Rival Warlords Fight Side by Side Against ISIS in Iraq

Najat Ali Salih is the top Kurdish officer on the Makhmour front about 30km south of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. His peshmerga fighters have suffered near-nightly suicide attacks and car bombs from Isis forces holed up in the nearby Arab city of Hawija for more than six months, most of that time without pay.

Seventeen peshmerga were paraded through the streets of Hawija in cages last month, and corpses dangled from the city's welcome signs. But Salih, the flinty 45-year-old known affectionately as Ali Fateh, has an air of cool confidence. He gives no rank and eschews a uniform for the traditional garb of the mountain fighter. In equal parts Che Guevara and Don Corleone, Salih is a known as an eye-for-an-eye fighter. Salih says the terrorists aren't attacking right now, just watching. To clear them out of the city he needs money, heavier guns and air support, and he is extremely unhappy about asking for it.

As momentum shifts in the war against Isis, Kurdish forces have sealed off the north of the country, while Shia militias push west and the Iraqi army has gathered in the south.

This complex military mash-up – punctuated by US-led air strikes and Iranian influence – offers a glimpse of Iraq's future, and the dangers of what might happen once the three forces succeed in driving Isis out of the country.

"We are Kurds," says Salih. "We have a big problem with the Iraqi government. Baghdad hasn't sent us our portion of the national budget and the peshmerga haven't been paid in four months."

Years of resistance have made Salih wary of Arab armies and, like most Kurds, he is hard-wired for constant war. So he keeps a careful watch on the nearby ranks of his supposed allies, the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces – Shia militias who rose up across Iraq during the jihadi blitzkrieg last summer. "The Hashd are a big problem. We are scared of what they will do in the future. We don't know what they will do," he says.

South-west of Salih's forward positions on the same battle line, Colonel Tareq Abu Haider leads the Hashd al-Shaabi forces on the Bashir front, less than 20km outside the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, which is now held by the peshmerga.

Abu Haider's force of 3,000 Shia Turkmen suffered heavy casualties in the early fighting to control the strategic roadway into Kirkuk and its oilfields. The biggest threats now are Isis suicide bombers and deadly sniper teams sent out from Hawija.

Abu Haider is also battling perceptions: that the Shia militias are a bloodthirsty, sectarian force driven by religious zeal and revenge – and that they are controlled by Iran.

Last week, Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi responded to reports that Shia militias had been killing and looting by vowing to protect the "property and rights" of civilians in areas recaptured from Isis – but not all Iraqis are convinced.

Even so, at his Camp Laylan base, a commandeered rural school now festooned with green and black flags of Shia clerics and martyrs, the 54-year-old Abu Haider presents an avuncular figure. Some of his young volunteers are in their teens, relaxing in the tumbledown, tent-strewn bivouac. The guard at the gate isn't much taller than the AK-47 slung on his back.

Abu Haider was a colonel in the Iraqi Army before it was disbanded by the US in 2003, but he is vague about what he has done since then. He boasts that the commanders in his Brigade 16 eat the same food as the foot soldiers. He speaks of unity, duty and national pride.

"When Deash [the Arabic acronym for Isis] attacked, we didn't depend on the Iraqi government. We bought the guns out of our own pockets to defend Kirkuk. We do not allow strangers to defend our land," he says.

"Now we are ready to fight for every piece of Iraq, whether it is Mosul or anywhere," he adds. Mosul is Isis's self-proclaimed capital and Iraq's second largest city.

The Turkmen, Iraq's third-largest ethnic group, have for years been marginalised by Arabs and Kurds in Kirkuk province; but the Turkmen of the Shia faith, far removed from the Shia heartland in southern Iraq, have had it even worse. When, therefore, Iraq's top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa to fight Islamic State, the men came in droves to accept arms and salaries provided by the Baghdad government.

Experienced observers like Salih, however, are concerned that they won't want to give those arms back.

The concern from the West is that the Hashd al-Shaabi is controlled by Iran – a suspicion deepened by the presence of Iranian-linked advisers at Camp Laylan.

Here, a 60-year-old man in a dark green paratrooper jumpsuit identifies himself as Colonel Abu Sajad al-Turkmani. He says he belonged to the Badr Organisation, a group with open ties to Tehran, and that his role is to liaise between the Shia Turkmen Brigade 16 and the central government.

"The Hashd are the strongest force in Iraq, no question," Turkmani says. This will be no comfort to commanders such as Salih, who realise the only counterweight to the Shia militias are fighters like his and the Iraqi Army, a force he openly disrespects. "The peshmerga are strong and independent, but the Hashd belong to the Iranians," Salih says. "The Iraqi Army is not a national army. We don't trust them," he says.

In Iraq, the fight against Isis is unified in name only. In another light, men such as Salih and Abu Haider could be called warlords – non-state actors with semi-private armies. If the fight against Isis were to end tomorrow, they could be on each other's doorsteps, eyeball to eyeball and armed to the teeth.

That irony is not lost on Michael Stephens of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies: "Iraq is outsourcing the strength of the state to collective blocs that could eventually seriously rival the state, all in the quest for security."

Another perspective comes at a traditionally Kurdish village a few kilometres north of Camp Laylan, where hundreds of Sunni refugees from the city of Tikrit are squatting in unfinished homes and on constructions sites. A man who identifies himself as Abu Saif said they fled Isis, were unwelcomed by the local Kurds, and now are afraid to return home because of the Shia militias.

Asked whether he thinks the various factions would get along peacefully in a post-Islamic State Iraq, Saif gives a one-word answer – "Inshallah" – and turns away.