Friday sermons at Sunni mosques in predominantly Sunni provinces on 14 February accused the Iraqi army of representing the Shia and waging a campaign "to exterminate" Iraq's Sunnis.
IHS Global Insight perspective
The number of improvised explosive device (IED) attacks targeting Sunni mosques and assassinations of Sunni clerics has increased over 2013, alongside sectarian shooting attacks on individuals in mixed neighbourhoods of Baghdad.
Shia militias such as Hizbullah's Mukhtar Army and Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), now backing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, have become more visible, particularly in Baghdad.
The Shia community fears that Maliki will further consolidate control with the support of armed militias, which poses a high risk of armed rival groups, including splinter groups from the technically dissolved Mahdi Army, re-emerging and prompting inter-militia fighting in Iraq's southern provinces.
Military operations in Anbar province have brought political divisions among Sunni tribes to the fore, with some factions opting to join insurgency and co-ordinating with groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Baathist Jaish Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshabandiya (JRTN) to eject security forces from the province. Revolutionary tribal military councils have also been formed across Iraqi provinces, including the predominantly Shia provinces of Basra, Karbala, Muthanna, and Wasit. Their online videos and statements and the use of the Baathist Iraqi flag suggest that they have been formed by JRTN and Fedayeen Saddam – elite paramilitary forces that reported directly to the presidential palace under Saddam Hussein. Other Sunni tribal factions have given their support to the Sahwa, or the National Council for the Awakening, tribal militias and joined government forces to combat insurgents. The expanded military offensive in Anbar has failed to diminish insurgent capability. IHS assesses that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government is unlikely to reverse or slow down the expanding Sunni insurgency, and that the seizure of small towns in Anbar, Diyalah, Kirkuk, Nineveh, and Salaheddine, where insurgent capability is at its highest, is likely to recur. This tactic is very probably intended to exhaust security forces, increase civilian casualties incurred by government operations to retake those towns, and subsequently expand support for armed resistance against the Shia-dominated government and affiliated security forces.
A Washington Post report from 9 February cited Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) operatives claiming that the militia had remobilised and increased targeted killings of Sunni insurgents in retaliation for attacks targeting the Shia community. A video published on the video-sharing website You Tube in January 2014 showed an alleged member of the Shia AAH militia, held by insurgents in Anbar, confessing to fighting alongside pro-government factions. Those allegations, which circulated across Iraqi and Arabic media, were denied by the head of AAH, Qais al-Khazali. Iraqi authorities also denied the involvement of any Shia militias in the operations in Anbar.
IHS assesses that reports of Shia militias such as AAH and splinter groups from the technically dissolved Mahdi Army remobilising to be credible. No Iraqi Shia militia has been fully disarmed, demobilised, or reintegrated into security forces, including the Mahdi Army. Disarmament efforts largely resulted in the government regaining control over heavy weapons, but militias retained their stockpile of small- and medium-calibre weapons, as well as Grad-type rockets and mortars.
Shia militias' remobilisation, alongside the probable failure of military operations to reverse or even slow down the expanding Sunni insurgency, is likely to prompt militias allied with Maliki, such as AAH, to increasingly man security checkpoints in Baghdad and support military operations in predominantly Sunni provinces. The overt re-emergence of pro-Maliki Shia militias, particularly AAH, poses a high risk of splinter groups from the technically dissolved, rival Mahdi Army emerging, especially if Maliki succeeds in securing a third term in office after the 2014 legislative election.
Re-emergence of Shia militias
The clearest evidence of Shia militias remobilising emerged through armed confrontations using small-arms in Baghdad between AAH members and individuals affiliated with the technically dissolved rival Mahdi Army in June and August 2013 (see Iraq: 7 August 2013: Baghdad turf wars risk escalating into broader conflict between Iraq's Shia militias). Shia militias have also staged parades showcasing their military strength, including an AAH parade in Baghdad on 4 May. Political pressure eventually prompted the cabinet to issue a statement outlining its intent to pursue all types of militias in Iraq by 28 May. However, no such campaign materialised.
The remobilisation of forces affiliated with the Sadr Movement's dissolved military wing, the Mahdi Army, was also evident in a militia parade in Diyalah province on 26 November. Fears of a government crackdown against the Sadr Movement prompted its leader, Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, to expel those members from the movement and ban the use of the term 'Mahdi Army' two days later (see Iraq: 3 December 2013: Sadrist leader seeks to avoid direct military battle in Baghdad, focusing on 2014 Iraqi parliament election). The November parade in Diyalah, alongside skirmishes in Baghdad with AAH, which Sadr condemned, indicates that he is not in full control of the former militia. Sadr announced his retirement from politics on 16 February 2014. IHS assesses that Sadr's retirement prior to the 2014 legislative election is likely to be seen as a sign of weakness by members of the Sadr Movement, particularly when compared with AAH's positioning itself as the defender of the Shia and its privileged position with respect to lack of retaliation by security forces. IHS therefore assesses that there is a high risk of splinter groups forming new anti-Maliki militias.
For its part, AAH has used attacks on Shia neighbourhoods as a rallying cry to boost support for military operations in Anbar and promote the need for neighbourhood protection units in Baghdad. Khazali on 8 February honoured "residents" from Baghdad's Bayaa neighbourhood for successfully intercepting a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED). Although the effort was attributed to residents, it is more likely that the VBIED was intercepted by AAH militiamen.
Promoting AAH's implicit role in securing Shia neighbourhoods is likely to pave the way for integrating the group's military wing into a special division that can take up protective duties in Baghdad's Shia areas. Iraqi media already reported that the government had intended to form a special division in Baghdad from Shia militias in September 2013, although the government denied this and no such division has been formed. IHS notes that in his speech in Dhi Qar province on 22 September, Transport Minister and leader in the Badr Organisation Hadi al-Amiri stated that members of the Badr Organisation – implicitly referring to the Badr Corps – are the best equipped to be part of any security effort to protect Iraq. The organisation, which is in charge of the Badr Corps' Shia militia, is allied with Maliki and part of the State of Law Coalition. Reports of a new division formed from Shia militias were heavily criticised at the time, but implicit AAH successes and growing support among the Shia community for military operations targeting Sunni insurgents will probably enable Maliki-aligned militia groups to consolidate their control over Baghdad and overtly support security operations against Sunni factions.
Ali Hatem al-Dulaimi, one of the leaders of the Anbar Tribal Revolutionaries holding Fallujah, announced on 13 February that anti-government tribes would agree to combat ISIL on the condition that military operations end and the army withdraws from the province. The army's withdrawal from the province is very unlikely as the current offensive has boosted support for Maliki among Iraq's Shia community. Even if mediation results in pro-government forces retaking Fallujah, anti-government and anti-Shia sentiment among Sunni tribes is unlikely to diminish and will at least sustain the insurgency.
Outlook and implications
An expanding Sunni insurgency targeting Iraqi security forces is likely to wear down the latter and gradually lead to Maliki-aligned militias such as AAH becoming overtly involved in security operations. Sustained attack campaigns targeting the Shia are likely to result in AAH's securing a quasi-formal role to protect Shia neighbourhoods and patrol territory, which would enable Maliki to further consolidate his power. Fears of this outcome among Maliki's Shia rivals poses a high risk of armed rival groups, including factions and splinter groups from the technically dissolved Mahdi Army, visibly re-emerging in Babil, Basra, Diyalah, Karbala, Maysan, Najaf, and Baghdad over the coming year. The re-emergence of rival Shia militias will pose a severe risk of Shia infighting in southern Iraq, raising civil war risks and probably resulting in casualties returning to 2006–07 levels.