The Militias of Baghdad

Sadr City residents carry weapons as part of a local auxiliary militia to defend Baghdad, June 14, 2014. Ayman Oghanna/The New York Times/Redux

Down a dusty backstreet in the Baghdad neighborhood of Karada in November, I met Sheikh Raad al-Khafaji, a former Iraqi Army officer specializing in artillery and a veteran fighter from the days of the Iran-Iraq War. He is head of the Al-Khafaji tribe and a commander in the Kata'ib Hezbollah militia, one of the Shiite militias at the forefront of the fight against ISIS, or the Islamic State, in Iraq.

After the fall of Mosul this summer, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa calling on Iraqi "citizens to defend the country, its people, the honor of its citizens and its sacred places." That is, to come and defend their religion in a holy war against ISIS.

Sheikh Raad says that in the days after Sistani's fatwa, men as old as 60 came to his small offices begging to fight to hold back ISIS and Sunni-led insurgents.

According to Iraqi Deputy National Security Adviser Safa Hussein al-Sheikh, the Kata'ib Hezbollah militia, founded in the months leading up to the 2003 American invasion, is known for being smaller and more organized than the other Shiite militias—and is considered highly secretive and proficient, even by Iraqi intelligence standards.

"In the past, they had focused more on American targets—sophisticated, lethal, organized attacks that were not penetrated by the American or Iraqi intelligence," al-Sheikh says.

Iraqi security forces and Shi'ite militias advance towards town of Amerli from their position in the Ajana, Sept. 1, 2014. Reuters

When I visit, the 58-year-old Sheikh Raad sits wearily in his office, wearing battle fatigues and several jeweled garnet and turquoise rings. With him is his young fourth wife, who surprisingly has her dark hair uncovered and is heavily made up, dressed in tight trousers and high heels. She wants to film his conversation on her cellphone.

He sees no irony in the fact that his current financial backer, Iran, was his former mortal enemy. "Saddam imposed that [the Iran-Iraq War] on the Shiite people in Iraq and Iran," he says. "It was Saddam's fault. Not the fault of Iran."

He says Kata'ib Hezbollah has about 4,000 fighters (Iraqi intelligence puts the figure closer to 1,000) who are "experienced from fighting in Amerli and Samarra, but also have past experience fighting with Hezbollah in Syria."

He goes back and forth to Syria, largely to protect Shiite shrines near Damascus. Much of it is done around the town of Sayyidah Zaynab—Lady Zaynab—a southern Damascus suburb that has a Shiite shrine of the same name.

Some of his men, he says, were paid up to $700 a day by Iran to fight in Syria, but in Iraq they are getting far less. He says Iran is arming his men with weapons—AK-47s, 12.7 mm heavy machine guns (these are often mounted on the backs of pickup trucks—so-called "technicals") and PKCs, lighter, 7.62 mm machine guns used in many former Soviet Bloc and Middle Eastern countries.

"Here, we are fighting for justice—for our faith—not for money," Sheikh Raad insists. "And don't forget there is a big difference between Hezbollah in Iran and Hezbollah in Iraq. Philosophically, we have the same enemies—Daish [ISIS] and Israel—but we are fighting here for justice."

One of his fighters, Wissam, 34, comes in, showing Sheikh Raad some photographs of captured explosives he took in Amerli, the northern Iraqi city that was heavily fought over and considered a turning point in the battle against ISIS.

A former vegetable seller from Sadr City, Wissam spent 60 straight days in Amerli and surrounding villages in July and August.

He says he did not even question abandoning his job and his life in Baghdad to head to Amerli to fight. "After the fatwa [from Sistani] I just drove up to northern Iraq in my own car with a few friends," he says. "There was no rank with our fighters, everyone was given a gun and told to fight—with that, we were all equals." Fortunately, Wissam says, he had some military training with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), so he was put in charge of logistics and arms. Other fighters did not have as much experience, he says.

