By Iraq Team
Shi’a militias have mobilized in several regions across Iraq, including Diyala, north of Baghdad, and south of Baghdad. The mobilizations began to increase in February 2014, mostly in response to increases in attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). February 2014 also gave rise to an increase in the pre-elections campaigning of various Shi’a political groups. This political mobilization indicates their established presence which allows them an uninterrupted opportunity to campaign in mixed areas without security concerns and possibly with popular acceptance. The current main battle line between ISIS and Shi’a militias will likely form in northern Babel, with ISIS consolidating strength in Jurf al-Sakhar and the ISF and Shi’a militia elements strengthening their defenses in Mussayib and Mahmudiyah. The mobilization of the Iraqi Shi’a militias and state tolerance of their activities will cause further destabilization and disenfranchisement of the Iraqi Sunnis in these areas.
Shi’a militia mobilization has been a rising concern since May 2013, when extrajudicial killings and other attacks typical of these groups began to occur at a low level in Baghdad. ISIS has been attacking areas of Shi’a majority in Baghdad and elsewhere since February 2013, essentially without impediment from the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). ISIS likely aimed to stoke sectarian violence in a manner that would delegitimize and weaken state security. Regardless, signs of overt and mass Shi’a militia mobilization did not occur in Iraq until February 2014. Over the last two months, Shi’a militias have expanded their activities in several provinces beyond attacks against individuals and other social intimidation tactics. Since February 2014, Shi’a militias have begun to attack in villages and urban centers in Diyala and to increase their presence in large numbers through parades and other social outreach north and south of Baghdad.
Shi’a militias that may be active in 2014 include Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), the Badr organization, and militants affiliated with the Sadrists, all of which are nominally associated with political actors with an interest in Iraq’s elections. This update will document observed instances of mobilization in 2014 in order to isolate that which demonstrates a departure from political process. This update will also identify the Shi’a communities on the front lines of ISIS advance that may seek to augment their community defense in the coming months. These areas will be the subject of enduring concern, where Shi’a militia activities may spark mutual violence among neighboring communities without the intervention of the ISF.
One of the first overt signs that Shi’a militias have mobilized beyond extra-judicial killings occurred in the Diyala river valley on February 5, 2014 in the village of Mukhisa. ISIS had been occupying the nearby orchards and displacing families to the point that Diyala Provincial Council member Ahmed Rzoqi and the chairman of the local security commission separately called the area a safe-haven for terrorism in January 2014. The catalyst for the Shi’a militia mobilization on February 5, 2014 was an ISIS attack on a number of security checkpoints, an escalation beyond their recent activities in the area.
The local population reported that the ISF responded by moving into Mukhisa. Gunmen in civilian attire reportedly entered the area with the ISF hours after the attack and killed a number of Sunni civilians, surrounding the village and burning a number of homes, while the ISF did not intervene to stop them. The gunmen in this instance likely belonged to Shi’a militias, and if the reports are accurate it is significant to observe the reported ISF tolerance of their targeted violence against Sunni civilians.
Another ISIS attack prompted a Shi’a militia mobilization in Diyala on March 22, 2014, when members of ISIS took control of parts of Buhriz, a suburb south of Baquba. ISF clashed with ISIS in Buhriz for 48 hours until ISF reinforcements arrived. On March 24, 2014, eyewitnesses from the area reported that “militias” entered the area after the ISF regained control of Buhriz. The militias allegedly burned mosques, grocery stores, and other property while “chanting sectarian slogans.” The residents of Buhriz also reported that members of the militias carried out extrajudicial killings, resulting in the death of number of civilians, including a woman and an elderly man.
A video from what appeared to be a surveillance camera in Buhriz surfaced through a Sunni anti-government leaning media account on March 29, 2014. The video dated March 23 showed a number of vehicles and motorcycles of the “militias” entering the area. The same account had posted on March 25 a graphic video of dead civilians who were allegedly killed by the militias in Buhriz. While the surveillance video is not confirmed, such material circulates widely and generates fear among the Sunni population in mixed provinces.
The same day, on March 25, 2014, reports indicated that around 30 unidentified gunmen with light and medium weapons and driving 12 civilian “Saiba” cars conducted a parade in central Balad, an area that has a Sunni majority and Shi’a religious shrine. The gunmen were described as wearing black t-shirts, camouflaged pants, and military boots, carrying yellow banners while their vehicles had religious photos and banners. Based upon this description, the gunmen were likely Shi’a militia members.
These mobilizations have created a sense of fear among Sunnis living in mixed provinces. This was evident by the mass departure of families from 15 villages around Qarah Tapa in northern Diyala on March 28, 2014, following the Shi’a militia mobilization in Buhriz. The families reportedly referenced the entrance of Iraqi Shi’a militias to their areas after IA forces relocated to more populated areas. This departure reportedly took place after unidentified gunmen, likely ISIS, denied the IA access to major supply routes near Qarah Tapa.
