by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi • Aug 31, 2014 at 9:10 pm
With the collapse of Iraq’s conventional army divisions in the Mosul area in particular and the rapid IS-spearheaded Sunni Arab insurgent gains across Ninawa, Salah ad-Din, Anbar and Kirkuk governorates, there has been a rapid trend of Shi’a militia mobilization, focusing on recruitment narratives such as ‘defense of the homeland’ (difa’ ‘an al-watan) and/or more specifically, ‘defense of the shrine of the two Askaris’ (referencing the Golden Dome shrine in Samarra, a bomb attack on which helped accelerate Iraq’s descent into full-blown sectarian civil war in 2006).
The Shi’a militias include the more traditional and well-known Iranian proxy brands such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (which has a political wing- al-Sadiqun- that won only one seat in Iraq’s parliamentary election, but has been closely tied to Nouri al-Maliki and his office), the Badr Organization and Kata’ib Hezbollah. Further, within the Iran-aligned/Iran proxy trend, we have Saraya ad-Difa’ ash-Sha’abi (Kata’ib Hezbollah front-group) Saraya al-Khorasani and Kata’ib al-Fatah al-Mubin, the last of which appears to have been formed by members of Kata’ib Hezbollah.
We also have new Shi’a militia factions tied to familiar figures from the Shi’a political scene in Iraq, such as Muqtada al-Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam (essentially a rebranding of the Mahdi Army), and Saraya Ansar al-Aqeeda and Saraya Ashura’ affiliated respectively with Sheikh Jalal al-Din al-Saghir and Ammar al-Hakim of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which is the closest ideologically to Iran of the mainstream Shi’a political factions in Iraq. Concomitant with this Shi’a militia mobilization has been the appearance of these figures in military guise.
Sheikh Jalal al-Din al-Saghir (center of photo, holding the man in front by the neck): photo from Saraya Ansar al-Aqeeda, whose activities are regularly reported on by Saghir’s outlet Buratha News, further demonstrating the link.
I should emphasize that the above listing is by no means 100% comprehensive. In any case, operationally, it is difficult to find an area in which the presence of at least one of these Shi’a militia factions is not reported, ranging from the Tikrit area in Salah ad-Din province to Jurf al-Sakhr in Babil province (the latter a long-standing Islamic State hotspot) and from Diyala province (where Shi’a militia activity has been on the up for some time) to Haditha in western Anbar province, which still holds out as pro-government Sunni tribesmen work with security forces. Indeed, already in Anbar with the fall of Fallujah out of government control in January, the traditional Iranian proxies became involved in the fighting.
From a Kata’ib Hezbollah contact who fought in Syria and returned to Iraq to fight the renewed insurgency in Anbar. He says he found the IS banner he is posing with in this photo from this spring in the Fallujah area.
Those tied with the government justify the presence of the Shi’a militias on the grounds that they serve as an effective fighting force that can scare the Sunni insurgents, at least as related to me by one Iraqi diplomat working at the Iraqi embassy in Belgium. However, such claims can be easily challenged. What the Shi’a militias have shown is that they can serve as mass garrison forces to stop further Sunni insurgent advances: the most notable case of this trend is the predominantly Sunni city of Samarra that has been subject to mass garrison, keeping out the Islamic State. On the offensive, however, the Shi’a militias have shown that they are no better than the conventional security forces: despite months of new announced security initiatives involving these militias, Jurf al-Sakhr, Tikrit and Fallujah remain out of government control.
Indeed, I would offer the comparative case from Syria of the East Ghouta locality of al-Mleha, which has seen intense fighting for at least six months, to illustrate just how ineffectual these Iraqi Shi’a militias can be. According to the media representative of a Shi’a militia known as the “Rapid Intervention Regiment” in an interview with me regarding the situation in al-Mleha:
“The al-Mleha area has seen fighting continuing within it for six months and thanks to God its complete liberation was carried out at the hands of the men of God: the Rapid Intervention Regiment, Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib, Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar, Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein, the Syrian army and Hezbollah.”
While fighting is still reported to continue, I should add that he also forgot to mention the ‘counter-insurgency’ National Defense Force and the Arab Nationalist Guard as participants on the regime side. The point is, these Iraqi Shi’a militias- whether in Syria or Iraq- do not necessarily aid the restoration of government control if there is no local support for cooperation. In the end, in Iraq in particular, the militias’ long-term effect is only to aggravate sectarian tensions and sow ever-greater division, feeding into the narrative of the Sunni insurgent groups of a ‘sectarian government’ with militias intending to carry out ethnic cleansing.
One important question to ponder is how the militias will influence the political landscape of Iraq. With Hayder Abadi the new prime minister designate instead of Maliki, some may hope that Abadi can prove to be a figure who can rein in the Shi’a militias, yet such a prospect is already in jeopardy, and may well go in the opposite direction, as my friend and colleague Feisal Istrabadi has noted talk of the Badr Organization potentially being allocated the Ministry of Defense (see this excellent thread including Memlik Pasha and Joel Rayburn for discussion). In any event, the most notable tension is Sadr as opposed to the Iranian proxies (especially Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq), despite the occasional ‘brotherology of all militias’ messaging as advertised on social media: just as the overall Sunni insurgency has inside tensions, so too for the Shi’a militias, and infighting among Shi’a militia garrisons with different factions is hardly unlikely.
The most recent statement from Saraya al-Khorasani relates to the breaking of the siege of the Shi’a town of Amerli, which was under siege by the Islamic State for some two months. The town became a rallying cause for Shi’a militias, including Saraya al-Salam, Badr, Kata’ib Hezbollah and this brigade. There was also apparently cooperation with the Peshmerga and conventional security forces, assisted by U.S. airstrikes in light of the humanitarian crisis.
Unsurprisingly, Saraya al-Khorasani will not mention American airstrikes, given antipathy to the U.S. in keeping with its status as an Iranian proxy (cf. this Kata’ib Hezbollah song, including the lyrics: “No to America, no to takfir”). Instead, the statement portrays the beating back of IS as solely the work of Saraya al-Khorasani, in keeping with more general messaging as a ‘victory of the resistance’ (al-muqawama: a key concept in Shi’a militia thought).
Also of interest is the fact that, like the Shi’a militias in al-Mleha, Saraya al-Khorasani portrays the enemy as solely IS. While IS was undoubtedly behind the actual siege of Amerli, it should be noted that the localities mentioned by Saraya al-Khorasani en route to Amerli were also areas of known Ba’athist Naqshbandi Army (JRTN) activity, at least if we take JRTN activist wing Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq’s reporting as reliable (and here, I believe it is, as the wider Suleiman Beik district has been known as an area of JRTN influence in the past).
Here is the Saraya al-Khorasani statement.
The Islamic Resistance
31 August 2014
We bless our Sayyid and Lord, the Companion of Age and Time [i.e. the Mahdi], the entire Islamic Ummah, and the followers of the Commander of the Faithful [Ali], with the blessed victory of Saraya al-Khorasani in breaking the siege of Amerli the steadfast when the mujahideen of our brigades managed to weaken the Da3eshi [IS] enemy and over the span of a whole month there were many bloody battles in which the enemies of Islam suffered great losses with their souls, their equipment, and their weapons. And today, these victories culminated in the liberation of the villages of al-Salam, Talal Yankajah, and Injanah en route to our people in Amerli. Thus we have extended tribute to our martyrs and disgrace and shame on the enemies of Muhammad and the Family of Muhammad.
Military Council of Saraya al-Khorasani
5 Dhu al-Qa’ada 1435 AH.