Iraq’s Shia Militias an Enduring Threat

Shī’ah militants could disturb Iraq’s fragile political constellation after America leaves.

As the last few thousand American soldiers pack up their gear and look forward to spending the holidays with family and friends, commanders in Iraq worry about the potential fallout. 

Most of the attention about future security threats in Iraq has focused on two main points of friction: the reestablishment of Al Qaeda as a strong and deadly terrorist group and the possibility of Arabs and Kurds fighting one another in the flashpoint city of Kirkuk. Jeffrey Buchanan, spokesman for the American forces in Iraq, recently made his concern about Al Qaeda in Iraq clear in an interview with The New York Times, saying, “I cringe whenever anybody makes a pronouncement that Al Qaeda is on its last legs.”

Major General Buchanan is not alone in this viewpoint. Indeed, it would be especially difficult for the United States to forget that Al Qaeda still controls a few hundred fighters in northern Iraq with suicide bombings on provincial government buildings to back that assertion up. And while the terrorist group is not what it used to be in terms of its operational capability, strong leadership and bases of operations, the social and political conditions that helped spawn Iraq’s Al Qaeda in the first place is nowhere near resolved. A substantial percentage of the Sunni Arab community looks at Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with the utmost suspicion, constantly raising objections to his consolidation of power and his arrest of Sunnis across the country.

Al Qaeda is not the only militant group operating in Iraq however nor is it considered by some experts to be even the most powerful or dangerous.

To people who monitor Iraq on a daily basis and continue to see the bombings in residential areas, assassinations against Iraqi government officials and the taking and killing of Iraqi hostages, this statement may be hard to wrap one’s mind around. Kidnappings, indiscriminate shootings and roadside bombings have, after all, been used by Al Qaeda to generate news coverage from the Iraqi and international press.

But we should not — and for the sake of American and Iraqi security within the country, cannot — forget about the many Shia militias that are still making a splash in southern Iraq and in Baghdad. Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army used to be the most headline grabbing Shia militia out there before it was creamed by a 2008 joint American-Iraqi military operation against it in Iraq’s second largest city of Basra. The Mahdi Army, now renamed the Promised Day Brigades, is still out there wrecking havoc if it needs to but two other militia organizations are just as slick — the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (“League of the Righteous”) and Kata’ib Hezbollah, a group that is funded and trained by Iranian external security forces according to American authorities.

It was Kata’ib Hezbollah, nor Ṣadr’s group, that spiked American casualties in Iraq this summer when fifteen soldiers were killed by rocket propelled improvised bombs and roadside explosives. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq is an offshoot of Ṣadr’s Mahdi Army and known for its deadly sniper attacks on foreign troops since 2007, some of which have been uploaded to the Internet for aspiring militants to see.

What will become of these three militias once the United States military is fully out of Iraq? They that they are only launching attacks on coalition forces in order to convince them to leave. If that is so, will they cease their violent operations the day after American soldiers pack up and head to Kuwait? With Baghdad still expecting to host a few thousand private security contractors and thousands of State Department personnel, this is an open question. It is anyone’s guess whether American diplomats and contractors will be perceived as an extension of the occupation by these fanatics.

Kata’ib Hezbollah‘s closeness to Tehran is another reason to doubt that it will lay down its arms and join the Iraqi political process once America leaves. Iran hopes to gain influence in Iraq and prevent it from resurging as a strategic adversary as it was under Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime.

None of this is to disparage President Barak Obama’s Iraq withdrawal plan. He was simply following the Status of Forces Agreement signed by his predecessor, George W. Bush. Rather, it is a reminder to both the Iraqi government and its ally in Washington that Al Qaeda is not the only insurgent force willing to fragment the country for its own objectives.