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Iraq

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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