The Iraq Report: Shia Islamists rise as IS evaporates

The Iraq Report: Shia Islamists rise as IS evaporates
7 min read
23 November, 2017
This week in Iraq: IS lose final town, Hizballah declares 'Mission Accomplished', Shia militias continue illegal operations in Syria and militia leaders banned from running for election.

The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.

The forces of the Islamic State group have finally lost their last urban territory in Iraq after a lightning offensive launched by pro-government forces who defeated the militants in a matter of hours. IS fighters are primarily in the desert area near the Syrian border in Iraq's Anbar governorate, which has historically been used by insurgent groups in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003. It remains to be seen whether Baghdad will successfully be able to mop them up, or if they will slip away to regroup.

With IS' downfall as a group able to hold territory in Iraq, the rise of sectarian Shia Islamist militias will now be one of the most serious threats faced by the country. Militias have long formed their own political parties, and are keen on taking part in general elections set for May next year. Although Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has vowed to prevent them, he is likely to face severe problems as these militias answer to a greater power than himself – Iran.

IS lose final Iraqi town, gear up for guerrilla warfare

The Iraqi government declared victory against IS last Friday, hours after launching a lightning offensive to retake the last IS-held town in Iraq. Brigadier General Yahya Rasool stated that Iraqi forces and allied militias retook the town of Rawa near the Syrian border after only five hours of fighting.

Rawa lies on the Euphrates River in the Anbar governorate, 175 miles from the capital Baghdad. Due to its proximity to Syria, many IS militants fled to safety across the border, according to Naeem al-Kaoud, a local government official. IS fighters are now holed up in Anbar's vast desert, which has historically been utilised by various insurgent groups to avoid detection by government forces and their allies, including the United States.

Between 2003 and 2011, various Iraqi armed groups – ranging from nationalists to extremists like al-Qaeda – used Anbar's deserts to hide as they conducted a long-term guerrilla warfare campaign against the US military. The Anbari desert became notorious for the high number of US military personnel killed or severely wounded by these factions, many of whom recruited high quality soldiers from the former Iraqi military which was disbanded by US military governor Paul Bremer in 2003.

With US ground assets greatly reduced, and Washington's increasing reliance on its airpower while Baghdad and pro-Iran paramilitaries conduct ground operations, the Iraqi desert has once again become the obvious safe haven for militants seeking to survive and, potentially, thrive.

Now that IS no longer controls any significant territory in Iraq, it will become easier – and cheaper – for them to conduct more traditional guerrilla warfare attacks against the federal government, Shia Islamist militants and pro-Baghdad Sunni tribal fighters. If Abadi fails to live up to his promise of an equal Iraq for all irrespective of ethnic or sectarian differences, then these militants may one day find themselves able to move from the deserts and back into the cities.

Hizballah declares 'Mission Accomplished' in Iraq

With the news that IS had been defeated in Rawa and had lost all its major territorial holdings in Iraq, the Lebanese Shia militant group Hizballah declared that IS was finished, and that they would soon begin to depart from Iraqi territory to redeploy elsewhere.

Ironically echoing a similar speech made by former US President George Bush Jr in 2003, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised address on Monday that his group's mission had been accomplished in Iraq, and that they would withdraw once Iraq had formally declared victory over IS.

"We consider that the mission has been accomplished, but we are waiting for the final, Iraqi announcement of victory," Nasrallah said. "If we find that [the war against IS] is over, that there is no need for the presence of these brothers [Hizballah fighters], they will return to be deployed in any other arena that needs them."

At Iran's behest, Hizballah deployed experienced commanders and fighters to act as trainers and advisers to various factions within the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces, or Hashd al-Sha'abi in Arabic.

The PMF and Hizballah share a common benefactor in Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and many factions within the PMF have similar logos and banners to the Lebanese Shia militant outfit.

Astonishingly, Nasrallah also accused the United States of aiding and abetting Islamic State group fighters.

"The Americans secured ways for IS to move around in Albu Kamal [across the border in Syria]. There were no air strikes aimed at them and they did not allow the Russian and Syrian air forces to strike," said Nasrallah.

Nasrallah's accusations against the US follow more than three years of an intensive US-led air campaign against IS that has been credited with being the decisive factor behind the militant group's failure to hold onto territory. Analysts have long commented on how the Iraqi government and pro-Iran Shia militants struggled against IS until the United States provided extensive air support that helped pin IS fighters down and destroy them.

Iraqi Shia militias continue illegal operations in Syria

Hizballah is not the only pro-Iran outfit operating in Iraq. Many groups that Hizballah helped to train and equip – such as Asa'ib Ahl ul-Haq, Kata'ib Hizballah, and Harakat Hizballah al-Nujaba – banded together with the encouragement and support of the IRGC to form the PMF.

The PMF was formally incorporated as a part of the Iraqi armed forces as a parallel to the army by Prime Minister Abadi, and is led by men closely linked to Iran including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, blacklisted by the US as a terrorist.

Due to their loyalties to Iran, PMF units have frequently operated in neighbouring Syria, siding with President Bashar al-Assad and his regime against the Syrian revolution. The Iraqi Hizballah spinoffs played an integral role in last December's regime and Russian assault against Aleppo, participating in the bloody battle that led to thousands of civilian casualties, many of whom were Syrian Sunni Arabs.

The PMF has continued to operate in Syria, despite the near total victory claimed by the Assad regime and the fact that the Iraqi premier had repeatedly stated that he would not permit the PMF to conduct extraterritorial operations beyond Iraq's borders.

In video footage posted by several outlets online, notorious IRGC general Qassem Soleimani was spotted posing for selfies with Iraqi PMF fighters in eastern Syria. The cameraman can be heard saying in Persian that the footage was of the Shia "mujahidin" in Albu Kamal, a town in eastern Syria that was recaptured by pro-Assad forces on Sunday, just across the Iraqi border. Shia militants speaking with the Iraqi dialect can be seen crowding around the Iranian commander, clamouring for opportunities to take selfies.

Although Abadi had banned the PMF from fighting in Syria, it is clear that they do not take orders from their commander-in-chief as members of the Iraqi armed forces, but rather they follow the lead of Iranian military figures.

Shia militia leaders banned from running for election

Apart from disobedience abroad, Abadi's authority has also been tested by Shia militants at home who have continued to put forward candidates for political office despite the prime minister's repeated insistence that he would not allow militias to field nominees for office.

In his latest such warning to the Shia militias, Abadi said over the weekend that militiamen seeking political office must first lay down their arms and enter civilian life first.

"There must be a clear separation between political and armed groups," Abadi said, warning that he will block militias from fielding candidates in both provincial and national elections next year.

However, parties are governed by the Iraqi High Electoral Commission which has the power to allow any group to form a party. The commission has frequently been the subject of fierce popular demonstrations, after having been accused of corruption and allowing candidates to run for office illegally. This was most notably protested earlier this year by the Shia Sadrist bloc, led by firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Although Abadi has repeatedly pledged to ban militias from politics, he has been unsuccessful since he came to office in 2014. The Badr Organisation – one of the largest and most powerful pro-Iran militias in Iraq – controls the interior ministry and has members of parliament. Also, hardline Shia Islamist militants in Asa'ib Ahl ul-Haq were granted permission to form a political party and field candidates in local and national polls by the commission last May.

As such, Iraqis are sceptical that Abadi will have the necessary power and influence to overrule Iranian desires. Tehran is able to draw units from the Iraqi armed forces to fight under its banner in Syria, and it is able to influence Iraqi institutions to grant licenses for militant groups to form political parties. Abadi is likely powerless to stand up to such extensive Iranian influence.

The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.

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