To showcase the broad-based resistance against ISIS, we were driven to Baghdad’s riverside palm tree-shaded Jadriya locality for a show of Shia-Sunni unity by commanders fighting the terror group
The war on ISIS was unlikely to be won through military means alone. It required Iraq to unite and overcome institutional insufficiencies and polarisation. For this, the Iraqi government would fall back upon nationalist sentiment to rally people across ethnic, regional, sub-national, and sectarian divides including through an elaborate media campaign.
As part of the campaign, a weekly hour-long TV programme titled ‘Guarding Iraq’ on the state broadcaster Al Iraqiya featured defence minister Khaled al-Obeidi, a Sunni, saying: ‘We do not differentiate between citizens.’ One of the episodes of the programme showed soldiers rescuing Yezidi religious minority members from ISIS with the message: ‘This is our religion.’
A video as part of the drive titled ‘Iraq in Our Hearts’ featured uniformed soldiers saluting Iraqi flags. A second video showed a man smashing a radio with the message ‘listen to Iraq’ after listening to foreign sectarian propaganda on Iraq.
The Western projection of the war as that between Sunnis and Shias hurt Iraq’s efforts to unify the country against ISIS. Our interlocutors were at pains to negate this. To showcase the inclusiveness of the anti-ISIS resistance, our group of journalists covering the war was driven to Baghdad to the headquarters of al-Hashd al-Shaabi, which was raised to fight the terrorist group.
It was a show of Shia-Sunni unity. Hashad’s Shia and Sunni commanders stood shoulder to shoulder for a briefing at the heavily-fortified headquarters in the upscale riverside palm tree-shaded Jadriya locality.
Mohammed Mikhlif, a Sunni Hashd commander, came all the way from the battlefront in Anbar province, 120km northwest of Baghdad. He did most of the talking at the briefing.
Mikhlif arrived with an entourage of men in suits and military fatigues shortly after our arrival at the headquarters. He began the briefing by insisting Sunnis tribal leaders joined the resistance voluntarily because of ISIS’s terror and to counter the existential crisis their country faced.
Mikhlif, who headed the Albu Shaban tribe, said ISIS did not care about anything, followed no rules of war and even killed women and children. He claimed to be working under then-prime minister Haider al-Abadi, who told the UN General Assembly five months earlier in September 2015 that Hashd is part of the state.
Mikhlif insisted they take orders from the military, rejecting reports that militias were mushrooming to claim government funding for fighting ISIS.
Two months later, BBC cited stories and said that people were renting houses in Baghdad, gathering a few people and announcing formations of militias to apply for the funds. It reported the militias have received about $1.4bn annually from the government to cover their expenses and a militia leader would take over $600 per man monthly.
The report followed a pattern in the West’s distrust of Hashd largely because of its ties with Iran and Tehran’s attempts to expand its influence in Iraq. The United States saw Hashd as a power unto itself with its members working with substantial independence often at Iran’s behest.
Abadi was widely believed to be lacking control over many of Hashd’s factions. The autonomy of militias within the umbrella organisation was seen in the West to be undermining the Iraqi Army and its government.
Hashd was as complicated as Iraq. Iran-backed groups such as Badr Organisation, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah, under its umbrella, predated the 2014 fall of Mosul to ISIS. Iran formed these groups after the 2003 fall of Saddam to limit the American influence in Iraq, which Tehran feared could be used for regime change in Iran.
The Iran-aligned militia groups increased their hold in Iraq thanks to their contributions to ousting ISIS. They have since become a constitutionally integrated component of the Iraqi Army but have remained critical to Iran’s political influence in Iraq through a degree of autonomy.
The militias expanded and become formidable political movements on the back of the acclaim they earned for their heroics against ISIS. Hashd essentially came into being with newer formations following Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s wajib al-kifah (obligation to fight) fatwa in June 2014 for resistance against ISIS.
But the older groups within the umbrella did not owe allegiance to Sistani, whose quietist school of thought believes clerics should not run governments as is the case in Iran, or Abadi.
To get around this, Sistani’s fatwa carefully restricted the recruitment for Hashd only to as many as needed to combat ISIS given the complexities involved in separate ideas of political systems the clergy in Iran and Iraq subscribe to.
Many of Hashd’s constituents were seen to be more committed to Iran’s governance system and maintaining Iranian influence in Iraq. They were deeply suspicious of the United States.
Mikhlif insisted there was nothing sectarian about their resistance and that their loyalties were with Iraq and not Iran. It was about Iraq’s existence and humanity, he added. Mikhlif said ordinary farmers and traders too were left with no option but to take up arms and join the resistance in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province for their survival.
Mikhlif acknowledged some of them were swayed when ISIS claimed to be fighting for them, but their barbarity revolted them. He said they have to defend their country at all costs. Mikhlif blamed outsiders and some politicians for spreading canards that Iraq’s government is anti-Sunni.
Mikhlif said they soon realised the reality as ISIS was destroying Iraq and hurting Sunnis the most. He added Shias joined them in their resistance and gave them the strength to fight. Mikhlif credited Sistani’s call for defending the nation and ensuring Shia-Sunni unity for a united anti-ISIS front.
Rayan al-Kildani, the head of the Christian militia Babylon Brigade under the Hashd umbrella, could not make it to the briefing, much to our disappointment. We were told some pressing matter prevented him from coming all the way from his predominantly Christian village tucked in a mountain range with crosses even taller than lampposts every 100m near Mosul.
Two months later, Kildani met BBC’s Owen Bennett-Jones in Baghdad in April 2016 and told him they were left with no choice but to take up arms when ISIS targeted Christians. ‘We fight side by side with the Muslim militias,’ he told Jones. ‘We are the first Christian power in Iraqi history.’
Kildani, who was among the two Iraqi militia leaders sanctioned by the United States for alleged human rights abuses in 2019, told Jones they have really good defence forces now and no one is ‘going to do anything bad to the Christians. Some Christians had their homes taken over. I have personally been to those houses to tell the new people living there to get out. Christian suffering is over.’
Shia commanders Meesam Zaidi and Kareem al-Noree, who accompanied Mikhlif for the briefing for us, were also at pains to emphasise the broad-based nature of the resistance and Shia-Sunni unity.
Noorie said fears were stoked that they will kill Sunnis before the liberation of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, in April 2015. Noree said they were looking after the city and ensured peace by sacrificing for it and for Shia-Sunni unity.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide