Shia Militias, Sectarianism & Sovereignty in Iraq

The Militias

Shiite militias in Iraq represent a number of constituencies, often with conflicting ideologies and interests. Media reports that refer to the machinations and activities of “Iranian-backed militias”, as if they are some unified instrument that Iran can easily control are sorely mistaken. There are roughly 100,000 Shiite militiamen in Iraq. Estimates find that there are roughly 50 active Shiite militia groups, but they primarily belong to two groups: Sadrist organizations related to Muqtada-al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, and the Badr Organization, a former ISCI affiliate that has been reconstituted to face the ISIS threat.

The Sadrist militias are offshoots of the Mahdi Army, founded by Muqtada al-Sadr, the influential son of a renowned Grand Ayatollah. Boasting roughly 30,000-50,000 militiamen, many observers viewed the Mahdi Army as second only to the American military in armed might during the American occupation. Al-sadr formed the militia in Baghdad’s Shiite slums, shortly after the American invasion. The army was meant to “defend their country and their Shiite faith against the Americans”, a recruitment pitch which appealed to “young and desperate youth in Iraq’s urban slums who [had not] seen any major benefit because of liberation”.

The Mahdi Army gained substantial support in those slums because members “offered protection and security to the community”, and helped rebuild communities using a $41 million dollar grant from the Iraqi government. However, the group was also implicated in ethnic cleansing against Sunnis, and a rash of attacks against Coalition Forces, prompting a major Coalition offensive against the Mahdi Army’s command and control in 2007. As a result, Sadr ordered the group to discontinue militia activities, and explicitly condemned sectarian violence in order to maintain the viability of his movement as a political force. He began to prioritize religious proselytizing and the provision of social services to win popular support.

However, many members of the militia retained animosity towards the American presence, leading al-Sadr to form the “Promised Day Brigades” as a means to launch attacks against American troops with plausible deniability. Today, the Promised Day Brigades are still nominally separate from the Mahdi Army–now known as the “Peace Brigades”.

The Badr Organization for Reconstruction and Development, which has roughly 30,000 fighters, is the other major militia player.  The ISCI established it as their armed wing in 1982. The militia cooperated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) from exile on the frontlines of the Iran-Iraq war, and executed terrorist attacks against Baathist officials in Southern Iraq. The ISCI was allowed to return to Iraq after the American invasion, but coalition officials demanded that the ISCI disarm the Badr Organization as a precondition for participating in elections.

While the ISCI elided this demand by changing the organization’s name to the philanthropic sounding “Badr Organization for Reconstruction and Development”, the group continued to engage in sectarian activities, including the “torturing Sunni Arabs, murdering Sunni clerics, and kidnapping Sunnis”.  However, the Badr Organization’s choice to abstain from attacking Coalition forces–unlike the Mahdi Army, or most other Shiite militias–is notable.

Beyond the majority of fighters aligned with these two groups, a smaller number belong to minor militias–and others belong to much smaller militias which are tactically influential but politically marginal–which many analysts consider to be veritable Iranian proxies. The two major players here are Asa’ib ahl al Haqq and Kata’ib al-Hizbollah.

Asa’ib ahl al Haqq, which has somewhere between 1,000 and 5,000 fighters was formed out of a faction of the Mahdi Army by Qais al-Khazali, a former student of Muqtada al-Sadr’s father, and colleague of the junior Sadr in the Mahdi Army. However, the two differed over theology and political strategy; al-Khazali and his fellow discontents supposedly expressed “strong theological ties to Iran’s leaders”, and were vociferously opposed to al-Sadr’s ceasefire agreement with coalition forces.

Finally, Kata’ib al-Hizbollah, which only numbers around 400 personnel, was started in 2007 by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was previously associated with the Badr Organization. Analysts believe he receives a sizeable amount of material and guidance from Iran, who views the group as a “vehicle through with the IRGC Qods Force [can] deploy its most experienced operators and its most sensitive equipment” to Iraq, in order to pursue their various interests there. Al-Muhandis did not limit himself to directing his own organization; he also leveraged his relationship with Lebanese Hezbollah instructors to train other Shiite militant organizations in asymmetrical warfare techniques, and worked with his Iranian patrons to smuggle armaments–most notably explosively formed penetrators from Iran into Iraq.

As a result, by 2009, al-Muhandis and Kata’ib al-Hizbollah were blacklisted for having “committed, directed, supported or posed a significant risk of committing acts of violence against Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces.”

Today, analysts and government officials alike refer to this diverse ecosystem of militias as “Special Groups”, a term coined in the Iraq war to refer to Shiite militias which received financial, operational, or logistical support from Iran. This frame was more sensible during the war, as Iraqi and Coalition strategy was largely oriented around dismantling militia groups that posed a threat to American soldiers–or were indulging in the sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing that brought Iraq to civil war in 2006 and 2007. However, this model of understanding the militias is outdated.

