thanks to sunni extremists, baghdad sees return of shia extremist militias
The Shiite Muslim extremist militia, known as the League of the Righteous, is taking an increasingly prominent role in Baghdad’s security. Masked men, who only use nicknames and travel in civilian cars
After Sunni Muslim extremist groups took over swathes of Iraqi countryside earlier this month, the call went out for ordinary Iraqis to take up arms and defend their homeland. While many heeded that call, and in fact many joined the Iraqi army, it also saw more extreme Shiite Muslim militias gain in standing and power.
In particular, the Shiite Muslim group League of the Righteous has taken up arms and become a sort of de-facto military force. The League of Righteous was already allied with Iraq’s current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, also a Shiite Muslim.
This is why League members have started appearing at many of Baghdad’s hundreds of checkpoints, working alongside the Iraqi army, as though they were equal in power. Dressed in black clothing emblazoned with specifically Shiite Muslim religious messages, they help to inspect passing vehicles. Sometimes they even carry out inspections by themselves. Some League members have also been conspicuous at Iraqi army command centres elsewhere in the country.
Members of the League have formed convoys with their own civilian vehicles and they patrol Baghdad’s streets, both in Shiite Muslim and Sunni Muslim neighbourhoods. Some of the volunteers in the newly popular League appear to be very young, not even 15 years old.
League members are cautious, careful and practice stringent security. They never introduce themselves and according to one League member, Abbas al-Kaabi, they often use nicknames and tend not to reveal their real names.
“In some cases our work is better than military or police forces’ work because we are committed to protecting our nation and to protecting our sect, the Shiites, from terrorists,” al-Kaabi told NIQASH.
Asked about how his militia worked with the official Iraqi security forces, he said that although the two groups coordinate, the League is not under the state’s command. “We get our orders and instructions from our own leaders,” he explained. “We will participate in combat missions with the army but we also work separately and we are more than ready to confront the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.”
The latter is the extremist Sunni Muslim group that led the takeover of one of Iraq’s biggest cities, Mosul, in the country’s north.
“We also get a lot of benefits,” al-Kaabi boasted. “We have good weapons, and we use civilian cars. Our members have ID cards that allow them to move freely around the city and country. That’s even in the Green Zone[a heavily protected area that also houses many foreign embassies, including the US embassy] in Baghdad. We have our own offices there,” he noted.
It is generally accepted that the League of Righteous didn’t just start working in this way recently; this has been going on for some time. As far back as 2011, the League’s spokesperson told NIQASH that the group “has good channels of communication” with the Iraqi government. Most recently they actually ran in Iraq’s recent elections and managed to gain one seat, in support of al-Maliki.
And its activities also cross borders as it has fought together with Lebanon’s Hezbollah group in Syria, on behalf of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
According to al-Kaabi, the League has been of great assistance to the Iraqi army, especially in the provinces of Anbar and Diyala, where special League units have clashed with Sunni Muslim anti-government groups who are currently in control of parts of Anbar.
The League of Righteous evolved from out of the huge Mahdi Army, the military group led by cleric Sadr al-Muqtada. The Mahdi Army was held responsible for much of the violence against American troops as well as the conflicts that nearly plunged Iraq into a sectarian, civil war following the 2003 US-led invasion of the country. However over the years, the Sadrist movement has disarmed and emerged as a major political force. The League itself was an off shoot of the Mahdi Army that arrived in concrete form when al-Sadr decided to disarm the Mahdi Army in 2007.
Before the declaration of the ceasefire in 2007, the League of the Righteous, which had existed since around 2004 under different monikers, was described by a senior aide to al-Sadr as a “special task force”. There were a number of such special Shiite forces active at the time, many of them funded, or otherwise supported, by Iran.
Over the past few years, tensions between the now-more mainstream Sadrist movement and the League have continued to grow. At one stage there were clashes between the groups on an almost daily basis. And Prime Minister al-Maliki has even bragged in speeches about how he is not acting in a sectarian way because he has used the League to deal with other Shiite Muslim militias.
Up until recently the extremist League’s role, fighting on behalf of the Iraqi government, was a secret, albeit a fairly open one. However now League members are even more open about publicizing their activities. The League’s official website often carries statements lauding the League’s achievements in battle.
“Most of us hate the League,” Iraqi army officer, Amir al-Rubaie, told NIQASH. “Weapons should only be carried by the official security forces, not by these irregular militias.”
Having said that, he did agree that the League were formidable fighters. “They do not withdraw and they fight furiously,” he admitted. “And the League knows how to fight a street war and inside fortified areas. The regular army doesn’t have as much experience in this kind of fighting.”
Al-Rubaie said that besides resenting the League for their unofficial status, he said that many members of the official security forces didn’t like the militia because they travelled around in vehicles with no license plates and carried unlicensed weapons; basically they could do what they liked because they were directly linked to the government
Today there seems to be a League of Righteous office in almost every Shiite Muslim neighbourhood in Baghdad as well as in any Iraqi provinces where the population is mainly Shiite. The League’s offices recruit new members, monitor security and prevent strangers from entering their areas. They also seem to have sizeable financial backing.
The League is the right hand of Iran in this country and it was created by, and is financed by, Iran’s elite fighting corps, the Revolutionary Guard, says one senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “And now the Iraqi government is also paying for the League,” he said. “The government is happy to pay any price to ensure that Baghdad does not fall to the Sunni Muslim extremists.”
There is a political price to pay for this of course. Iraq’s Sunni Muslim politicians have already accused the League of acting more like a secret police force and that they have been killing and harassing the Sunni Muslims of Baghdad.
And it is clear there are political benefits to the League too. Having clashed with the armed group led by Sadr al-Muqtada previously, they now have the Prime Minister’s permission to roam Baghdad’s streets with impunity. They have considerable power, which must irritate their old foe, al-Sadr, who has been a vehement critic of al-Maliki in the recent past.