"I am moderately religious, not extreme, but when I heard the fatwa, I went to fight without a salary. It's not about the money. It's about defending your country," he says.

Iraqi men line up for physical examinations at the main army recruiting center to volunteer for military service in Baghdad, Iraq, July 9, 2014, after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle insurgents. Karim Kadim/AP

To understand the presence of Shiite militias in Iraq today, and the increasing sway of Iran, you have to go back to the legacy of the mass graves.

Shortly after Saddam Hussein, a Sunni who had systematically repressed the majority Shiites for decades by cracking down on their political parties and crushing Shiite movements, fell from power in April 2003, human rights workers and U.S. investigators began exhuming graves where thousands of Shiites and ethnic Kurds had disappeared.

It is unclear how many Shiites died during the Saddam years, but the figures range from 400,000 to 700,000 people. Near Baghdad one grave alone held nearly 15,000 bodies. In another, near the southern city of Samawah, more than 72 were discovered, mainly women and children.

It is believed that up to 60,000 Shiites disappeared from Baghdad during those years and ended up in pits of earth. Years later, when Saddam was finally gone, relatives would stand at the open graves, desperately trying to find something that could link them to their lost.

"I just wish I could feel him, touch him, see him," said the sobbing mother of one of "the disappeared," Hilu Issa, who went missing in 1980 at the age of 25. (I spoke to her in May 2003 just after the U.S.-led invasion.)

The image of her vanished son remained frozen in time. "I need to know what happened to him," she said.

Saddam's men typically came at night and took people away without warning. Issa's mother never saw him again.

The day after Saddam's fall from power, with the city in chaos, it was finally possible to put together pieces of the puzzle. In al-Haakimiya, a notorious Mukhabarat (secret police) prison used during his reign, I and an Iraqi colleague found evidence of brutal torture: restraints, blindfolds, torture instruments with hardened blood still on them, cells the size of bathtubs where desperate men had scrawled messages to the families they would never see again.

"To my beloved children," one wrote, with a pointed object that might have been his fingernail because the words on the wall were stained with blood, "Don't give up hope."

In postwar Iraq, the political tables flipped. After the American invasion, it was the Shiites who were in power, the Sunnis who were being hunted.

When Haider al-Abadi, a moderate Shiite, was designated prime minister last August, he promised that his government would be more inclusive, and break the cycle of revenge and vengeance between Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis.

But it is still hard to find any Shiite family that has not, in some way, been touched by Saddam's brutality and that does not still bear, in some way, a grudge or at least a desire for justice.

Last January, Nouri al-Maliki, the then-prime minister and a Shiite dissident under Saddam who held strong nationalistic ideals, launched a bombing campaign in Anbar province, which is largely Sunni, apparently with the intention of driving out jihadists—i.e., ISIS.

But human rights groups were concerned that the bombs were landing not just on the insurgents but also on civilian targets and neighborhoods, in particular hospitals and residential areas. They saw the Anbar campaign as another widening of the endless sectarian conflict. As the bombing went on, it also became apparent that the ISF was simply not up to handling the job of pushing back ISIS.

This opened the door to the Shiite militias.

"What happened then is that some smaller Shiite groups proposed they would join the fight," says al-Sheikh, at his office in Baghdad. "That was their first operation. There were initially probably only a couple of hundred Shia militiamen fighting then, until the fall of Mosul. Then it went in a different direction."

When Mosul fell on June 10, 2014, a wave of terror went through Baghdad. Rumors and truths flew through the crowded markets and streets: ISIS fighters were a mere 12 miles from the city; ISIS was killing Shiites and raping Shiite women; ISIS had come to destroy all Shiites.

Then came what the Baghdad morgue director called a "spike" in the number of Sunni disappearances and murders in the capital: clear reprisals for the ISIS killings. One June morning, he showed me and other reporters' photographs of the work of the Shiite militias: Sunni men tortured, beaten, dead, their bodies thrown into fields, bloated and purple.