First, while a willingness to attack, or support efforts to attack coalition forces deserved marking a group as unsuitable for engagement during the war, coalition forces have exited Iraq–today, the country obviously faces a new set of challenges. More importantly, the “Special Groups” moniker did and still does fundamentally misunderstand the motivations of these groups. As such, applying the “Iranian backed militia” label to any militia that has received assistance from Iran, or has acted in accordance with Iran’s interests–and then assuming that Iran has substantial influence over this militia–is unwise.

inter-militia Disagreements

After the Lebanese Hezbollah’s “summer war” against Israel in July 2006, the IRGC Qods force sought to reproduce their victory in Iraq. So, the Qods force increased the flow of advanced IEDs known as explosively-formed projectiles (EFPs) and other weapons indiscriminately to a broad range of Shiite militias. The results were counter-intuitive to say the least. Fighting between the various Shiite factions increased dramatically; two provincial governors and two provincial police chiefs were killed in targeted killings (with use of EFPs). The violence reached a zenith when Sadrist militants clashed with security forces widely believed to be controlled by the Badr Organization in the holy city of Karbala, leading to widespread condemnation, and the retrenchment of Iranian support for all but its’ most trusted–and tightly controlled militias.

This incident is paradigmatic of the cleavages separating key Shiite militias–this is why they continue to operate under their own command structures even as they are nominally unified under the Popular Mobilization Forces. The most important divergence separates the Mahdi Army/Peace Brigades and Badr Organization. The two groups began to fight in order to secure political influence during the drafting of Iraq’s new constitution; by December 2005, the rivalry was so great “that it [came] to shape local politics and society”. While the two groups reached a cease-fire after the Karbala incident in 2007, tensions remain.

Asa’ib ahl al Haqq has a close relationship with Iran; unlike other militias, the “establishment of absolute, Shiite governance” is its’ overarching goal. Their most strident opposition comes from Sadr’s Mahdi Army/Peace Brigades, and as such, after defeating ISIS,  “wresting control of Iraq’s Shiite population from al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army” remains its proximate goal.

A marriage of convenience, not love

Analysts who claim “Iranian-backed Shiite militias” are pliant tools waiting to be leveraged into increased Iranian influence also misunderstand the motivations of Shiite militias in Iraq. First, some analysts mistakenly believe that these militias subscribe to velayat-al-faqih, the ideology which justifies theocratic autocracy in Iran. For instance, Smith claims that all Shiite militias in Iraq “march to Tehran’s ideological tune. They are loyal to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini and Iran’s ideology of velayat-e faqih, which grants the Supreme Leader ultimate political and religious authority.”

This claim is largely false. Unlike Iran, where velayat-e-faqih was forcibly imposed after the revolution, most clerics in Najaf–and the Iraqi citizens who look up to them as marja–sympathize with a vision of Shiite governance that aligns much more closely with Western notions of democracy and popular sovereignty. The concept of vilayat al-umma (guardianship of the people) popularized by Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (father in law of Muqtada al-Sadr) posits that governance is a right “given to the whole people humanity”.

As a result, none of the major Shiite militias, or the political parties they are associated with–with the exception of Asa’ib ahl al Haqq, which which numbers, at most, 5% of Shiite militiamen–consistently and convincingly support velayat-e-faqih. According to Michael Rubin, an Iran expert at the American Enterprise Institute, the ISCI abandoned their support for velayat al-faqih  in 2003, and Muqtada al-Sadr gave token support for wilayat al-faqih to secure assistance from Iran in his fight against coalition forces, but this support was neither “enthusiastic or consistent”.

As alluded to earlier, Iraqi nationalism places an important structural limit on Iranian influence with Shiite militias in Iraq. While observers point to their cooperation with Iran during the war as proof of their fealty, this argument fails to recognize that their cooperation was predicated on mutual interest–namely expelling America from Iraq–rather than friendship or a shared identity.

In fact, entering the sort of close relationship with Iran that analysts like Smith fear would be decidedly against the interests of Shiite militias.  Iraqi Shiite blame Iran for the intensification of sectarian violence between 2006 and 2008–which was caused in part by the provision of weapons and strategic guidance from Iran to the militias. The political organizations that they belong to are punished electorally if they appear too close to Iran (remember that ISCI went from 200 to 50 seats in 2009 after opposing parties claimed they were too beholden to Iran).

Some might point to the recent threats by several Shiite militias to withdraw from fighting in the Iranian-led offensive Tikrit because of American airstrikes as evidence of Iran’s sway over these militias, but the incident actually limits the limits of Iranian influence over the Popular Mobilization Forces. However, the three militias in question (Kata’ib al Hezbollah, Asa’ib ahl al Haq, the Promised Day Brigades) only represent a small sliver of the 100,000 militiamen currently active in Iraq, roughly 10%.

While the Badr Organization claimed that it was “considering” withdrawing from the offensive, it did not. Furthermore, the opposition some Shiite militias have towards American involvement in the war stems from the country’s tortured relationship with Iraqi Shiite, rather than fealty to Iranian operational control over the fight against ISIS. Remember that resisting America’s occupation of Iraq was their raison d e’tre from 2003 to roughly 2012.

Furthermore, America is perceived as betraying Shiites in the more distant past; while the United States encouraged rebellions against Saddam’s rule in Shiite provinces after the first Gulf War, according to Rubin “the United States did not intervene as Saddam moved to crush the uprising….while the United States…sponsored a safe haven for Iraqi Kurds, there was no corollary protection for Iraqi Shiites: the southern no-fly zone did little to stop Iraqi tanks from crushing the uprising”. This history partially explains why Shiite militias are reluctant to rely upon American support in their fight against ISIS. However, it does not entail obeisance towards Iran.

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