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How could the militias in Iraq become so strong?


Iraq is firmly in the hands of militias who have been attacking US military positions for months. What role do these armed groups play in the Middle East conflict – and what drives them?

Tilo Spanhel

It is a new phase in the escalation spiral between pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and US forces: With the killing of three US soldiers by Iraqi militiamen at the end of January, this escalation appears to have reached a new high. But how could it come to this?

There are dozens of militias, i.e. armed groups, in Iraq. Their power is closely linked to the country's history. Today they are even considered to be the actual puppet masters in Iraq, as a state within a state, explains Inna Rudolf. She works at the “International Center for the Study of Radicalization” at King's College in the UK and has been researching militias in the region for years.

“The pro-Iranian militias in Baghdad have successfully infiltrated the administration of the Iraqi state. In addition, friends and allies and agents of these militias then exert influence in all three branches of government – i.e. the executive, legislative and judicial branches,” says Rudolf.

Fight against IS

Most militias gained their popularity decades ago in the armed resistance against the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Because he has oppressed the Shiites – a religious ethnic group in the country – for decades, locking up or murdering many Shiite Iraqis. Many then fled to neighboring Iran, where some of them were trained and armed as fighters.

The Shiite fighters underlined their “hero status” with their fight against the terrorist organization “Islamic State” (IS). During this time, the so-called Hashd al-Shaabi, which means “popular mobilization units,” were proclaimed. A kind of umbrella organization of more than 60 predominantly Shiite militias that have been at the forefront of the bloody fight against IS in recent years.

Officially, the Hashd al-Shaabi are now part of the Iraqi armed forces and follow the direct command of Prime Minister Mohammed Shia' al-Sudani. In reality, however, most of the approximately 60 militias operate outside of the official command structures.

“The Americans are not doing anything good for us Arabs”

If you want to understand what drives the militias, you have to go to Sadr City – a district in northern Baghdad that the militias have firmly in their hands. The simple concrete buildings that line the large, dusty streets here are often not even plastered. Petrol is sold illegally from plastic bottles on many street corners.

It is dangerous for Western journalists to speak openly with residents or militia members here. So we meet Abu Zeinab in a smoke-filled back room of a small café. “Basically, the Americans are not doing anything good for us Arabs. I'm telling you, the Americans are the devil in this world,” he says.

The 46-year-old is part of the Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba militia. Just like the pro-Iranian commander killed by the US in January. Abu Zeinab is not wearing a uniform for the interview, but is rather inconspicuously dressed – blue jeans and a dark jacket. “God willing, the Americans will withdraw from Iraq because of our pressure and our drone strikes,” he says. These attacks are their right. “We are not subject to any control. We are an independent country.”

Many Iraqis criticize the USA. In this picture, supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric al-Sadr burn a poster of US President Joe Biden during a demonstration in November in support of the Palestinians and against US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's visit to Iraq.

The proximity to Iran

US positions in Iraq, Syria and Jordan were attacked with missiles or drones – controlled by militant groups – more than 160 times between the beginning of October and the end of January. Experts assume that Iran supports many of these Iraqi militias politically, financially and, above all, militarily.

Abu Zeinab also confirms the proximity to Iran: “Most of our leaders lived in Iran for 15 or 20 years. They ate, drank and lived like the Iranians. Iran is our supporter.” He says he has “become the source of resistance for many.” “It is Iran that supports the resistance forces in the region.”

Disagreements within the militias

The Shiite militias in Iraq, together with the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and various militias in Syria, form the so-called Islamist resistance axis, which was once declared by Iran. But even if the majority of the Hashd al-Shaabi militias in Iraq follow the calls from Tehran, it would be wrong to assume that they are a unified bloc that receives instructions from Iran and then blindly carries them out, says Islam expert Rudolf.

“There are differences of opinion even within the pro-Iranian militias, which see themselves as part of the resistance axis,” said Rudolf. “In the context of my own interviews that I conducted on site, I also had the impression that many people are really convinced that even if they contradict the formal instructions of the Iraqi Prime Minister and act against them, that they are doing so in the interests of Iraq state do.”

An unstable country

The fact that the militias were able to become so strong is not least due to the weakness of the Iraqi state. Despite oil reserves worth billions, it is unable to adequately supply a large proportion of its citizens. According to United Nations estimates, more than a quarter of Iraqis live in poverty and a third of young people are unemployed. But instead of investing in infrastructure, education or social programs, the income from the oil business is seeping away in a bloated civil service and disappearing due to corruption among the political elite.

Even if the Hashd al-Shaabi have learned to exploit this vacuum, many Iraqis today increasingly see the militias as a danger. The voices of political opponents and people calling for democratic reforms are repeatedly suppressed with armed force. This is a dangerous development, say experts like Rudolf. It would further endanger the already fragile stability in the country.

Tilo Spanhel, ARD Cairo, currently Baghdad, tagesschau, February 3, 2024 8:25 a.m

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