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As Iraq’s Shiite militias expand their reach, concerns about an ISIS revival grow

Shiite fighters in the Popular Mobilization Forces secure the border area with Syria on Nov. 12, in Qaim, in Iraq’s Anbar province. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s large and well-armed Shiite militias are now running many of the Sunni areas they helped liberate from the Islamic State, fostering local resentments that could fuel a resurgence of support for the extremist group.

After winning nearly a third of the seats in parliamentary elections last year, the Shiite militias, including several ideologically aligned with Iran, are enjoying unprecedented military and political power in Iraq.

Their ascension has raised concerns among Iraqi politicians, Sunni residents and U.S. officials that the militia leaders are creating a parallel state that undermines Iraq’s central government and revives the kind of Sunni grievances that underpinned the Islamic State’s dramatic rise three years ago.

During the fight to oust the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State, Shiite militias mobilized to secure holy places and then grew into effective front-line fighters involved in nearly every important battle. They gained legal status in Iraq under the banner of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), bringing 50 militias and approximately 150,000 fighters under nominal government control.

Now, with major combat over, the militias — some with roots dating back to the Saddam Hussein era, others that emerged to fight U.S. occupation after 2003 and yet others that formed in 2014 to fight the Islamic State — are setting their sights on political and economic goals.

They are fanned out across Iraq’s Sunni heartland, including the provinces of Anbar, Salahuddin and Nineveh, home to Iraq’s most-populous Sunni city of Mosul. In Sunni towns, the militias have established political and recruitment offices and operate checkpoints along major roads (and even smaller interior pathways), levying taxes on truckers moving oil, household goods and food.

 Some militiamen have engaged in “mafia-like practices,” several Iraqi and U.S. officials said, demanding protection money from both large and small businesses, while shaking down motorists at checkpoints to permit them to pass.

The militias are also deciding which Sunni families are allowed to return to their homes following battles against the Islamic State, say analysts who study the groups. In several towns, militia leaders have compelled local councils to invalidate the property rights of Sunnis on the grounds that they supported the Islamic State. The practice has led to major demographic changes in traditionally mixed Sunni-Shiite areas such as Hilla and Diyala.

With 1.8 million displaced Sunnis still living in camps and in overcrowded shelters, militia efforts to prevent them from returning home contribute to possible radicalization, said Hisham al-Hashimi, a security analyst who advises Iraq’s government and foreign aid agencies. The militias “are an obstacle to the stability of these areas because they are banning the return of internally displaced people,” he said.

Iraqi politicians have proposed significantly reducing the ranks of the militias and either absorbing them into the regular police and army units or designating the PMF as an auxiliary force to be called on during national emergencies.

Powerful militia leaders have resisted such suggestions, arguing that the success of these forces in evicting the Islamic State shows they are essential to Iraq’s national security. They also provide jobs for thousands of Shiites who would otherwise struggle in Iraq’s stagnant economy, their leaders say.

Farmland lies barren

The Sunni town of Qaim, near the Syrian border, has emerged as a striking example of militia dominance.

In November 2017, Islamic State militants were run out of Qaim by Iraqi security forces and allied Shiite militias. A month later, Iraq’s leadership declared total military victory over the Islamic State — prompting a wave of optimism throughout the country and, in particular, among Qaim’s wheat and produce farmers. They returned to the town in droves, eager to resume livelihoods that had been on hold for more than three years. 

But Shiite militiamen declared the approximately 1,500 farms in Qaim to be a security zone, preventing the farmers from coming back.

Today, 1,000 acres of farmland remain barren. The terrain is dotted by ruined farming equipment and armed men. Banks that lent the farmers money before the Islamic State occupation — and suspended repayments during that period — have come calling.

“Their existence has disabled the economy in Qaim,” said Rabah Assi, a farmer who has had to rely on the far less lucrative practice of sheep herding to survive.

The militias, in particular the Kitaeb Hezbollah group that dominates Qaim, also control the roads in and out of the strategic town and a border crossing with Syria just south of Qaim. They use it to move their militiamen into Syria to fight alongside forces aligned with Iran, which supports the embattled Syrian government. With the Trump administration now planning to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, the influence of Iran and its aligned militias could grow even more in that country.

In addition, militiamen have established a second, improvised border crossing used to import cheap produce and goods from Syria to sell in Qaim’s markets, said veteran lawmaker Mohammed al-Karbouli. 

He said Kitaeb Hezbollah and other Shiite groups have mostly refrained from abusive practices, which were common several years ago. Karbouli and others in town credit the militias with maintaining security, but describe the calm as uneasy.

Sunni tribal leaders have lobbied the militiamen to leave the farms and allow the farmers to resume their work but have been rebuffed. Farmers complain that the ban is not a security measure, but rather a move to ensure the militias have a market for the goods they are smuggling from Syria.

“Now, it’s an agricultural season and . . . we are losing money,” said farmer Sabah al-Sanad, referring to the winter rains.

The presence of Kitaeb Hezbollah and the Iran-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq also make life uncomfortable for the U.S. military, which maintains a small outpost in Qaim, known as Station 22, where military advisers are training Iraqi army forces and helping them control the border.

Iraqi and Western officials say they worry Iran could use the militias to confront U.S. forces in Qaim should current tensions between Washington and Tehran escalate.

Gains for the militias

Under Iraqi law, the PMF is a security force separate from the Iraqi armed forces and police and is technically under the command of the prime minister. In practice, the groups answer to the leaders of individual militias.

Iraq’s new prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, has shown little sign of wanting to rein them in. He has given the militias concessions his predecessor, Haider al-Abadi, resisted and has repeatedly spoken of the militias as a valued part of the country’s political and security establishment.

“If that is your plan, that’s going to lead to instability,” warned a Western official based in Baghdad, who was granted anonymity to speak frankly about the militias. “Some Sunnis have bought into it for the time being, because they say we don’t really have a choice.” 

But Shiite militia control over the lives of Sunnis will surely prompt some to seek common cause with the Sunni militants of the Islamic State, the official said.

In November, PMF militias secured a major political victory. Abdul Mahdi agreed to a draft proposal that would put PMF salaries on the same scale as those of Iraq’s police and regular armed forces and double the annual budget of the militias to $2 billion.

Abdul Mahdi has also been unable to block the nomination of PMF leader Falih Alfayyadh as interior minister by a parliamentary faction of militia leaders, a move that has been repeatedly challenged by other lawmakers as well as by Moqtada al-Sadr, the powerful Shiite cleric whose electoral ticket won the most seats in parliament.

A senior commander in the U.S.-backed Counterterrorism Service said Abdul Mahdi’s moves have emboldened the militias while undermining Iraq’s national security. The commander, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve working relationships with the militia leadership, said PMF troops are not as well trained as regular Iraqi forces and are not equipped to guard borders and maintain a regular security presence inside cities.

The sectarian nature of the militias also prevents them from effectively conducting intelligence work, which relies on building trusted relationships with Sunni communities.

“And it is no secret that the most powerful militias are not loyal to Iraq’s religious or civilian authorities,” the commander said. “They will put Iran’s interests first.”

Karbouli, the lawmaker from Qaim, said that the military and electoral gains achieved by the Shiite militias have entrenched them in Iraq’s power structure and that their influence will be hard to roll back.

“The PMF say that they are part of Iraqi armed forces, but the fact is they are being controlled by their own political parties,” he said. “In the current circumstances, it will be very hard to keep their weapons in the control of the state. No one can control them, not even Superman.” 

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