the direction of the convoy. Plumes of smoke could be seen rising into the sky following each strike, followed by a barrage of mortars.

As areas were liberated, residents emerged, almost not believing their eyes. Liwa Salahaddin’s fighters ran up to them, hugging and kissing them, with tears running down their cheeks.

One old man grabbed a cigarette offered to him by one of the fighters, taking a long drag before saying: “For two years I have been dreaming of this. We had to roll vine leaves in paper and smoked those instead.”

An elderly woman, Yasmeen, could not stop crying. “For two years I was dead inside,” she said. “I thought this was all a dream, God bless the Hashd and the Iraqi army,” she said, referring to the Popular Mobilization Forces by its Arabic name, Hashd al-Shaabi.

By the time Shirqat was entirely liberated, its roads were littered with bodies of Islamic State fighters, some of them decapitated. They were mutilated by Liwa Salahaddin fighters, who had arrived to the battle with small swords, promising to exact revenge — and they kept to their word. Several danced around the back of a technical while waving a severed head about, before again posing for selfies with the head.

Liwa Salahaddin’s victory in Shirqat is another step on the road to the liberation of Mosul, but it also represents a landmark for this Sunni fighting force. It has grown from a ragtag group of dozens of fighters to over 3,000 men. Yazan al-Jabouri has successfully courted a wide range of international and local allies: He has received arms from the Iranians and been supported by airstrikes from the Americans, and received political cover from Iraq’s Shiite power brokers even as he assiduously strengthens his authority in his local Sunni Arab community.

Today, as Iraq faces its fiercest battle yet to liberate the city of Mosul, Yazan finds himself at the center of an international power struggle, as rival nations vie for his support, hoping he can be their moderate Sunni partner on the ground. And for Yazan, Mosul is just the beginning of a new Iraq — one in which he is determined to secure not just his position, but that of his tribe, community and province, at any cost. 

Yazan al-Jabouri, center, surrounded by his men, declares victory against the Islamic State inside the administrative building at the center of Shirqat. (Photo credit: MATTHIAS BRUGGMANN/Contact Press Images)

It all started one day in the fall of 2014. Yazan al-Jabouri, then 34, was sitting in his home in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil when he received a phone call from Baghdad. “Do you really want to fight?” said the person on the other end of the line. “Come to Baghdad. Come meet Abu Mehdi.”

Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, otherwise known as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was the man behind the Popular Mobilization units. While he can easily be described as Iran’s man in Iraq, some Iraqis have gone so far as to say Abu Mehdi is Iraq’s copy of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force.

Abu Mahdi had been designated a terrorist by the United States since 2009 for his “threatening the peace and stability of Iraq” and his role in attacks against the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait in the 1980s. He has deep ties to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and played a crucial role in the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq from the very beginning, smuggling weapons and explosives into Iraq from Iran, before founding the Popular Mobilization Forces in 2014.

Yazan, who hails from one of Iraq’s largest tribes, is the eldest son of Meshaan al-Jabouri. His father was once an ally of Saddam Hussein, and even helped him recruit tens of thousands of fighters from his Sunni tribe to support the Iraqi army in the war against Iran in the 1980s, but was forced into exile when his relationship with the dictator soured. Reports suggest he attempted at least one coup and two assassinations against Saddam, none successful.

Yazan spent most of his childhood in the upper-class circles of Syria, Jordan, and Libya. He has fond memories of Bashar al-Assad’s rule in Damascus, and counts Muammar al-Qaddafi’s children among his close friends from his time growing up in Libya. (When Libya’s uprising began in 2011, he flew to Tripoli to lend his support to the Qaddafi family. “The way I see it, Libya was the cloud that brought the rain,” he said.)

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Meshaan returned to the country and entered politics. He briefly enjoyed a good relationship with U.S. forces, but, as with Saddam, it didn’t last. In 2005, Meshaan was elected to parliament, where he railed against the American occupation. Around the same time, he became a backer of the Sunni insurgency against the occupation. Yazan returned to Iraq in 2005, fresh out of university in Manchester, England, and joined his father as a member of the insurgency against the Americans. He refuses today to discuss his earlier military activities.

In 2006, Meshaan was forced to flee Syria after an Iraqi court indicted him for the embezzlement of millions of dollars of government funds and supporting insurgents. Yazan stayed in Iraq to continue fighting the occupation. Meshaan had always maintained good relations with the Kurds, so they both eventually based themselves in Erbil.

In 2014, Yazan Jabouri suddenly had new options. An invitation to cooperate with Abu Mahdi could open a lot of doors for an aspiring Iraqi politician — but traveling to Baghdad to meet with him would be risky. Yazan had numerous warrants for his arrest since 2008, when an Iraqi court convicted him in absentia for terrorism and providing material support to terrorists, handing him two 15-year sentences.

Yazan says it did not take him long to accept the invitation to meet the elusive Abu Mahdi. Partnering with the United States, his old enemy, was the least of his worries. “For me, I wasn’t fighting the Americans because they are Americans,” he said. “I was fighting the occupation force.”

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a top commander of Popular Mobilization Forces, gives a press conference on April 2, 2015, inside Baghdad's Green Zone. He became Yazan al-Jabouri’s key patron and provider of Iran-supplied weaponry. (Photo credit: ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images)

And by 2014, the need to defeat the Islamic State overrode most other political considerations. Yazan thought that by spearheading the fight against the jihadi group, he could boost his political stature and that of his “community.” It’s a term he uses loosely, sometimes to describe those from his area or within his tribe, and in some cases to refer to Sunnis within Salahaddin Governorate and surrounding provinces.

“All my areas were under ISIS control, and I really wanted to get rid of this label that all Sunnis are ISIS or support ISIS,” said Yazan. “And the reason they were able to sweep through is because of the immense corruption within the Iraqi government…. I saw participating with the Hashd as an opportunity to take on the role of protecting my community, and in essence, Iraq.”

In July 2014, Yazan found himself sitting in Baghdad in front of a group of men, one of whom he assumed was Abu Mahdi. It turned out, however, they were only his advisors. One asked Yazan how many fighters he could add to the war against the Islamic State.

“About 100 men,” Yazan responded. They were shocked by his response, Yazan said, telling him that other commanders usually inflated their group of recruits into the thousands; Yazan didn’t mention that he had yet to get firm commitments from the 100 he had in mind. He left the meeting with a paper authorizing him to bring a group that size to Hash’s current front in Salahaddin province. The meeting was adjourned before any other details about creating the first Sunni faction of Iraq’s biggest network of Shiite militias could be discussed. “There was no discussion about money or weapons or even where to bring the men,” said Yazan.

Yazan immediately returned to Erbil. He had the loyalty of his tribesmen and other Sunni men with fighting experience. But selling them on an alliance with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iran, at a time when the Islamic State seemed ascendant, was no easy task.

“We started calling our people to join, but no one accepted at the start,” said Yazan. “They told us we were crazy, stupid, that it was impossible to create such a thing because we are Sunnis and can’t join such militias.” Yazan managed to sign up 60 or 70 men nonetheless.

Yazan also decided to finally clear his name by handing himself over to the Baghdad court that had convicted him. Both he and his father had always argued that the charges against them were invented by then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and before arriving in the capital, he received assurances from judicial and political contacts that Maliki’s vendetta would not affect his appeal. On the day of his hearing, he showed up, stood in court, and presented his arguments without the presence of a lawyer.

The court acquitted both Yazan and his father of all charges, freeing Yazan to focus on building Liwa Salahaddin. The Iraqi government offered only minimal assistance: a total of nine AK-47s, without magazines. Yazan’s fighters were forced to scrounge together a handful of weapons from their connections in the police force and the army, and buy a stolen Toyota pickup for cheap.

By December 2014, they decided they were ready to fight. The first battle they joined was in the town of Baiji. “Basically 70 guys showed up, wearing a mixture of clothes between civilian and camouflage and a random assortment of weapons,” Yazan said. “And everyone was like ‘who are these guys?’”

Yazan said that despite their lack of equipment, his men fought bravely, constantly manning the front lines rather than retreating to the rear. When Abu Mahdi found out this ragtag bunch of fighters were Yazan’s men, he was duly impressed and requested a meeting with him. It was the first time the two met in person.

“I went in, and within two minutes we clicked. We sat together for about three hours, and he just loved me. And I loved him,” Yazan said. “I was impressed by him.”

Yazan al-Jabouri gathers his fighters at a staging ground outside of Shirqat in preparation for the invasion to capture the town. (Photo credit: MATTHIAS BRUGGMANN/Contact Press Images)

From that moment, Yazan and Abu Mahdi established a strong bond. They spoke almost daily, and would meet regularly, sometimes for hours. Abu Mahdi made sure that weapons from Iran, ranging from assault rifles to medium and heavy weaponry, were funneled to Yazan, and began sharing with him the most sensitive intelligence collected by the Hashd and the Iranians. Before long, he was participating in meetings and planning sessions with top-level Iranian commanders, including Qassem Soleimani.

By February 2015, he was appointed as head of the group’s Sunni file. According to Yazan, there are now approximately 30,000 Sunni fighters within the Hashd al-Shaabi across Salahaddin, Nineveh, Anbar, and Diyala provinces. But Yazan explained that, since March 2016, the Hashd is “split” between those aligned with Abu Mahdi, who leads offensives against the Islamic State, and those aligned with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi: the local tribal forces who report directly to local governors and political officials and only defend villages after they have been liberated.

Yazan refers to this latter group as the “local Hashd” which he says comprises most of the Hashd’s Sunnis. Abadi is seen as a more “moderate” Shiite leader by some Iraqi Sunnis than Abu Mahdi — not least because of his decision to support a separate chain of command for their “local Hashd” forces. These Sunnis want to limit their involvement with a Shiite-majority network they consider a proxy for Iranian interests. The 3,000 or so Sunni fighters of Liwa Salahaddin, over which Yazan never relinquished his command, are the exception.

In early 2016, Yazan was promoted to political advisor of the whole Hashd. He also went back to work on the battlefield. From Liwa Salahaddin’s base in Tikrit, he recruited men from an array of different backgrounds to the militia. He brought in 60 former Baathist intelligence officers who previously served Saddam; a member of Saddam’s elite intelligence agency, for example, became the head of Yazan’s intelligence department. Other of Yazan’s recruits had been opposed to Saddam, or were members of the Iraqi army. A large majority were young men who joined after their homes were taken over by the Islamic State.

The common denominator among all these men is that they are Sunni, and largely from the Salahaddin province.

Yazan’s aim in recruiting people from different backgrounds is to provide employment for people within his community, and also to prove to Iraqis and foreigners alike that a majority of Sunnis oppose the Islamic State.

But Yazan understands that his hopes to establish himself as a power broker in Salahaddin province depend not just on the support from the local population, but also from powerful outsiders. He is also aware these new friends can bring new hazards.

Driving from Tikrit toward Shirqat before the battle to liberate his hometown, Yazan pointed out the window to piles of rubble running along the road. “This is Baiji,” he said.

Popular Mobilization fighters seek cover in the aftermath of an Islamic State attack on the desert road to Shirqat. The sand berms were said to be Saddam-era tank positions. (Photo credit: MATTHIAS BRUGGMANN/Contact Press Images)

Utterly destroyed during clashes between the Islamic State and the Popular Mobilization Forces from December 2014 to October 2015, Baiji is a shell of its former self; every single building has been reduced to mounds of concrete, and the ones that were miraculously left standing have been looted of their belongings, down to the frames on the doors and windows.

“I don’t want what happened to Baiji to happen to Shirqat,” said Yazan, referring to the mass destruction and looting. “And this was largely done by the Hashd. Maybe because they’re not from here, so they don’t care, or maybe because they think we deserve it because they consider this to be Saddam’s area. But we are not Saddam, and they need to realize that.”

Sometimes respect and recognition can only be earned on the battlefield — which is why Yazan decided he wanted to launch the offensive on Shirqat alone. “I don’t want neither the Hashd nor the Counter Terrorism Service involved,” he said. “I want to do this on my own. I want to prove to everyone that I can do this without any of the other factions.”

That’s not to say he was against all outside assistance. Mere days before the offensive was supposed to start, Yazan came back from a long meeting with a wide grin on his face. “The Americans want to get involved,” he said, while pouring himself a drink of vodka from a plastic water bottle. According to him, his men have sometimes had to smuggle alcohol into their area in water bottles so the Shiite Hashd does not confiscate it from them at the checkpoints.

The Americans, he said, were offering to support their offensive with airstrikes. “But, they said they’ll only do this if the other Hashd isn’t involved,” he said. “I told them they won’t be involved on the ground.”

In the end, just before battle, Yazan did meet with other Popular Mobilization Forces commanders, including Iranian advisors, who gave him detailed maps of the area, reconnaissance drones, and Kornet missiles. And while a few dozen fighters from the Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi brigade Jund al-Imam did participate in the fighting, the United States provided air support nonetheless. Iraqi government security forces also played a supporting role, but Liwa Salahaddin was clearly the brigade that led the fighting on the ground.