"It's starting again," he said, foreseeing a reprise of the bloodiest period of the civil war, in 2006.

He also meant that the Shiite militias were back in control—filling in the military vacuum the ISF had left—but this time as protectors of the people, with the government heavily relying on them.

"They call themselves jihadists, not militias," says al-Sheikh. "They learned their skills from fighting American occupiers before they left." (The Shiite militias are believed to be responsible for a large proportion of the American combat deaths during the occupation.)

This brings up another element in Iraq—the increasing reliance and influence of Iran, the Shiite regional giant. Ever since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, governments inside and outside the Arab world have feared Shiite fundamentalism. But today in Baghdad, the men who rose up to fight against ISIS in the wake of its overrunning Mosul are overwhelmingly Shiite. And they clearly have a religious as well as a military agenda.

Their money comes largely from Tehran, as do their weapons and best trainers, according to various sources in the Iraqi government and foreign analysts. The memory of a bitter war fought between Iraq and Iran from 1980 to 1988, in which nearly 1 million men died, seems very far off.

Part of this resurgence of the Shiite militias is Sistani's fatwa.

The rush of Shiite men of all ages—some in their 60s who had fought in the Iran-Iraq War—was staggering. They crowded to three or four central recruitment centers in Baghdad and were vetted, and about half of them were immediately dispatched to the belt of Baghdad. They then fanned out to fight ISIS alongside what was left of the demoralized ISF.

Five months on, with the American-led campaign to "degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIS under way, the Shiite militias are the backbone of the Iraqi military operation.

Besides their American experience, their training comes from the recent battlefields of Syria. Many were sent to help protect the Shiite shrines from the Syrian Sunni rebels.

Some Iraqis insist there is nothing to fear from Iran's presence in Iraq. They also say, in many ways, their allegiance lies with Iran. "Who arrived here to save us three days after Mosul fell?" asks Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a member of parliament and a former national security adviser (and best known as the man who led Saddam to the gallows and requested the guards loosen his handcuffs).

"Not the Americans. They only sent abysmal airstrikes three months later when their citizens [the journalists James Foley and later Steven Sotloff, and Peter "Abdul-Rahman" Kassig] were beheaded. The speed of the Iranian response to Baghdad and Erbil was the next day."

The Iranians sent 88 Russian-made Sukkhoi ground attack jets within weeks. They also sent their best fighters to train and advise—members of the elite Republican Guard. They sent pilots, weapons, and uniforms.

They also sent their military mastermind, Qassem Soleimani, leader of the Quds Force, whom many military leaders regard as an excellent, and highly strategic commander.

While usually secretive, Soleimani allowed himself to be photographed last September on the battlefields of Amerli, clearly sending a message to the West that Tehran was very present.

"He is here often in Baghdad and northern Iraq," said one of Iraq's leading Shiite politicians who asked to remain anonymous. "Of course the Iraqi government knows about this. He is smart. He is also a man who loves war. He knows he is good at it."

As to why Iraq would trust Iran with their bitter legacy and so many dead, al-Rubaie shrugs. "We are faced with an existential threat—ISIS. You use any means in this case. You use any means."

Many Iraqis see the militias as crucial. Sajad Jiyad, a London-based analyst with the Iraqi Institute for Economic Reform, explains: "The militias are very powerful—but post-June they became even more so because there was a vacuum.

"They have good resources and committed fighters," Jiyad says. "Most of the Shia communities that suffer from car bombs and suicide attacks are actually glad to have their protection."

And the fact that they are backed by Tehran? "The U.S. has to reconcile with Iran," says al-Rubaie. "With or without a nuclear deal. A U.S.-Iranian reconciliation will be a huge contribution to the stability of the region."

