In August, Islamic State militants seemed poised to seize Amerli, a Shia Turkmen town in northern Iraq. Had they done so, there’s little question the result would have been mass slaughter—just like happened when the Islamists captured the Kurdish Yezidi town of Sinjar.
But a force of Shia Arab militiamen from southern Iraq came to the town’s rescue, holding off the Sunni militants until American air strikes zeroed in. Soon Kurdish Peshmerga fighters also arrived, and together the Shias and Kurds drove back Islamic State.
But the battle had a troubling epilogue. Many Sunni Turkmen have fled Amerli. And the Shia militia have ransacked and burned Sunni homes in nearby villages. There are also reports of Sunni Arabs and Turkmen in surrounding villages being abducted, likely by Shia militiamen.
These sectarian militias represent yet another vexing aspect of an already convoluted regional war. They’re backed by the Iranians, endorsed by the government in Baghdad and, for now, tolerated by the Americans.
Peshmerga forces have cooperated with the Shia paramilitary groups against their common foe. But some Kurdish commanders are growing uncomfortable with the militias’ shady tactics. And now the Shia militiamen have reportedly barred Peshmerga from entering Amerli.
One frustrated Peshmerga commander derisively called the militias the “Shia Islamic State” while talking to a Reuters reporter. The Peshmerga have good reason to be wary of their erstwhile allies. The Shia militias have earned a reputation for special ruthlessness.
When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, ousting Sunni leader Saddam Hussein, many of Iraq’s majority Shia were happy to see him go. Though the country’s future was far from certain, many Shia were excited at the prospect of greater representation in the government.
But the excitement was short-lived as many former members of the disbanded Iraqi army—out of work and resentful of the invaders—launched a Sunni-led insurgency.
Then in August 2004, the radical Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada Al Sadr launched his own uprising in the city of Najaf, targeting the American led-coalition and the fledgling Iraqi government.
Al Sadr is the son of a revered Shia cleric and the founder of the Mahdi Army, a Shia sectarian militia. The insurgency was now no longer strictly Sunni.
The uprising was, in part, a reaction to an attempt by coalition authorities to ban a newspaper Al Sadr and his followers were publishing. The Americans feared the cleric was using the paper to promote a sectarian agenda that threatened the reconstruction and reconciliation process.
Coalition and Iraqi troops moved into the city. They killed 159 Mahdi fighters and captured 261. Thirteen American and 40 Iraqi troops died in the battle. By September, the coalition and Al Sadr reached a ceasefire agreement, ending the battle. But the Mahdi army didn’t disarm—and certainly didn’t go away.
Many went to Baghdad’s Sadr City—a Shia slum neighborhood—to continue guerrilla operations against the Americans. Other Mahdi Army and affiliated Shia fighters began intensifying operations against British forces in southern cities such as Basra. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps actively supported these efforts.
During the 2005 Iraqi elections, Al Sadr backed several hard-line Shia candidates, many of whom got elected and attained high positions in the Iraqi National Assembly and in provincial governments. They would become known as the Sadrist bloc.
The Sadrists promoted policies that favored the country’s Shia majority, while also being notoriously anti-Sunni. At this time, Sadrists also began infiltrating the Iraqi security forces, particularly the police, and also various ministries.
By the time the Sunni militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq bombed the ancient Golden Mosque—one of Shia Islams’ holiest sites—in 2006, there were Sadrists at every level of the Iraqi government.
The bombing escalated what some had downplayed as mere “sectarian tensions” into a full-blown civil war. The Sadrists wanted blood.
A wave of sectarian killings washed over the country. Mahdi militiamen wantonly abducted Sunnis off the street in broad daylight, summarily executing entire families. The police—overwhelmingly Shias themselves—often looked the other way, forcing American and British troops to try to find kidnapped people.
Sunni militants fought back by intensifying their bombings and assassinations.
One of the most disturbing aspects was the presence of Shia death squads loyal to Al Sadr operating within the security forces. At night, police would often pick up Sunnis, saying they were taking them in for questioning.
But they would never arrive at the station. When families asked about their loved ones, police would deny knowing anything. The victims’ bodies often turned in a river or some alleyway.
Bodies piled up on the streets. Shia militiamen began getting involved in rackets and demanding protection fees. Thuggery became the norm. Now the Shia fighters were even robbing fellow Shia. At the same time, the Al Qaeda operatives’ own brutality in the west was turning Sunnis against them.
