Iraq’s bleak options against renegade Shia militias

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The Iraqi establishment needs to urgently dismantle the Shia militias operating inside the state but does it have political and military means to do so?

Last week, a massacre and bombing in the course of a single day brought into focus the lawlessness that Shia militias had descended into and the absence of political and military might to make them relinquish their hold over large parts of the country. Formed in 2014 to help the Iraqi Army clear the lands of the Islamic State, they have overstayed their welcome and have now become a source of sectarian strife. Numbering nearly 40, these militias have been accused of roaming the liberated lands harassing Sunnis, subjecting them to atrocities and preventing them from returning to their homes.

The bombing of the Kurdish Democratic Office party offices in Baghdad on Saturday comes just after the Iraqi government, working with the Kurdish government in Irbil, announced a rehabilitation plan for Sinjar that will see the return of displaced refugees and the dismantling of the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilization Units. The Shia outfits have been in Sinjar since 2015, using it as a gateway into Syria. It is becoming clear that these groups will not give up their fiefdoms without a fight.

And this fight will be messy and unpredictable. These militias are openly aligned with Tehran and were all under the command of the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani who was assassinated by the United States this January. They have been accused of targetting the Green Zone in Baghdad with rockets aimed at the US embassy. While things have been quiet recently this is even more of a concern with the worsening tensions between Tehran and Washington. And the fact that it can’t protect diplomats in its own capital is a great embarrassment to the Iraqi government.

Some of these Iran-affiliated groups were absorbed into the state security system while others continue to operate as a state within a state. How a showdown between these entities will play out is anyone’s guess. Especially since pro-Iran actors have steadily climbed up the ranks in Iraqi political and security circles and Tehran is able to subtly exert an outsized influence over matters. It is going to be a tricky affair for the government to get a proper handle on the security situation and regain the trust of the citizens, Shias included.

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