Volunteers of al-Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Force) were deployed as shock troops and negated ISIS’s advantages of surprise, sudden attacks, and ambush
Adil Fozi, 35, flashed a victory sign as our group of journalists covering the war on ISIS walked into his room at a hospital overlooking the shrine of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussain, in Iraq’s Karbala. He was paralysed waist down and confined to his hospital bed for 18 days but looked upbeat.
Fozi’s pain was easing over two weeks after shrapnel hit him, Fozi told us as he greeted us with a smile when we were introduced to him as journalists from Al-Hind (India).
Fozi described to us how he rushed back from Syria, where he was fighting ISIS, to Iraq in 2014 to join the volunteer force al-Hashd al-Shaabi that was raised against ISIS on Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s wajib al-kifah (obligation to fight) fatwa. The fatwa urged all able-bodied men to resist the terrorist group.
‘Our belief in real Islam, the faith Hussain died protecting here [Karbala] pushes us to fight the evil,’ said Fozi, who was part of the volunteer force’s Ali Akbar Brigade.
Fozi was among thousands of Iraqis, who rose to the occasion to achieve something that not many countries in similar situations have achieved. They overcame multiple fault lines to have ISIS bite the dust in a matter of a few years, making it perhaps the swiftest defeat of a terror group with territorial control.
Ayatollah Sistani played a key role in the turnaround. He stepped in to fill a leadership vacuum when Iraq appeared to be sinking into an abyss of violence and lawlessness. His June 2014 fatwa would rally a demoralised nation and swell the ranks of al-Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Force).
The Hashd volunteers were deployed as shock troops in the war. ISIS met its match in Hashd. The volunteers negated the advantages of surprise, sudden attacks, and ambush that adversaries such as ISIS have and proved critical to Iraq’s success.
Iraqi officials told us Sistani’s call drew 10,00,00 volunteers to the ranks of al-Hashd al-Shaabi despite heavy casualties. The scale of the fatalities was such that virtually every lamppost from Najaf, where we landed, to Baghdad, 177km away, was filled with pictures and eulogies to fallen fighters.
Volunteers continued to sign up for al-Hashd al-Shaabi. Religious scholars were drawing recruits through sermons, banners, and a media campaign.
The cities we visited as part of a group of journalists covering the war on ISIS were also full of banners celebrating the volunteers and calling on people to defend the country with the message: ‘With you, we will win.’
Al-Hashd al-Shaabi also actively displayed images of the fallen fighters to encourage a sense of duty and reassure their families they will be taken care of in case of any eventuality.
Many al-Hashd al-Shaabi banners showed religious leaders supporting the families of those killed. The widespread campaign helped it get more recruits than needed.
Fozia told us volunteers like him played a key role in reclaiming territories such as Ramadi in December 2015 and were then assisting the Iraqi army to liberate Mosul, the most important city under ISIS’s occupation in 2016.
Fozi could barely move any part of his body except his bandaged hands. But he was keen to share his eagerness to return to the battlefield as soon he was back on his feet. He scoffed at ISIS fighters as cowards, who were unable to face them in combat
Fozi said ISIS preferred using snipers. He appeared undeterred despite having lost the index finger of his left hand, saying their faith gave them an edge over ‘not very strong’ ISIS fighters.’
The 35-year-old, with a receding hairline and neatly trimmed greying beard, looked forward to joining his brother in fighting ISIS. He said he would not even hesitate in sending his son to the battlefield if he was old enough to fight.
Fozi, who spoke to us through an interpreter, was saddened but proud of his commander, Haji Talib Rahma, killed in action recently. He said many like him were looking forward to embracing martyrdom.
Fozi epitomised the spirit we saw common among Hashd fighters we met in their camps and hospitals in Najaf, Baghdad, and Karbala. They took up arms when ISIS overran swathes of the territory and overshadowed its eclipsing rival al-Qaida as the most dangerous transnational terrorist group.
The fall of Iraq’s second-largest city (Mosul) to ISIS further weakened the legitimacy of the Iraqi government. Two divisions of the American-trained, equipped, and funded Iraqi army collapsed. They fled in the face of a major ISIS attack which added insult to injury.
Thousands of demoralised soldiers threw their weapons, removed their uniforms, and mixed with people fleeing Mosul in 2014. The retreat triggered global panic about the imminent fall of Baghdad.
The potential doomsday scenario left Iraqis with no option but to close ranks. It was like a now-or-never situation. Three years later, the turnaround was extraordinary.
Flag-waving Iraqis poured into Mosul’s streets on July 10, 2017, chanting ‘by our souls and blood, we sacrifice for you, Iraq’ as nationalist fervour peaked with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s declaration of victory over ISIS. They danced for hours, calling for Shia-Sunni brotherhood in the backdrop of rubble, which much of the city known for its sectarian and religious diversity, was reduced to in the fighting.
The scenes marked a dramatic reversal in the situation three years after ISIS massacred an estimated 1,700 cadets, mostly Shias, at Speicher military base near Tikrit in June 2014 and appeared to have pushed Iraq over the precipice.
The massacre was one of the worst carried out by the self-styled caliphate to deepen sectarian fault lines when ISIS looked more and more menacing with the Iraqi state’s seeming collapse.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide