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.
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.
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.”