Iraqi Shi'ite militia fighters patrol in the town Amerli on Sept. 3, 2014. Reuters

One of the main militias, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or the League of the Righteous, has leaders who have been jailed on terrorism charges during the U.S. occupation. Asaib is the group most loathed by Sunnis, who see it as a threat to their security. The militia is believed to have a large criminal backbone, which is sometimes, but not always, true.

"When anything bad happens in Baghdad, Asaib get blamed," says al-Rubaie, making the militiamen sound more like naughty schoolboys than hardened killers.

They are thought to be responsible for the rash of kidnappings of local businessmen, which is said to be up to several dozen per day (one Iraqi politician put the figure as high as 50).

"The Sunnis hate the militias because they target them without much intelligence, just mass arrests and intimidation," says Sajad. "The government is too weak to challenge the militias, and at the moment they are relying on them to push back ISIS in certain areas."

Another militia is the Badr Brigades, formed in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War. A third is Kata'ib Hezbollah. Added to this are many other splinter groups that have risen up in various Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad.

In response, the Iraqi government is trying to take control. While they see the Shiite militias as an integral part of their fighting apparatus, they are also concerned with the mayhem that might be unleashed.

Following Sistani's fatwa, and the rush to the front lines, government committees were formed to rein in the militias. They all came under a loose umbrella called al-Hashd al-Sha'bi Forces (Popular Mobilization Forces).

But asking militias to work together, even with a common goal like their hatred of ISIS, is daunting. Even government officials like al-Rubaie admits, "They are not yet melded together."

What is clear is that they have filled a vacuum that was left by the ISF, which was described under al-Maliki as riddled with corruption, nepotism, lack of discipline and inefficiency on every level.

It came as no surprise—even to the government—when some of the ISF members ripped off their uniforms and ran away from their positions as ISIS invaded Mosul.

"They were utterly demoralized," said one American military official who has worked extensively with the ISF.

In January 2012, in the wake of the American troops pulling out of Iraq, al-Rubaie, foreseeing disaster with such a weak infrastructure in the military, sat down and composed a handwritten note to al-Maliki.

"The security forces suffer from a cancer," he wrote. "They will collapse at the first stage of a coup d'état."

Al-Rubaie sent it, but al-Maliki did not respond.

"I hate to say, I told you so," al-Rubaie says today. "But I resent the note on June 16, 2014, after Mosul collapsed."

For its part, the new government recently fired 26 top-ranking members of the security forces in an effort to show it was revamping their ranks. But one Western diplomat complained, "It's hardly a start. They were all men ready for retirement, who needed to get cleaned out anyway."

So into this chaos step the Iranian-backed militias, fighting against ISIS and securing a string of hard-won battlefield victories: the crucial town of Baiji, Amerli, Diyala. And now they are focused on taking back Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, with soldiers leaving Baghdad en masse.

With the militias, however comes Iran's powerful political and religious influence. The question is, What will happen to Iran when ISIS is eventually destroyed? (which al-Rubaie reckons might be three to five years militarily, but seven to 10 years ideologically).

Will the Iranians be willing, after this kind of investment, to pack it all in and go home?

Probably not, says al-Rubaie, but he says it's time the West softened its "allergic" stance on Iran.

It's not hard to spot the militias—they are all over Baghdad. While government officials frequently say they wear ISF uniforms, many of them don't—preferring the classic black fatigues, and Shiite religious flags outside their headquarters.

Most of the Shiite neighborhoods have a local recruitment office where fighters are initially drawn, before being sent off to central stations to begin training. Often they are seen lingering on the streets at nightfall, acting as unofficial footmen patrolling neighborhoods.

"In east Baghdad they have some strongholds where the locals make up a good size of their recruits, and the Shia areas prefer them to the regular police/ISF for security of their areas," says Sajad Jiyad. "They are seen to do a better job."

Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (R) attends the funeral of fighters loyal to his Brigades of Peace, who were killed when an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded near the town of Amerli, in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Sept. 3, 2014. Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters

There are even some Sunnis who rely on the militias.