If the United States is looking for local partners to manage the ongoing fight against the Islamic State and its aftermath, Yazan believes the secular Sunni fighters of Liwa Salahaddin are well-suited for the role.

But Americans will also have to accept his relationship with the Hashd and Abu Mahdi, a man the United States considers a terrorist. He knows Abu Mahdi’s backing bolsters his position within Iraq’s political elite and gives him access to the weapons Liwa Salahaddin relies on in battle. He also knows that Abu Mehdi benefits from the association, allowing him to demonstrate his ability to work together with pro-government Sunnis. Transactional though the relationship may seem, Yazan does not deny his loyalty to Abu Mehdi, and he speaks about him with affection.

Yazan believes the United States has made a critical mistake by debating endlessly over which different gradations of Islamists it can support, instead of throwing its weight decisively behind secular Sunnis on the ground. “For the last five years, the Americans have been looking for a liberal, moderate Sunni to back in Iraq, but have gotten caught up in ‘Islam this,’ or ‘Islam that,’” said Yazan.

Pointing to U.S. support for the armed opposition in Syria, he continued: “They’ve put themselves behind groups claiming they are ‘al Qaeda but not quite.’ Well here in Iraq, I’m none of those,” he said. “I’m as moderate as they get, and they need me.”

Yazan’s diplomatic skills aren’t only tested by his tangled web of alliances, but also by the thirst for revenge among the local Sunni populations he has been liberating. The morning before the offensive was supposed to take place, Yazan was in a meeting with Wannas al-Jabbara, the head of the Martyr Omaya al-Jabbara Brigade — a faction of Liwa Salahaddin composed of around 250 fighters who received a call from an exhausted Islamic State commander.

“If I turn myself in, would it be possible to come to some deal?” said the voice on the other end. The line suddenly cut before an agreement could be struck.

Yazan and al-Jabbara discussed the deal. “I would take the deal,” said Yazan. “My aim is not to kill people but to liberate my city. The plan would involve handing him over to the court, and if we can testify that he gave himself up, then the rest is up to the court.”

The problem however, was trying to convince tribal elders and councilmen. Some, especially those whose relatives joined the Islamic State, feel they need to prove to society at large that they are opposed to the group, and therefore prefer a “leave no man alive” policy. One young Liwa Salahaddin fighter even executed his own brother when he found out he had joined the Islamic State. Yazan worried that such a move could further fracture his already-shattered hometown. “We saw this happen after Saddam,” he said, “and now it would be much worse.”

Yazan al-Jabouri confers with other commanders of the Popular Mobilization units at their headquarters in Tikrit. (Photo credit: MATTHIAS BRUGGMANN/Contact Press Images)

While many Iraqis remain focused on liberating Mosul, Yazan is focused on the war he is certain will come after that.

He knows that whichever force brings an end to the Islamic State will have the upper hand in determining the future of Iraq. And the coming political battles over Iraqi identity and regional alliances are likely to split the country even further.

“There will definitely be another war. Between who, it’s still unclear, but it will be bigger than what is happening now,” he said, adding, “The Iranians are smart; they know how to work with the Arabs. Turkey, on the other hand, if it continues along this trajectory, will lead Iraq to a civil war.”

The sectarian rhetoric in Iraq, meanwhile, has led many Iraqis to worry about the future of their country.

“Nobody actually wants Iraq to split,” said Shaker, a veteran fighter in Yazan’s brigade who used to work as an oil smuggler. “We never used to think in sectarian terms, but now if you listen to the younger generation, they talk in terms of Sunni and Shiite, Iran and Saudi.”

Yazan is struggling to come to grips with this new reality. As the spheres of influence start to take shape across the country, he is determined to secure his place and that of his community — even if it means going against his nationalist ideals, and partnering up with allies who are willing to help him.

“It’s funny, because there are those in Abu Mahdi’s circles who are annoyed that he considers me a son, but he tells them I am the only one who can ensure Iraq doesn’t split,” said Yazan. “He’s wrong.”

Yazan is under no illusions as to where his priorities lie — securing the future of his community. “You cannot rely on just one person to keep Iraq in one piece,” he said, especially as everyone seems to be intent on securing their own interest above that of the state.

“I don’t want Iraq to split, but my interest is with my people first, and what is in their best interests. If in the future their interest is to have Iraq split, then….” he drifted off.

Top photo credit: MATTHIAS BRUGGMANN/Contact Press Images