It was this bloodbath that the Pentagon’s surge campaign in 2007 was meant to stop. The goal was to clamp down on the violence, protect civilians and give Iraqi leaders some room to settle their differences.
The surge saw the fiercest fighting for coalition forces since the invasion. Nearly 900 Americans died in 2007. But far fewer Iraqi civilians died.
A separate coalition effort rooted out Shia militia members and death squads from the Iraqi security apparatus. In 2008, coalition and Iraqi forces launched a major crackdown on the militias, the Mahdi Army in particular. Eventually Al Sadr reached an understanding with the Iraqi government and in August 2008 he ordered the Mahdi Army to disband.
But by November 2008, he had unveiled his new militias, the Promised Day Brigades. Basically, a rebranded Mahdi Army. But its members insisted they represented a kinder, gentler sectarian militia.
Despite Al Sadr’s antics, the overall trends seemed positive. As security improved, markets reopened and Sunni and Shia friends and neighbors reunited. The Sunni tribes in the north seemed ready to negotiate with the Shia politicians in Baghdad. It appeared the worst was over.
Not so fast
But the surge failed. No doubt it was a stunning military achievement—it successfully squashed Al Qaeda in Iraq and forced the Shia militias to the negotiating table. But the surge did not achieve any of its political goals.
Thousands of American and Iraqi troops died achieving the security that should have allowed Sunni and Shia leaders to settle their differences. But the Iraqi politicians squandered the opportunity.
Shia prime minister Nouri Al Maliki continued the same sectarian policies that had embittered northern Sunnis in the first place. He flatly rejected overtures by former Sunni fighters who had turned against Al Qaeda during the Anbar Awakening.
The Sadrist bloc in the National Assembly extended sectarian policies that marginalized northerners.
When Islamic State—including many former members of Al Qaeda in Iraq—moved into Al Anbar province from Syria, some Sunni militias that had participated in the Anbar Awakening fought back.
They begged Baghdad for help. The response was ambivalent. The government sent just a few reinforcements. Islamic State was able to capture Al Anbar’s major city Fallujah.
Sunnis overwhelmingly decided once again that the Shia-dominated Iraqi government was untrustworthy. Sunni tribal fighters for the most part stopped fighting Islamic State. In fact, many Sunni fighters decided to join the Islamists, having decided that they had more in common with the militants than they did with the mostly Shia Iraqi army.
Guess who’s back
In June, Islamic State marched on Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest and most diverse city. The Iraqi army crumbled. Many commanders fled before the fighting even started.
When Iraqi soldiers realized that their leaders had deserted them, they panicked. Many abandoned their uniforms and equipment and tried to flee south. Islamic State captured and executed thousands of them.
The collapse terrified many Shia leaders in the south. But for Al Sadr, it was a chance to reassert himself. He proclaimed his followers would “shake the ground” as they fought back.
Not long after the fall of Mosul, Shia militiamen marched through Sadr City. Once again, they flew the banner of the Mahdi Army. The militias are back in a whole new way, re-energized for a new war.
Among them are many Iraqi army deserters, some of whom survived Mosul. Others simply left the army, saying they want to fight against Islamic State, but that they don’t trust Iraqi army generals. They say they have more faith in militia leaders.
The desperate government has given the militias free rein. Militia volunteers been marching north along Iraqi army supply routes, fighting along the way. They’ve also been patrolling cities in the south.
In August, someone murdered 29 women at a brothel in Baghdad. People in the neighborhood say they suspect hard-line Shia militias. Sunnis in Baghdad have reported harassment by the militias, as well as kidnappings and disappearances.
Just like 2007.
Although the militias have a working—if incredibly strained—relationship with the Peshmerga in the north, they’ve been targeting Kurds in the south. Militiamen have beat up and threatened Kurdish college students at southern Iraqi universities. Many Kurdish students are now too afraid to go to Baghdad and finish their exams.
The battle in Amerli marked a turning point. U.S. air strikes in direct support of the Shia militias—America’s former enemies—have granted the militias more legitimacy than they ever could have hoped for during peacetime. Much to the Americans’ chagrin.
But they also threaten to undermine Iraq’s political development. As they harass Kurds and kidnap Sunnis, they further fuel Iraq’s fundamental conflict.
More than one Peshmerga officer has told War is Boring that moderate Sunni Arabs are critical to defeating Islamic State. But it’s problematic convincing Sunnis to turn against Islamic State when the alternative is another hard-line militia—a Shia one.