Iraq’s large and well-armed Shiite militias are now running many of the Sunni areas they helped liberate from the Islamic State, fostering local resentments that could fuel a resurgence of support for the extremist group, like reported by stripes.com.
After winning nearly a third of the seats in parliamentary elections last year, the Shiite militias, including several ideologically aligned with Iran, are enjoying unprecedented military and political power in Iraq.
Their ascension has raised concerns among Iraqi politicians, Sunni residents and U.S. officials that the militia leaders are creating a parallel state that undermines Iraq’s central government and revives the kind of Sunni grievances that underpinned the Islamic State’s dramatic rise three years ago.
During the fight to oust the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State, Shiite militias mobilized to secure holy places and then grew into effective front-line fighters involved in nearly every important battle. They gained legal status in Iraq under the banner of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), bringing 50 militias and approximately 150,000 fighters under nominal government control.
Now, with major combat over, the militias – some with roots dating back to the Saddam Hussein era, others that emerged to fight U.S. occupation after 2003 and yet others that formed in 2014 to fight the Islamic State – are setting their sights on political and economic goals.
They are fanned out across Iraq’s Sunni heartland, including the provinces of Anbar, Salahuddin and Nineveh, home to Iraq’s most-populous Sunni city of Mosul. In Sunni towns, the militias have established political and recruitment offices and operate checkpoints along major roads (and even smaller interior pathways), levying taxes on truckers moving oil, household goods and food.
Some militiamen have engaged in “mafia-like practices,” several Iraqi and U.S. officials said, demanding protection money from both large and small businesses, while shaking down motorists at checkpoints to permit them to pass.
The militias are also deciding which Sunni families are allowed to return to their homes following battles against the Islamic State, say analysts who study the groups. In several towns, militia leaders have compelled local councils to invalidate the property rights of Sunnis on the grounds that they supported the Islamic State. The practice has led to major demographic changes in traditionally mixed Sunni-Shiite areas such as Hilla and Diyala.
With 1.8 million displaced Sunnis still living in camps and in overcrowded shelters, militia efforts to prevent them from returning home contribute to possible radicalization, said Hisham al-Hashimi, a security analyst who advises Iraq’s government and foreign aid agencies. The militias “are an obstacle to the stability of these areas because they are banning the return of internally displaced people,” he said.
Iraqi politicians have proposed significantly reducing the ranks of the militias and either absorbing them into the regular police and army units or designating the PMF as an auxiliary force to be called on during national emergencies.
Powerful militia leaders have resisted such suggestions, arguing that the success of these forces in evicting the Islamic State shows they are essential to Iraq’s national security. They also provide jobs for thousands of Shiites who would otherwise struggle in Iraq’s stagnant economy, their leaders say.