Officals Say Shi’a Militias Loyal to Iran Leading the Fight Against ISIS in Iraq
Shi’a militias backed by Iran have undertaken a leadership role in the war being fought in Iraq against ISIS, pan-Arab, Saudi aligned daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsatreported on Tuesday, quoting Iraqi government officials and militia leaders.
According to analysts quoted by the paper, they threaten to undermine American efforts to strengthen the central government in Baghdad, rebuild the Iraqi army, and advance reconciliation with the disaffected Sunni minority.
Their numbers vary between 100 thousand and 120 thousand militants, and they have quickly begun taking over the task of the Iraqi army, which is suffering from exhaustion and low morale. Furthermore, high desertion rates have reduced the army to almost 48 thousand soldiers after the defeat of governmental forces in Mosul last summer, according to American and Iraqi officials.
One of the militias, the Badr Organization, led an attack carried out against ISIS militants inside Diali province, reinforcing the status of the militias as a formidable military force, asserting their control over large swathes of Iraqi territory stretching from the country’s south to Kirkuk in the north.
By undertaking a larger role, these militias sometimes resort to tactics which could exacerbate the disaffection of the Sunnis and the sectarian dimensions of the conflict. The groups also aim to fortify Iranian influence inside Iraq, which is already strong, and which might prove difficult to reverse in the future. And by receiving backing, and financial and military support from Tehran, these militias have openly declared their loyalties to Iran.
An important indicator of Iraq’s slide into total Iranian control is the spread in Baghdad of large murals displaying the power of the militias and carrying the picture of the departed Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Al-Khomeini, and his successor Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. These murals now hang in the place where a huge statue of Saddam once stood before its destruction by U.S. Marines in 2003.
Many of these militias, like the Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah, were among the armed groups which undertook fighting American troops until their departure in 2011.
The influence of these militias raises many questions about the sustainability of the U.S. strategy of launching air strikes, which inadvertently strengthens these proxies of Iran on the ground which consider the United States their enemy. Analysts have noted that if fighting continues along its present path, then it is very likely that while winning the war against ISIS, the United States will lose Iraq to Iran’s control.
Even though Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi welcomed U.S. assistance and requested even more, the rising power of the militias threatens to weaken his authority and turn Iraq into a clone of Lebanon, where a weak government is held hostage to the whims of the much stronger Hezbollah.
Michael Knights, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, noted that these Shi’a militias do not want an American presence in Iraq. The question arises, he said, whether these Iranian-backed militias will now turn their attention to expelling the Americans from Iraq entirely. In fact, as American military planners have begun seriously considering sending U.S. ground troops to aid in recapturing Mosul, some of these militias have begun asking questions about the need for American aid.
Karim Al-Nouri, the official spokesman and military commander of Badr Organization, which has become the strongest armed group in the country, said that, “We do not need [American assistance], either in the air or on land, and we can defeat ISIS on our own.”
Iraqi officials, for their part, have admitted that the militias have filled a great need, supplying manpower during a critical time to stanch the advance of ISIS towards Baghdad. On the other hand, American assistance came late, more than two months after the militants of the so-called Caliphate began their advance towards the capital. Meanwhile, joint American-Iraqi efforts to rebuild the Iraqi Army only started last December, and no recruits have graduated yet.