For a few moments, locals in the Dawra area, in southern Baghdad, verged on panicking when they heard heavy gun fire begin. But they could relax. It turned out to be a salute. during a funeral; guns are traditionally fired as a way of commemorating the deceased.
Later on, they discovered the funeral in question was being held for a member of one of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim militias. This was even though the war against the extremist group known as the Islamic State had been officially declared at an end. Whilst often described as controversial, the militias, most of which began as units of volunteers, have played an essential part in the fight against the Islamic State, or IS, group. The man in question had actually died in Syria, in Abu Kamal, fighting against the IS group there.
We are ready to fight in any land where there is injustice. Whether in Syria or Lebanon or even in Yemen, if necessary.
It is clear that certain units of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim militias are still very active. The battle against the IS group has not yet ended in Syria. In Iraq, the country’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, declared victory over them in early December. As a result of the latter, a message came during the weekly prayers in Najaf last Friday: The highest clerical authority for Shiite Muslims in Iraq, Ali al-Sistani, said that now that the Islamic State group had been defeated, it was time to integrate the militias into the existing Iraqi security forces. Al-Sistani also warned against the militias participating in upcoming federal elections, in a statement read by his representative, Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalai.
The religious authorities’ statement had been expected as it was al-Sistani who called the volunteers to action in the first place, at the beginning of the security crisis.
In the political realm, the fate of the Shiite Muslim militias has also been a fraught topic. A number of the different militia leaders had signalled their willingness to hand over their weapons to the Iraqi state and put their fighters under government control.
However, as evidenced by those who are still fighting in neighbouring Syria, not all of them are so willing.
There is a large faction among the Shiite Muslim militias who are referred to as the “loyal” or “resistance” group. This is because they often profess loyalty to Iran rather than Iraq, and they praise Iran for having supported them, both logistically and spiritually.
Some of these groups did exist before al-Sistani’s call for volunteers and had strong links to Iran even then. When al-Sistani called for volunteers, these groups joined the thousands of others who offered to fight and protect their homeland.
One of the these is the Khorasani Brigades. The militia has pictures of Iran’s highest religious authority on the walls of its headquarters and on its military vehicles; senior Iranian general Hamid Taghavi was killed in December 2014 while advising the Khorasani Brigades in Iraq.
“There is a difference between the volunteer factions and the loyal factions,” Abbas al-Muhammadawi, a member of the Khorasani Brigades told NIQASH in a phone interview. “The former fights only in Iraq under the leadership of the Iraqi government while the latter has bigger goals. We fight in any country where the terrorists are present and that includes Syria and elsewhere.”
The Khorasani Brigades have several units. One of these is involved with Iraq’s formerly-volunteer forces, another two are in Syria. “We have decided to put our Iraqi unit at the disposal of the Iraqi government and to return the weapons we received from the state,” al-Muhammadawi continues. “But that does not include our fighters in Syria. Our units in Syria also include Syrian members, not just Iraqis.”
“We are ready to fight in any land where there is injustice,” al-Muhammadawi continued. “Whether in Syria or Lebanon or even in Yemen, if necessary.”
One of the bigger goals of another of the Shiite Muslim militias, the Sayed al-Shuhada Brigades, is apparently also to continue to fight US troops – even though, in the fight against the IS group, both have been on the same side recently.
“We will resist against the Us occupier," a member of the Sayed al-Shuhada Brigades, Abu Fatima al-Darraji, told NIQASH. “We have been taking part in the fight against them in Iraq since 2006. We have inflicted heavy losses on them and we will continue to do so.”
According to al-Darraji, fighters from his group were killed inside Syrian territory in August 2017 and in May 2017 and this was as a result of US air strikes.
Al-Darraji says that his fighters were already battling the IS group in Syria before they actually re-entered Iraq and took control of the northern city of Mosul. “We fought them in eastern Ghouta, and in the Damascus countryside, and many were killed” he says. “When Mosul fell, hundreds of our fighters returned to join new volunteers in battle. We have had many victories in Diyala, Salahaddin and in Mosul and we were also able to push the terrorists out of outskirts of Baghdad.”
This international adventurism continues to cause a major headache for the Iraqi government.
Last Saturday in the city of Karbala, during a ceremony celebrating victory over the IS group, Qais al-Khazali, who heads another Iran-loyalist group, the League of the Righteous, announced that they now had three new enemies: Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia. The latter, in particular, is trying to deceive the Iraqi government, al-Khazali said, with the instigation of better diplomatic relations.
In his speech al-Khazali didn’t forget to thank Iran and the military group, Hezbollah, for their support to Iraq either. This is a common sentiment among leaders of the Iran-loyal militias.
Just two days afterwards, al-Khazali appeared again, this time in a video in the south of Lebanon, near the border with Israel. Dressed in military clothing, al-Khazali said his fighters were ready to stand with the Lebanese and Palestinian people, after the US government’s decision to recognise the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
This isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened either. n March this year, another pro-Iranian militia, Harakat al-Nujaba, announced they were forming a special unit called the Golan Heights Liberation brigade. This refers to the Golan Heights, which belonged to Syria until 1967, after which Israel took control of the area. The Iraqi militia said it was willing and able to take back the Syrian territory from Israel.
Meanwhile Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi is busy trying to calm everyone down. He has denounced the US decision on Jerusalem too, but he also stresses that the Iraqi government is against the use of violence.
Another issue around the less obedient militias that the Iraqi government must be worried about: It is actually illegal for any official Iraqi security forces to fight outside of their borders – that is according to Article 8 of the Iraqi Constitution itself, which preaches “good neighbourliness”. There is some concern that the militias could drag the whole country into an international conflict.
What the Iraqi government can do about these rebel militias remains to be seen. Last week, government spokesperson Saad al-Hadithi said that the militias – known as the popular mobilization units or PMUs - are now an official body and part of the Iraqi security forces. “But factions that are not part of the PMUs no longer have any legal justification for their existence,” he concluded. It was a clear reference to the Iran-loyalists who want to take their fight over the border.