The Iraqi government has agreed to a limited – and as yet undefined – deployment of Shiite Muslim militias in the primarily Sunni Muslim province of Anbar in a last-ditch effort to stabilize an area that’s been primarily under the control of the Islamic State since early last year, according to Iraqi and Kurdish officials.
The decision by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi came after a weeklong stalemate between his government and militia commanders over what role in the fight against the Islamic State should be assigned to the so-called “Popular Committees,” the name given to the alliance of Shiite militias aligned with the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.
The militias’ actions embarrassed the Iraqi government and military command in the recent fighting in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, where they were accused of looting and of abusing Sunnis. News reporters allege they’ve witnessed many such incidents.
Anbar, along with its main cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, has been a potent symbol of Sunni nationalism in the past decade. It represented a key area of Sunni resistance to U.S. troops during the occupation of Iraq and to the Shiite-dominated governments that have ruled the country since Saddam was toppled in 2003.
U.S. officials have worried that the presence of Shiite militias, especially those trained and advised by Iran, in Anbar will drive Sunnis into an alliance with the Islamic State and intensify the country’s already severe sectarian divide. Because of the close ties between the militias and Iran, American military authorities refused to provide air support for the Tikrit operation until Iraqi security forces replaced the militias in the final offensive.
On Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said the U.S. had no objection to the militias’ involvement in Anbar as long as they were under the command of the Iraqi Defense Ministry.
“We welcome the assistance,” Warren told McClatchy, adding that keeping the militias fighting alongside government forces is “an effort to help channel the energy of the Shiite militia in a positive direction.”
Abadi’s reluctance to deploy the militias after the accusations of looting and murder during the Tikrit operation triggered a tough reaction this week from Hadi al Ameri, the leader of the Badr Organization, one of the largest Shiite militias.
Ameri began a public campaign demanding that the government allow his troops to operate in Anbar. At one point this week, he threatened to deploy his forces without government permission.
A Badr spokesman said Ameri, one of Iraq’s most powerful figures, could not understand Abadi’s reluctance to embrace his group’s efforts.
“The Popular Committees are important patriots in the defense of all the Iraqi people and have had many martyrs fighting Daash,” said the spokesman, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal arguments among Shiite political factions. Daash is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “And with the defeat of the security forces in Anbar and the failure of the Iraqi army to secure the people . . . our action is required.”
Officials in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, which has its own tense relationship with the Baghdad government and Shiite hard-liners over the city of Kirkuk, which all sides claim but Kurdish security forces occupy, said Abadi had surrendered to the militias.
“Abadi lost the fight,” said one Kurdistan Regional Government official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. “It’s understandable that the Iraqi security forces need assistance, but putting these sectarian militias into Sunni areas is going to be a problem for Iraq.”
Already, reports from the outskirts of Fallujah say members of one Iranian-trained and -equipped militia, the Kata’eb Hezbollah, have deployed and are generating complaints from Sunni residents.
One worker at a hospital in Fallujah told McClatchy that Hezbollah militants had attacked a government military facility between the towns of Musayib and Habaniyah, and had also assaulted hospital staff. One staff member was beaten and burned, the worker said. He asked not to be identified out of fear of the militias and local Islamic State forces.
The worker said the Amiriyat al Fallujah Hospital was seeing more wounded from combat among residents, Islamic State fighters and the militias.
An Iraqi army commander acknowledged that the Shiite militias have been deployed, but he denied that their presence was a problem. Speaking by phone from the Anbar operations center, Maj. Gen. Ziad Tariq said the militias had been placed under his command as part of a military structure controlled by the government, not by militia leaders.
“They are under the control of the military authorities,” he said. “And I have no information of any such abuses taking place in the area of operations.”
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. James Rosen in Washington and a McClatchy special correspondent in Fallujah, whose name is being withheld for security reasons, contributed to this report.