As Shiite militias return to the fight, Iraqi politicians worry about sectarian war

Mohamed Thaban al Shiblawy was prepared for this moment from the time he was a boy, with lessons about the protocols of battle from tribal lore and old photos that show his rifle-toting grandfather astride a horse during the 1920 uprising against the British occupation of Iraq.

Shiblawy, 46, is now emir of his ancient tribe, the Shibil, which claims more than 250,000 members and keeps offices near Najaf in an area locals still proudly refer to as “cannon” after the British armaments they captured nearly a century ago.

So Shiblawy immediately pledged two brigades of his best fighters when Iraq’s highest Shiite Muslim religious authority declared jihad last month against the country’s current enemy, the al Qaida splinter group known as the Islamic State. About 1,000 are now policing the border with Saudi Arabia and another 250 are stationed along a strategic route to Anbar province to the west, part of the massive volunteer effort that rose to fill the vacuum of the Iraqi military’s collapse.

Shiblawy takes personal responsibility for his men’s battlefield conduct, vowing that all of them will stow away their AK-47s when the fighting ends. But Iraq’s powerful tribes are only part of this paramilitary campaign, and there are widespread fears that the irregulars fielded by Iranian-backed political parties will seize the opportunity to reconstitute Shiite militias after years of U.S. and Iraqi government efforts to disband them. In Iraq’s complex mosaic of armed groups, not everyone will exhibit tribal discipline.

“Let me make something clear: this fatwa from the clerics was to defend, not to attack,” Shiblawy said, his tone serious. “Some of the politicians don’t mention that part.”

Nobody involved in the volunteer mobilization questions that these newly formed militias were needed to bolster the overwhelmed Iraqi security forces, which crumbled as Islamic State fighters claimed up to a third of the country. Besides, as Shiblawy points out, the edict from Najaf’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani “was not a request; it was an order.”

Still, as corpses turn up in Baghdad and elsewhere with all the markings of tit-for-tat killings, many leaders wonder how the weak central government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki will be able to prevent the militias from spiraling into death squads that drag Iraq back into the sectarian bloodshed that claimed thousands of lives from 2005 to 2007.

Two blocs are of particular concern to those worried that the new formations might go rogue. One is made up of the supporters of the militant cleric Muqtada al Sadr, whose former Mahdi Army militia has been absorbed into a new defense force known as the Sarayat Salam, or Peace Brigades. The other is a Mahdi Army breakaway group called Asaib Ahl al Haq, or League of the Righteous, which has claimed thousands of attacks on U.S. and Iraqi government targets. It’s led by Qais al Khazali, who was detained by the U.S. military in 2007 and released three years later in exchange for a British hostage the group was holding.

Both factions were deeply involved in previous sectarian warfare but have since gone mainstream, participating in the political process and winning seats in the Iraqi legislature. They’ve also both promised that the volunteers they’re sending in response to Sistani’s call will work only within the government’s framework.

Perhaps alarmed at the speedy reconstitution of these groups, Sistani and other clerics have issued a flurry of statements emphasizing that all volunteers must work in lockstep with the official security forces. Government officials in the south who remember the years of nonstop explosions and assassinations hardly seem reassured.

Najaf Gov. Adnan al Zurufi said Khazali, the leader of Asaib Ahl al Haq, paid him a visit 10 days ago to discuss provincial security and to personally assure him that his men would work through government channels. The meeting was cordial enough, Zurufi said, before adding bluntly: “I don’t trust militias. I just maintain relationships.”

Zurufi was the U.S.-appointed governor in 2004, the same year the Mahdi Army fought American forces in the first Shiite uprising of the war. He left office in 2005 after losing an election but returned as governor in 2009 and made it his personal mission to rid Najaf’s streets of outlaw gunmen. Under his rules, Zurufi said, even possession of a pistol could bring prison time _ that is, until the Islamic State offensive forced Sistani to issue his landmark fatwa.

“Last month was the worst month of my life, seeing people carrying weapons again in the city,” Zurufi said. “ISIS pushed us back. Everything we built over 10 years is now at zero.” ISIS is a reference to the Islamic State’s previous name, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

“Now these groups can say, ‘Sistani made a fatwa, we have to go to jihad,’ Zurufi added. “But they’re just trying to put themselves back into society.”

In Najaf alone, 65,000 volunteers have answered Sistani’s call, said Khaled al Jashaami, who heads the security committee on the provincial council. He said 5,000 already have been trained and are deployed only on the outskirts of the city to prevent the sight of plainclothes gunmen in urban areas. He said the paramilitary forces are under strict orders to answer to a uniformed security officer.

And that’s just one part of what Jashaami described as a multi-pronged, $4.5 million crisis plan for Najaf. Within days, he said, a police committee will finish selecting another 4,000 men for an elite combat brigade that as of yet doesn’t have a name. In addition, two other backup brigades already are training at the city’s soccer stadium and police academy.

Jashaami said the government estimates only 1,500 forces from political parties are training outside the state structure, adding that even they so far have shown a willingness to coordinate.

The country’s security collapse was so dire, he said, officials have little choice but to accept militiamen and hope they stick to their word.

“The government has been working to demobilize militias for years, but unfortunately the plan the government had in place to fight terrorism was a failure,” Jashaami said. “The reliance on corrupt military commanders has dragged us to where we are now. Since the breakdown, it’s been a necessity to rely on volunteers, militias, whatever you want to call them.”

Hussein al Sharifi, an official with Sadr’s movement in Najaf, said the concern over the Mahdi Army’s return is precisely why a more conciliatory name was chosen for this latest incarnation of the militia. He helped to organize a recent parade of the “Peace Brigades,” whose fighters marched through confetti while brandishing assault rifles and rocket launchers.

Sharifi boasted of 100 brigades in Najaf, with exponentially more in the movement’s strongholds of Amara, in the deep south, and Sadr City, in Baghdad. He said the government initially was reluctant to accept their help, but warmed to the idea after Sadr issued a statement saying he wanted no part of “dirty militia wars.”

Now, Sharifi said, more than 1,000 of Sadr’s followers have been sent to the northern city of Samarra, to protect a golden-domed holy site. He was asked whether the brigades needed any government help or training.

“Did you see our parade?” he replied, with a chuckle. “We’re fully equipped.”

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