Shia Counteroffensive Against ISIS In Iraq, A Pandora's Box

Supervised and armed by Iran, young Shia volunteers have launched a major battle against ISIS in Tikrit. But taking revenge on local Sunnis is not likely to pacify the region. And what about Uncle Sam?

Shia soldiers look over an ISIS-controlled area near Kirkuk, Iraq
Shia soldiers look over an ISIS-controlled area near Kirkuk, Iraq
Hélène Sallon

OWAINAT — On the road between the cities of Samarra and Tikrit, the militiamen of the People’s Mobilization (PM) had been watching the southern gate into Tikrit for months. Watching, and waiting.

This spot in north-central Iraq is where ISIS territory began. But finally, at dawn on March 2, thousands of fighters left the village of Owainat, the government’s last forward operating base located 150 kilometers north of Baghdad, to go through the arch ornamented with a reconstitution of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock and recapture Tikrit, which also happens to be Saddam Hussein’s birthtown, after it had fallen into the hands of the ISIS jihadists on June 11, 2014.

The beginning of this large-scale operation, backed by the Iraqi air force and artillery, was launched by Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi.

Alongside the army and police elite and regular forces, most of the 30,000 troops mobilized in Tikrit consist of units from the PM (also called Hashed al-Shaabi), a backup government force that experts say is made up of of 60,000 to 90,000 men.

After the defeat of the security forces in Mosul last June, the Shia militias gathered within the PM — including the League of the Righteous, the Badr Brigades, the Hezbollah Battalions and the Peace Brigades — coming to the rescue of then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to stop ISIS’ advance toward Baghdad. They were joined by thousands of Shia volunteers who mobilized in response to the call of the Shia spiritual leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani.

“The war is fought by young men, who left their jobs and families to defend Iraq for $500 per month. They know they will die, they’re facing a monstrous enemy, but the previous victories against Daesh the Arabic acronym for ISIS encourage them,” explains Mohin Al-Qadhemi, the military commander of the Badr Brigades.

Supreme leaders

Many only learned to handle a weapon from a member of their family. Others went through a short training program. “The training is not the most important. What’s important is faith and religion,” says Karim Al-Nuri, the military commander of Badr and spokesman of the PM.

At the checkpoints and in the liberated areas, flags to the glory of the Shia imam Hussein, pictures of Iraq's Al-Sistani and of the Iranian Supreme Ayatollahs, Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei leave no doubt as to the ideology that drives them.

These young volunteers pay a heavy toll in the suicide attacks perpetrated by ISIS. “We have sacrificed many martyrs,” admits Abu Sejad, the commander of the regiment in the Omaiyat locality.

The victories they achieved in the outskirts of Baghdad and in the Babel, Diyala and Saladin provinces owe much to the experience gained by the Shia militias in the struggle against Saddam Hussein’s regime, as well as the subsequent American occupation.

Founded with the support of Iran, where many of their commanders withdrew before 2003, they are extremely loyal towards Tehran. Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian elite Quds Force, often there on the battlefield, like this Monday in Tikrit, appears to be the real man in control.

“Iran provides us humanitarian, weapons, ammunition and military material. Without Iran, we would be in great difficulty,” confirms Abu Khartan, a 50-year-old volunteer. The military officials assure the help comes through the Iraqi government and not directly.

To take back the birthplace of Saddam Hussein would avenge the massacre of some 1,700 mostly Shia recruits by ISIS last year. But there are already reports of Shia militia exacting their revenge on the local Sunni civilian population. It is a scenario that continues to raise fears that Iraq could descend into all-out sectarian war.

Hostility towards the U.S.

But there is also the returning clouds of foreign influence in Iraq. The Iraqi alliance with Iran and the presence of people placed on the American list of terrorist organizations (since the American occupation from 2003 to 2011) puts the international coalition against ISIS in an awkward situation.

Since the beginning of its engagement in Iraq, foreign support has only backed the Shia forces in Amirli (northeastern Iraq) and Jurf Al-Nasr (southwest of Baghdad). It is absent from the battle of Tikrit that just started.

“The Iraqi government didn’t ask for our help,” a Pentagon spokesperson clarified.

If some militias begrudgingly accept Western air support, others, conforming to decades of Iranian policy, are clearly hostile towards it. Ibrahim Al-Jaafar, spokesman of the Hezbollah Battalions, one of the groups under the Shia PM umbrella, actually accuses Western coalition forces of supplying ISIS with ammunition and weapons, delivered by helicopter. “We will shoot at every helicopter that provides help," declares Al-Jaafar. "Our number one enemy is the U.S.”

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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