Shia Militias, Sectarianism & Sovereignty in Iraq


Another charge leveled against Shiite militias is that (with the support of Iran) they are refusing to fall in line with the coalition strategy of gaining the support of Sunnis against ISIS by reducing their marginalization within Iraqi society. This is a more legitimate concern than those outlined above.

However, there are several problems with this narrative. First, every notable Shiite militias (with the possible exception of Kata’ib al-Hizbollah) have explicitly renounced sectarianism in order for their political wings to participate in the political process. So, while a series of isolated incidents have occurred (most notably collective punishment towards Sunnis in ISIS held villages, as detailed here, and in a recent Human Rights Watch Report report) they will likely remain relatively isolated and limited. And frankly, at the point when Iraqi special forces are also engaged in battlefield atrocities, militias should not be made the whipping boy for all of the human rights abuses that will inevitably occur in the fight against ISIS.

Second, they have a further incentive to avoid egregious displays of sectarianism as they rely on the central government for legitimacy, and the government relies on funding from Washington–which supports efforts to further integrate Sunnis into Iraqi society as a key facet of their strategy against ISIS. Washington has threatened to cut funds to Baghdad if the militias continue to commit abuses, and according to Zaid al-Ali, author of “The Struggle for Iraq’s Future” the Iraqi government is taking U.S. demands seriously: “The prime minister made a very negative statement about criminal elements within the Popular Mobilization Forces…he made a big deal that they will be punished”.

Baghdad is also developing strategies for preventing tensions between Sunnis who live in ISIS controlled areas and Shiite militias on the battlefield. According to Dr. Hisham al-Hashimi, who advises the Iraqi government on ISIS, the joint Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Popular Mobilization Forces contingent sent to retake Tikrit includes a Sunni “group made up of local tribesmen to pacify the town” after an initial, Shiite dominated force takes the town.  This plays into a broader national strategy , advocated by Prime Minister Abbadi, of drawing disenchanted Sunnis back into the fold by using a predominantly Sunni “National Guard” to pacify ISIS held areas in the South and easing de-Baathification laws. The latter would undermine ISIS by giving influential but alienated Sunnis who were barred from politics after the American invasion a stake in the political process.

Thus, while sectarian tensions are a short-run tactical issue in the fight against ISIS, and integrating Sunnis into Iraq’s political system will be difficult in the long run, it is foolhardy to claim that Iran can–or wants to–derail Iraqi progress through the use of militias. Remember that Iran supported the removal of former Prime Minister al-Maliki when his refusal to support a more inclusive Iraqi government drew the Obama Administration’s ire. Unconstrained sectarian violence–like the violence in 2006 and 2007–is destabilizing, and as such would threaten Iran almost as much as the current fight against ISIS.

Misleading Narratives, Misguided Policies

The popular narrative regarding Shiite militias is largely incorrect. These misunderstandings must be rectified, as they are used to imply that America needs to play a larger role in the fight against ISIS lest American interests lose out to increased Iranian influence and general chaos. This is highly problematic, because (ironically) the only thing that has galvanized the fractitious constellation of Shiite militias is the American presence in Iraq–which, of course they hate.

While a worst-case scenario would see Iraqi militias deliberately undermining U.S. led operations, or attacking American personnel, increased American involvement would undermine the Iraqi government’s legitimacy, especially in the eyes of Shiites.  If Shiites perceive the U.S. as intervening on behalf of Sunnis rather than fighting against ISIS, Baghdad’s efforts to empower Sunnis would lose credibility.

Shiite militias in Iraq are not amiable, friendly organizations. They are sworn enemies of America, and this article does not argue that they pose no threat to the security or stability of Iraq. If efforts to dampen their proclivity for sectarian violence are not implemented soon, or implemented incompetently, these militias may very well increase sectarian tensions in Iraq. However, these realities make it all the more important for policymakers to acknowledge the complexities of the relationships between these militias, the Iraqi state and Iran–and to develop more nuanced tactics to realize America’s strategic interests.

Commentators who claim that they are Iranian shadow puppets who pose a larger threat to Iraqi stability and security than the Islamic State fundamentally misunderstand them, Iraqi politics, and Shiism in Iraq more generally.

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