The Other Powerful Threat
To Iraq's Future
By Robin Wright
To Iraq's Future
By Robin Wright
ISIS is not the only threat in Iraq. The future of the state—its mere viability—is being challenged by increasingly powerful militias sanctioned by the U.S.-backed government. Some have engaged in war crimes, human rights groups now allege.
The militias may be the short-term hope for beating back the Islamic State, since the Iraqi army disintegrated last summer and is at least three years away from being fully retrained and reassembled, according to the Pentagon.
But long-term, major militias are also engaging in behavior not all that different from ISIS, also known as Islamic State and ISIL. Rather than recreate modern Iraq, their behavior could deepen Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic divisions and complicate the country’s ability come back together again, if and when ISIS is pushed out of the oil-rich country.
The militias have kidnapped, abused, forcibly displaced and even executed fellow citizens, especially in Sunni areas, according to two international human-rights groups. Homes have been torched, whole communities terrorized by militias firing guns in the air to force compliance.
The latest incident involved an alleged mass execution three weeks ago in Barwana, in Diyala Province. Armed men from militias and security forces reportedly escorted them from their homes and then summarily shot them.
“The Iraqi government and its international allies need to take account of the militia scourge,” Human Rights Watch said in a new report released Sunday. “Any effective response to ISIS should start with protecting civilian lives and holding those who abuse them to account, especially in areas where people have already suffered from ISIS occupation and attacks.”
The existence of these sectarian, unregulated and unaccountable militias is both a cause and a result of the country’s growing insecurity and instability,” it said.Abuses are reportedly widespread. Thousands of people have been detained or simply disappeared across central and northern Iraq in recent months. Scores of bodies have been found handcuffed and shot in the back of the head in other parts of the country, Amnesty International reported in October.
The government is implicated because militias are operating with varying degrees of cooperation from Iraqi security forces militias, whether tacit consent or joint operations, it noted. The government has also either armed or allowed the militias to have arms, Amnesty reported. The problem is that the militias are now have the upper hand.
Shiite militias also now outnumber the Iraqi military, The Washington Post reported Monday. They have between 100,000 and 120,000 fighters, more than double the number of Iraqi fighting forces, now estimated at around 48,000.
“Militias are not subordinate to the regular forces. On the contrary, they appear to have more authority and effective power on the ground than the beleaguered government forces, increasingly seen as weak and ineffective,” Amnesty said.
“For these reasons, Amnesty International holds the government of Iraq largely responsible for the serious human rights abuses, including war crimes, committed by these militias.
Shiite militias are the main problem, both groups charge. Their abuses have been carried out largely in Sunni and mixed-sect areas. ISIS is Sunni and views Shiites as apostates.
Amnesty cited evidence of civilian abductions and executions by Shiite militias in Baghdad, Samarra and Kirkuk, even when families paid tens of thousands of dollars in ransom.
In a Wall Street Journal opinion article in December, Prime Minister Hadi al Abadi vowed to bring all armed groups under state control. “No armed groups or militias will work outside or parallel to the Iraqi Security Forces,” he pledged.
But his government has failed to rein them in, Human Rights Watch reported. As a result, civilians are increasingly vulnerable.
“Iraqi civilians are being hammered by ISIS and then by pro-government militias in areas they seize from ISIS, said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch. “With the government responding to those they deem terrorists with arbitrary arrests and executions, residents have nowhere to turn for protection.”