SHAFAQNA – Iraq’s prime minister thanked Shiite militias on Monday for helping break a two-month siege by Sunni insurgents on the town of Amirli, a victory speech that showed how the fight against Islamic State extremists is hardening the country’s sectarian divisions. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki omitted mention of the U.S. and Kurdish role in the battle on Sunday. Instead he called the fight “a second Karbala,” drawing a connection to a historic battle that cemented the split between Sunnis and Shiites. The mostly Shiite Turkmen town of 17,000 was running short of food and water during the siege and disease was spreading. Residents received new aid the day after the Iraqi military, Kurdish fighters and Shiite militias launched their coordinated ground offensive backed by U.S. airstrikes. Also on Monday, the joint forces consolidated the territory they retook, driving retreating Islamic State militants from the city of Suleiman Bec to the north. Amirli, about 100 miles north of Baghdad, was secure enough for outgoing Prime Minister Maliki to fly in to celebrate a rare victory against Islamic State fighters. During his speech, he was flanked by Hadi Al Ameri, the minister of transportation and leader of the Badr Corps, a Shiite militia founded in Iran during the 1980s. While praising the role that the militias played, the prime minister didn’t mention the U.S. airstrikes that helped break the siege. The Obama administration pressured Mr. Maliki to step aside recently after it blamed him for marginalizing the Sunni and Kurdish minorities during his rule and deepening sectarian tensions.
For the U.S., teaming up with Shiite militias that terrify Sunnis risked alienating the Sunnis further, something that could undermine American goals of promoting a unified Iraq and encouraging formation of a government that better represents all of the country’s major sects. “We don’t deal with the Shiite militias,” a senior U.S. official in Iraq said on Monday. “But if you don’t acknowledge that they are out there and they are going to be working either alongside or linked in with the Iraqi security forces to accomplish a common goal against a common enemy, then we’re never going to get there.”Iraqi forces on Monday hold up an Islamic State flag captured in the battle for the town of Amirli. Associated Press
That strategy could end up empowering armed groups who have worked against U.S. interests in the past and whose longer-range political goals may undermine the country’s unity. “The Americans’ hands are tied,” said Hayder Al Khoie, an Iraqi analyst at the London-based Chatham House, who called the U.S. position a “contradiction.” The Americans “are trying to help, but the people they are helping are going to be a national-security threat if and when the dust settles,” he said.
Iraq’s weakened national military has grown increasingly reliant on Shiite militias as well as fighters for the semiautonomous Kurdish region, which is already angling for independence. From 2005-07 when Iraq teetered on the brink of sectarian civil war, Shiite militias ran death squads that targeted Sunnis. They were accused of ethnic cleansing, driving members of the rival sect out of entire neighborhoods in Baghdad and other cities. At the same time, Sunnis who formed the backbone of an insurgency blew up Shiite shrines and carried out a campaign of violence against Shiites. The tensions persist until today. Just last month, security officials blamed Shiite militiamen for a shooting rampage that killed more than 70 Sunni worshipers in Diyala province. Many of the Shiite militias are closely tied to neighboring Iran. Such a visible reliance on fighters from the Shiite majority, which accounts for about two-thirds of Iraq’s population, will challenge efforts to disarm the militias in the future and will likely give sectarian Shiites and Iran outsize influence over Iraqi politics for years to come, Mr. Khoie and Sunni politicians warned.Sunni politicians have voiced loud opposition to Iraq’s reliance on Shiite militias in the past. “We don’t really have an army. Maliki just created a sectarian army, working with militias,” said Hamid Al Mutlaq, a prominent Sunni politician. “A lot of criminals, killers and bad people were included.”
Shiite militias such as the Badr Corps, the Hizbullah Brigades, Asaib Ahl Al Haq and the Mehdi Army, have all been accused of abuses against Sunnis.Even though militia leaders insist they will stop fighting once the Islamic State is defeated, few say they plan to give up their arms or their political influence.”When things settle, we won’t work outside the law but we will be part of the ruling system within the law and the constitution,” said Ahmed Al Kinani, a member of the political bureau in Asaib Ahl Al Haq. Mr. Kinani denied that Shiite militias were involved in the Diyala shooting or other abuses.
Write to Matt Bradley at firstname.lastname@example.org