Hikmat Sulayman, a provincial council member from Anbar and a Sunni, says that the Shiite militia fighters have gained such a strong reputation that in early November, one Sunni tribal leader, Gazi Faisal, went to Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Sadrist movement who commands the Mahdi Army and its offshoot Saraya al-Salam, for help.

It was a bold and telling act.

"More than 70 percent of the people in Anbar—Sunni—want to fight against Daish [ISIS] and are frightened of falling into their hands entirely," Sulayman says. "Muqtada al-Sadr told Faisal he would provide us with weapons and support."

In another neighborhood of Baghdad, near al-Jadriya, I meet Sheikh Aws Al Khafaji, whose business card says he is an "Adviser of National Reconciliation" in the Republic of Iraq prime minister's office.

He is also a commander in the Abul Fadhl Abbas Brigade, close to Asaib and previously one of the Sadrist clerics who was close to al-Sadr.

At the entrance of Sheikh Aws's office is a large poster with the words DEFEND YOUR RELIGION written in Arabic and English. Next to it is a poster of two young militia fighters who were killed in a recent ISIS car bomb explosion in south Baghdad. The Sheikh tells me that they were friends, and that one was Sunni, the other Shiite. "But both were fighting ISIS," he says.

When I arrive, Sheikh Aws is in the traditional black Shiite robes with a white turban, but he quickly changes into classic militia black fatigues. On his desk, instead of a pencil holder, there is a holder propping up a row of anti-tank ammunition.

Sheikh Aws also fights in Syria—he is returning this week to "discuss strategy."

"I have strong connections there," he says.

On the battlefield, he claims, his men are extremely competent.

"Daish are strong fighters," he admits. "But we surprised everyone showing how much stronger fighters we are. The day Mosul fell, the Iraqi forces were saying—'We can't protect Baghdad! We can't protect Baghdad!' Then the fatwa was declared by Sistani. I am religious. We took it seriously. It was an order. We went to fight."

So what will be the endgame? The fear is a Lebanese civil-war scenario, with militias from various sectarian divisions running riot throughout the country. Or that the Shiites, tasting power now, and with Iran's strong backing, will be unlikely to give the Sunnis a fair hand when ISIS is eventually destroyed.

For Western diplomats, the concern is how the Shiites see the future.

"Do they envision an Iraq that is completely Shiite—where they are running little fiefdoms?" asked one.

But Jiyad is more pragmatic.

"Unfortunately there is also a lot of hype and propaganda that makes the militias seem worse than ISIS, which they are not," he says. "ISIS proudly show their atrocities. The militias generally are just trying to reassert Shia control over Iraq and respond to the threat from ISIS to wipe out the Shia. They believe this more… than trying to kill/displace every Sunni."

Sulayman, the council member from Anbar, concludes that if peace is reached in Syria—the U.N. special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, recently launched a new plan to seek local Syrian "freezes" in fighting—then there is some hope for Iraq.

"If the international community puts enough pressure on Iran and Saudi to end the war in Syria, there is hope here," he says. "As for ISIS, the end for them would be cutting off their funding."

Whatever their role in the future, for the moment, the militias are not going anywhere. They are crucial to ending the war against ISIS. One Western security adviser in Baghdad says that the Shiites are "essential" to bolstering the flagging Iraqi Army.

"Their morale is stronger, they are more fit, they are better fighters," he says. "They have demonstrated by taking back key pieces of land. Now they are going for Tikrit, which they will probably get. For the moment, they are the best bet we have to win against ISIS." But, he adds, Tehran clearly see them as a foothold in Iraq.

"The truth is," says Safa Hussein al-Sheikh, the deputy national security adviser, "they prove to be more effective fighters than the security forces in many situations. They have experience from fighting the Americans, and from recently fighting in Syria."

He pauses, and does not seem happy about his conclusion. "Fighting the Americans made them really experienced, really strong fighters."