Acknowledging the activation of Shi’a militias in Diyala on March 26, 2014, the leader of the Sadrist Trend, Moqtada al-Sadr condemned the recent involvement of Shi’a militias in Buhriz and Diyala. He described those who participated as the followers of the “dictator,” insinuating Maliki’s complicity with other Shi’a militia groups, and the “brazen militias” taking advantage of “naïve” followers of the Sadrists. This is not the first time in which Sadr condemned activities of Iraqi Shia militias, even among his followers. On November 27, 2013 Sadr described a military parade of Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) members in Muqdadiyah as “repulsive” and ordered them to dismantle JAM in Diyala. Sadr also expressed his appreciation of a decision by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to act decisively against those who participated in the parade.
It is important to point out that these statements are part of Sadr’s pre-elections nationalist rhetoric. Sadr’s spokesperson criticized those who participated in the events of Buhriz, taking care to clarify that participants who carried Sadr’s picture and wrote his name on the mosques they burned were not of his following. It is not clear that the Shi’a militias mobilizing in Diyala represent a single or multiple groups, exclusively Asai’b Ahl al-Haq and the Badr organization, for example; regardless, it is clear that Sadr wishes to be distanced politically from violent behavior.
Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq
Meanwhile, Sadr’s rival, leader of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq Qais Khazali has been portraying himself and his group as the defenders of Iraqi Shia with the slogan “Protectors and Builders.” On January 16, 2014, Khazali publically announced engagements with delegations of tribal and notable figures residing in areas adjacent to ISIS support zones. The delegations were from areas within the Baghdad Belts (Abu Ghraib, Latifiya, Madain, Sayafiya, Yousfeya, and Mahmudiya) and Diyala. Both delegations voiced their concerns regarding ISIS and asked Khazali to intervene by supporting the ISF and providing the population with weapons for self-defense. In both cases, Khazali expressed the total support for the population and to the ISF in these areas. While Khazali publically acknowledges AAH involvement in Syria, most recently at an AAH event in Najaf on March 25, 2014, the group has not officially acknowledged violent activities in Iraq.
However, a video surfaced on February 28, 2014 depicting AAH members ramping up for an operation, in what appeared to be Anbar province. According to a Washington Post article in late February 2014, an AAH source indicated that members often wear military uniforms on operations outside of Baghdad, including Anbar, which introduces the possibility that AAH is deploying into provinces to counter ISIS. The AAH source was quoted as saying, “The army isn’t well-versed in street fights, so we go, we help them clean it up.” Units within the Counter Terrorism Forces and SWAT teams do specialize in urban warfare and are integral to operations in Anbar, so AAH, if present, is not likely a core element on the battlefield. Nevertheless, the Iraqi Army is already perceived as a sectarian army by Sunni communities. AAH involvement will deepen that perception and increase sectarian tension.
It is worth noting that AAH maintains a friendly relationship with the Iraqi Police in areas where they enjoy greater strength. On February 21, 2014, a delegation from AAH’s office in west Baghdad reportedly visited the IP commander in Hurriyah. The delegation presented a “Fidelity Shield” and ribbons to the general in appreciation of ISF efforts to counter ISIS. Also, in early April 2014, AAH hosted an event for IA officers and soldiers as illustrated by the following photo. The exact location of the photo is not clear, but the presence of the commander of the Baghdad Operations Command suggests that the event took place in the capital region. These are critical illustrations of the growing cooperative relationship between AAH, IP, and IA elements in certain parts of Iraq.
A delegation from AAH while at an IP station in Hurriyah, northwestern Baghdad.
The Commander of Baghdad Operations Command, General Abdul-Amir al-Shammari hosted at an AAH event. The banner read “AAH welcomes the honored guests”
South of Baghdad
Meanwhile, Shi’a militia activity is likely to increase in northern Babel as Shi’a residents observe ISIS consolidation in nearby Jurf al-Sakhar. On January, 1, 2014, Shi’a residents from the Sindij area of Jurf al-Sakhar departed their area for Mussayib after ISIS started to target them and distributed leaflets urging them to leave. One of the displaced residents stated that the terrorist groups appear at night, killing domesticated animals and shooting in the air and at houses. As ISIS became more prominent in this region in early 2014, historically known as the “Triangle of Death,” protesters in Hilla, on behalf of residents in northern Babel, demanded the formation of “popular committees” on March 29, 2014. Popular committees are local security forces endorsed by the government that are formed by area residents.
This is the second call in recent months for the formation of popular committees south of Baghdad. Prominent Shi’a figures, including State of Law Alliance member Adnan al-Shahmani and AAH leader Qais al-Khazali, called for popular committees in September and October 2013 after ISIS targeted Shi’a families in Latafiya with explosives planted in houses (HBIEDs). Khazali spoke about popular committees at an AAH event; Shahmani, however, spoke at a press conference at the CoR. Afterwards banners supporting Shahmani’s statement were posted in areas of Shi’a majority within Baghdad proper, including the neighborhoods of Shula, part of Ghazaliyah , Hurriyah, Kadhmiya, Utaifiyah, and Jkok. The receptiveness of the general public to the idea of popular committee formation to protect Shi’a neighborhoods is an important indicator for how communities in and near Baghdad have regarded their security since.
