PUERTA DE ORIENT Who are the pro-Iranian militias that threaten coexistence and peace in Iraq

The Patriarch of the Chaldean Church, Raphael Louis Sako, issued his first statement from Erbil, after his forced transfer from Baghdad. His words describe the situation in which Iraq finds itself, ravaged by too many political divisions that could bring it to an end. According to experts, the militias are the result of the repeated exclusion of different ethnic and religious groups, operated from time to time by the various leaders in power.

Erbil () – “In the current difficult and complex circumstances in Iraq and in the face of serious conflicts facing the world, encounter, moral and national consensus and the rejection of fanaticism and hatred are necessary to save the country from escalating and being dragged to an unfavorable end”. These are the words of the first statement issued yesterday by the Patriarch of the Chaldean Church, Archbishop Raphael Louis Sako, from Erbil. A few days ago, the cardinal had to take refuge in the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan after leaving the patriarchal seat of Baghdad. The decision was taken as a protest against the withdrawal of recognition by Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid and pressure from the Babylon Brigades, a pro-Iranian Christian militia that wants to seize the assets of the Chaldean Church.

According to the Patriarch, a serious national confrontation is necessary to restore Iraq’s lost harmony. This is achieved by placing “in the foreground the public interest, respect for the rights of the Iraqi people, the pursuit of justice, security and stability, the development of services and education, health and the economy, thus building a true state and abandoning individual and partisan interests, putting an end to the existence of incompatible states.”

The patriarch’s words describe the current clash of political forces in Iraq, whose main protagonists are the pro-Iranian militias – not only Shiites, as they are usually portrayed, but also Sunnis, Christians (such as the Babylon Brigades) and Yazidis. Known since 2014 as the Popular Mobilization Forces, they emerged from an original core of seven armed groups that already existed in Iraq at the time of the 2003 US invasion. They began to play a prominent role between 2014 and 2017, when they fought against the Islamic State (ISIS), and then became (theoretically) an armed wing of the Iraqi army thanks to a reshuffle by former Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi.

Today, however, the militias are increasingly fragmented and are fighting for power. The main ones are financed directly by Iran and take the names Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haqq and Haraka Hezbollah al-Nujaba, part of the original group, and claiming to be the “resistance” (Arabic: muqawama) against the United States and foreign forces alleged to have designs on Iraq. Another group that has played an important role in contemporary Iraq is the Badr Organization, which emerged in the 1980s as the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq – modeled on a similar one that emerged in Iran after the Khomeinist revolution, and which for decades operated along the border between the two countries. After the US invasion, the Badr group transferred at least 10,000 fighters to Iraq and, over time, the militia – thanks to the power it had acquired on the national scene – became a political organization.

Since mid-2019 – and in particular after the assassination (by the United States) of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani and the Iraqi commander of the Badr Brigades, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis – there have been at least 500 attacks by these groups. They have occurred against US and Turkish targets (Ankara is Iran’s main opponent for control of Iraqi Kurdistan oil and gas fields) or against activities considered un-Islamic, especially around Baghdad. According to experts, the aim of the violence is to increase pressure against foreign forces and to obtain the consensus of certain sectors of the Iraqi population. Since late last year, the violence has been facilitated by the withdrawal of the Sadrists – the followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr – from the government, and later the redistribution of their seats among candidates close to pro-Iranian militias.

Among the Shiite militias there are subgroups that do not receive funding from Tehran – such as the Saraya al-Salam led directly by al-Sadr – but there are also Shiite armed groups loyal to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose base is in Najaf, the political center of Shiite Islam in Iraq. Many of these groups have not been part of the Popular Mobilization Forces since March 2020. They are under the direct control of the Iraqi armed forces with a front of friction within the Shiite world.

There are also pro-Iranian Sunni, Christian, Yazidi and Turkmen militias (the Turkmen are the third largest ethnic group in Iraq, after the Arabs and Kurds). Some groups from the Sinjar Resistance Forces have joined the Popular Mobilization Forces as the 80th brigade. The Turkmen brigades, which claim to recruit both Sunnis and Shiites, joined the other Iraqi militias in 2014. The Salah al-Din Brigade, the 51st, is the main Sunni formation and fought alongside the Shiites against Islamic State terrorists.

Among the militias that call themselves Christian, the best known is the Babylon Brigade, commanded by Ryan, nicknamed “the Chaldean” – as we have already said, it is an organization that maintains close ties with the Badr Organization and Iran. In the past, the group has been accused of corruption and illegally seizing property and land from Assyrian Christians in the Nineveh Plain. In March this year, the local population, with its own regiment of men from the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, repelled the militia, which not only receives direct funding from Tehran, but is also made up of Shiite Muslims from southern Iraq. In the same region, and particularly near the town of Bertella, the Quwat Sahl Ninawa is also stationed, a militia made up of men from the local Shabak ethnic group, who consider themselves to be of a different origin than Arabs and Kurds. It is they who control the highway connecting Mosul and Erbil.

According to analysts, the current situation is a direct consequence of the successive exclusions of ethnic and religious groups in the post-2003 Iraqi political system: “In states with high levels of ethnic inclusion, if representatives of large or wealthy communities do not get a certain share of ministerial posts, higher levels of political violence can be expected,” explained academic Clionadh Raleigh. In fact, since sectarianism entered Iraq with the 2005 Constitution, the goal (at least the stated goal) of militias is to defend themselves against internal (other religious, ethnic, or political groups) or external (foreign powers) threats. Despite the 2019 youth protests – and repeated calls by the Chaldean Church – against the sectarian political system, the militias are to all intents and purposes part of the Iraqi state, experts say. After the repeated failures of the political process of the last two decades, the only way for their voices to be heard is to take up arms.

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Written by Editor TLN

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