07/25/2023, 20.01
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Who are the pro-Iranian militias that threaten coexistence and peace in Iraq?

Card Raphael Louis Sako, Patrairch of the Chaldean Church, issued his first statements from Erbil after he was compelled to leave Baghdad. In it he describes a situation in which too many political divisions are driving the country apart and undermining the Iraqi state. Experts note that ethnic militias are the result of repeated exclusions of various ethnic and religious groups by those in power over the years.

Erbil (AsiaNews) – Archbishop Raphael Louis Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldean Church, released a statement yesterday, his first from Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, after he left the patriarchal see in  Baghdad in protest against Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid’s decision to withdraw recognition of the prelate’s status under pressure from the Babylon Brigades,  a pro-Iranian Christian militia that seeks to seize the assets of the Chaldean Church.

For the patriarch, “Amid Iraq's current difficult and complex circumstances, and the severe conflicts the world is witnessing, there is a need for cohesion, moral and national consensus, and the rejection of fanaticism and hatred, to save the country from escalation that is dragging it to an unfavourable end.”

According to Card Sako, Iraqis must engage in a serious national debate to regain their lost harmony. “This consensus requires serious dialogue among all parties, including the Sadrist movement, to put the public interest at the forefront”. The goal is to achieve “respect for human rights, justice, safety, and stability; provide services; develop education, health and the economy; in short, build a real state, abandoning individual and partisan interests, and ending the existence of incompatible states.”

The patriarch’s remarks describe well the current confrontation pitting Iraq’s political forces against one another, above all pro-Iranian militias – not only Shia, as it is often reported, but also Sunni, Christian (like the Babylon Brigades) and Yazidi groups.

Known since 2014 as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMFs), these groups started out as seven armed militias that emerged in the wake of the US invasion of 2003, taking on a major role between 2014 and 2017 fighting against the Islamic State (IS).

Afterwards, they became (in theory) paramilitary entities attached to Iraq’s armed forces, reorganised under the then Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, only to become increasingly fragmented, fighting for power.

The main militias directly financed by Iran are Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haqq, and Haraka Hezbollah al-Nujaba, part of the original group; they claim to represent the "resistance" (Arabic: muqawama) against the United States and foreign forces targeting Iraq.

Another group that has played an important role in contemporary Iraq is the Badr Organisation. Set up in the 1980s as an armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, it had as a model Iran in the wake of the revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini, operating for decades along the border between the two countries.

After the US invasion, it moved at least 10,000 fighters to Iraq and over time, boosted by the power base it developed in the country, morphed into a political organisation.

Since mid-2019, the various have reportedly carried out at least 500 attacks against activities deemed unislamic,  especially around Baghdad, as well as Turkish interests (Turkey is Iran's main rival for control of the oil and gas fields in Iraqi Kurdistan) and US interests, in particular after the assassination by the United States of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani and the Iraqi commander of the Badr Brigades, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

The aim of the violence is to increase pressure on foreign forces and gain support among certain sections of the Iraqi population, experts believe. Violent acts have been made easier since late last year, when the Sadrists - the followers of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr - withdrew from the government and were replaced by pro-Iranian members.

Among Shia militias, some subgroups are not funded by Iran, such as the Saraya al-Salam led directly by al-Sadr, but also Shia armed groups loyal to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose base is in Najaf, Iraq’s main Shia centre.

Many of these groups left the PMFs in March 2020, placing themselves under the direct control of the Iraqi military, in open conflict with other Shias.

Some Sunni, Christian, Yazidi and Turkmen militias are pro-Iranian; Turkmen are the third largest ethnic group in Iraq after Arabs and Kurds. Some members of the Sinjar Resistance Forces joined the PMFs as the 80th Brigade.

Turkmen brigades, which seemingly recruit both Sunni and Shia, joined the other Iraqi militias in 2014. The Salah al-Din Brigade, the 51s , is the main Sunni group after fighting alongside the Shias against the terrorists of the Islamic State.

The best-known Christian militia is the Babylon Brigade under the command of Rayan the “Chaldean", a group that is closely aligned with the Badr Organisation and Iran, and is directly funded by Iran and includes Shia Muslims from southern Iraq.

In the past, the brigade was accused of corruption and illegally seizing Assyrian Christian assets and land in the Nineveh Plain. In March of this year, the local population and the Nineveh Plains Protection Units drove out the Babylon Brigade,

The Quwat Sahl Ninawa, a militia composed of ethnic Shabak men, operates in the Nineveh Plain, particularly near the city of Bertella. The Shabak believe that their origins are different from the Arabs and the Kurds. They control the road between Mosul and Erbil.

According to analysts, the current situation is a direct consequence of the successive exclusions of ethnic and religious groups in Iraq’s post-2003 political system.

In “states with high levels of ethnic inclusion, if representatives of large or wealthy communities fail to acquire a due share of ministerial positions, higher levels of political violence are expected,” writes scholar Clionadh Raleigh.

In Iraq, where sectarianism has been included in its 2005 constitution, the purpose (at least the stated one) of militias is to defend their group from domestic threats (other religious, ethnic or political groups) or external threats (foreign powers).

Despite the youth protests in 2019 – and repeated appeals by the Chaldean Church – against the country’s sectarian political system, the militias are now an integral part of the Iraqi state, experts say, since the barrel of the gun seems to be the only way to be heard after repeated failures of the political process in the last 20 years.

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