Why you should care
Because they’re battling for influence.
The author is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College. He’s reported from Iraq, Myanmar, South Sudan and Thailand, and his writing has appeared in The Daily Beast and USA Today.
Iraq has all the trappings — from fancy hotels and restaurants to luxury resorts — of a wannabe capitalist state. But it also has well-armed militias gaining a media and political voice that may pose an even bigger threat than ISIS to regional stability.
Earlier this year, I traveled to the 37 million–strong republic to learn more about the Shia fighters defending Baghdad and taking on the extremists. Owing to a shortage of army recruits, Iraq’s government has turned increasingly to irregular militias — managed by autonomous businessmen, politicians and warlords — to bolster the Iraqi Security Forces. Many analysts have focused on the obvious dangers of a so-called “failed state” relying on paramilitaries for security — namely foreign interference and war crimes. The largest Shia militias have been accused of taking orders from Iran and participating in ethnic cleansing.
They and the international community shouldn’t worry about Shia fighters disobeying the Iraqi government; they should be scared stiff that the militias could become alternatives to the government.
But it’s not their foreign connections or sectarian tendencies that worry me most. The Shia fighters, in fact, have all pledged nominal allegiance to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and some have even tried reaching out to ethnic and religious minorities, offering humanitarian aid to those displaced by the Third Battle of Fallujah. Instead, it’s the Shia militias’ actions off the battlefield — in Iraqi civil society, media and politics — that scare me most. They’re portraying themselves as part of “the establishment,” and everyone seems to be buying it.
The Badr Organization, the largest and oldest of the Shia militias, for example, has a political party and its own television channel. Its politicians run Iraq’s interior ministry, while its reporters film scenes from the battlefield alongside foreign correspondents from Western TV channels. Just as you might watch CNN or CBS for updates about the U.S. election, many Iraqis look to Badr’s channel, Pond TV, for the latest on the fight against ISIS. The theory? If folks like what they hear, they’ll increasingly vote for Badr politicians, thereby enhancing the militia’s legitimacy.
The Peace Companies, loyal to Iraqi and anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, take a different approach. They support anti-corruption activists and demand reform; they even stormed the Iraqi parliament this May. Badr, tied to the spoils system of the Iraqi government, and al-Sadr, responding to popular anti-government voices, even came close to clashing when the cleric’s followers overran a building where Badr’s parliamentarians were staying.
The ongoing violence has many Iraqis wondering why they should support a government that has failed to provide security when they can find support from militias loyal to their neighborhood or party. After ISIS conducted the deadliest suicide attack in Iraq’s history last month in Karradah, a commercial Baghdad district, killing nearly 300 people, residents asked Shia militias to step in.
Policymakers often express concern that militias act outside their control, but that’s missing the point. They and the international community shouldn’t worry about Shia fighters disobeying the Iraqi government; they should be scared stiff that the militias could become alternatives to the government. Even American officials have had to work with al-Sadr and a warlord — considered a terrorist by the U.S. — to resolve disputes with Shia militias because the Iraqi government lacked the ability to do so.
Abadi recently boosted the militias’ street cred by labeling them a permanent “military formation,” as opposed to “militias.” Young Shia fighters on the front lines told me: “We report directly to the prime minister, and we only follow his orders,” which is true. In theory. But in practice, the militias have shown they have no problem disobeying the government. And unlike the government, Shia militias work to present a positive image of themselves — a contrast I experienced firsthand. When I toured Fallujah with the military TV channel of Kata’ib Hezbollah, its militiamen protected me. But when I toured the front lines with the federal police, the government’s convoy forgot me altogether, leaving me in the middle of the desert.
If Shia militias can cater to a foreign journalist better than Iraq can, no wonder so many Iraqis are protesting on al-Sadr’s behalf and voting for Badr’s politicians. The militias’ soft power is undermining what little authority Baghdad has left.