If popular committees are formed in northern Babel, members of Shi’a militias that prosper in areas with demand for protection may assume positions of leadership. It is important to watch if such committees are formed in Baghdad city as well, and other areas where Shi’a and Sunni communities exist in close proximity, like in Mahmudiya and Mussayib.
The geography of Mahmudiya, which is surrounded by ISIS zones of support or attack (Jurf al-Sakhar and Buhairat to its south, Yousfeya to its west, and Madain to its east, in addition to Baghdad city to its north) and sits on a major highway, makes it an area of great vulnerability and interest to ISIS. Yet, kinetic engagements have generally been low, reflecting the intense overwatch of the ISF in the area.” Lack of success for ISIS in these areas is likely attributable to the infrastructure established by Badr and other Iraqi Shi’a militias in the area.
The district of Mahmudiya, which includes the sub-districts of Latifiya, Yousfeya, and Rashid, has recently shown signs of increasing public presence by the Badr organization. These activities mostly consisted of campaigning by its lead candidate in the area, the director of Badr’s Second Karkh branch, Abu Sadiq al-Mwali. Mwali is campaigning under his real name, Hassan Muhesin al-Sadi. His campaigning included meetings with tribal figures and youth as well as attendance at funerals of civilians and members of Badr who were killed while fighting in Syria. The desire of Badr to campaign in Mahmuduya and the fact that they maintain an office there shows that they have a population that they desire to engage, influence, and most importantly protect.
To the right, electoral candidate of Badr and the director of its second Karkh office, Abu Sadiq while at a commemoration of a Badr fighter killed in Syria.
Badr has not been the only group to express interest in the area of south of Baghdad. Qais al-Khazali also publically announced an engagement with tribal and notable figures from areas including Mahmudiya, Abu Ghuraib, Latifiya, Madain, Sayafiya, and Yousfeya who voiced their concerns regarding takfiri (Sunni extremist) groups. These figures called for Khazali’s help, stating that they do not have enough weapons. Khazali expressed his total support to the security efforts and to the ISF in an exchange that took place in January 16, 2014.
Diyala River Valley
On April 11, 2014 media reports and official statements indicated that unidentified gunmen entered the village of Bodaja, Abara sub-district, northeast of Baquba, opening fire on residents and burning a mosque. According to the report, the gunmen killed 10 individuals and injured two others. Governor of Diyala Amir al-Majmai attributed the attack to “influential” armed groups. On April 13, 2014 Majmai stated that he visited the village and observed the damages to the Haramain Mosque and that he volunteered to fix the structure of the mosque from his own funds. Majmai added that forces from the 20th Iraqi Army (IA) brigade were sent to provide security to the area. He also indicated that “no force” is authorized to enter the village without prior coordination with the IA, likely a message to the Shi’a militias responsible. Majmai also directed that each family be allowed to own a licensed weapon for self-defense. Abara is located east of Khrinabat. According to social media, AAH has a presence in Khrinabat. AAH may not be the only Shi’a militia operating in Diyala, but it is likely that they are active and responsible for some of the mobilized activity observed in 2014.
On April 10, 2014 Member of the Council of Representatives from Diyala Salim al-Juburi stated that there are militias and “death squads” operating in civilian and military attire in Diyala. Juburi added that a meeting took place with the Minister of Transportation, the leader of Badr Organization Hadi al-Amiri, to discuss the security situation in Diyala. Juburi added that a “semi-plan” was put together in order to solve the crisis in the province. On April 11, 2014 former governor of Diyala, Omar al-Humairi stated that the increasing activities of the militias will likely generate a reaction of self-defense and that the “patience of our people” will eventually end. While these statements were likely to garner support for these Sunni politicians before the elections, this rhetoric will increase sectarian tension and polarization.
Recent attacks by ISIS in Diyala have led to the observation of overt Shi’a militia mobilizations. The close proximity of ISIS attacks to areas of Shi’a majority appears to have prompted the militias to mobilize. Moving forward, overt military activities and public appearances, especially armed parades and armed targeting of Sunni areas will be important indicators of this mobilization. More seriously, if these actions take place with similar tolerance from the ISF as witnessed in Buhriz and Mukhisa, particularly in Baghdad, this will further disfranchise the Sunni population. Concerns by the Iraqi Sunni population in these areas will encourage the expansion of operations by ISIS and the tribal military councils (TMCs) into Baghdad, portraying themselves as the defenders of the Sunnis. Such mobilization and counter-mobilization, without the intervention of the ISF, can easily spiral out of control. It will also be important to observe if ISIS will attempt to instigate mobilizations of the militias by attacking a major shrine of significance for Shi’a in Baghdad or elsewhere.
With elections approaching, it is also important to watch for the electoral gains of the political organizations affiliated with the militias. Their political strategies and security strategies are likely linked at a national level, such that gaining influence among local Shi’a communities facing a security threat from ISIS holds electoral promise. Political actors may gain more support from Shi’a populations this way, also potentially discouraging Sunni populations in mixed areas from voting, where the real or perceived threat of Shi’a militia mobilization is a factor. The ability to promise protection may be a decisive factor among competing parties on the final approach to elections.