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Dangerous Alliance: Shi'ite Militias Reinforce Iraqi Army

In Baghdad, members of a Shi'a militia parade through the streets.
In Baghdad, members of a Shi'a militia parade through the streets.
As Sunni insurgents have made lightning gains in northern Iraq, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has welcomed volunteers to join the army in a drive to win back the government's lost territory.

But the scenes of ordinary citizens flocking to army recruitment centers in Baghdad are only part of the picture of where the army's reinforcements are coming from.

The real source is Iraq's Shi'ite militias, which already have thousands of trained fighters and are ready to immediately fight alongside army units, according to media reports. And their involvement poses a question that is likely to become urgent in the days ahead.

That is, will the involvement of the Shi'ite militias help to turn the tide against the Sunni insurgents, or will it help bring Iraq closer to a sectarian-based civil war?

Both possibilities are already on view in Samarra, some 100 kilometers north of Baghdad.

On June 13, Maliki met with army officers in Samarra as troops put up stiff resistance to insurgents who had swept effortlessly through much of northern Iraq just days earlier, routing the army from cities like Mosul and Tikrit.

Maliki told the army officers that volunteers were arriving to help and that Samarra would soon become the launching pad for a major counteroffensive.

In fact, volunteers were already fighting in Samarra. They were from Shi'ite militia groups that immediately raced to the city to defend a rebuilt religious shrine that is revered in Shi'ism and was bombed in 2006 and 2007 as Iraq plunged into two years of sectarian fighting that brought it to the brink of civil war.

Phillip Smyth of the Washington-based clearinghouse, which tracks Iraqi and other regional militant groups, says Maliki's endorsement of Shi'ite militias defending Samarra against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) could bode badly for the future.

"The fact that this is being kind of 'Shi'a-ized', if you will, that the national government is taking that kind of narrative, does make this into more a Sunni-Shi'a struggle," he notes.

Spearhead For A Counter Offensive?

Complicating things further are two more factors.

One is the fact that the militia groups are better trained and more experienced in street fighting than is the national army, making them an obvious spearhead for future government drives to retake lost cities.

The other is the fact that many of the best-equipped Shi'ite militias are backed by Iran, which is widely viewed by Sunnis in Iraq as seeking to build a Shi'ite state in Iraq.
In Focus: Iran Enters The Fray In Iraq

Smyth says both factors raise questions about how Sunnis will view any government drive to liberate their areas from the ISIL and allied Ba'athist groups. The Sunni insurgents claim their goal is to protect the Sunni community from Shi'ite domination.

Not all the Shi'ia heeding calls to combat ISIL are members of Shi'ite militias or see the conflict in purely sectarian terms. A call by pre-eminent Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on June 14 for volunteers to join the Iraqi Army emphasized that they should enlist in the military as a national institution defending the country as a whole.

"Talk of Sunnis and Shi'ites must be dropped," Sistani said.

But the most radical Shi'ite militias, and the ones most effective in street combat, are those that view things in very sectarian terms indeed. Many in recent years have sent fighters to Syria to support Damascus in what they see as a larger regional war between the two main branches of Islam.

Shi'ite militia groups such as the Iranian-trained Asaib Ahl Haq and the Kata'ib Hezbollah have also been active in government crackdowns on Sunni militants in eastern Iraq that included reported killing of civilians. The worst case was in March when security forces and members of Asaib Ahl Haq killed 23 people in the town of Bohruz in Diyala Province.
Iraqi Military Flees Mosul
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(WATCH: Iraqi Military Flees Mosul)

Analysts say that Maliki now has little choice but to use these same groups in his struggle with the ISIL.

"Part of the dilemma that al-Maliki and other politicians in the Iraqi government face is that as the Iraqi army really fractured in northern Iraq, they have limited choices in terms of reorganizing some of these forces and bolstering their firepower with volunteers," says Ayham Kamel, director of Middle East practice at Eurasia Group in London.

Kamel says that the volunteer forces, if properly controlled, could be an asset in helping Baghdad quickly regain military control of mixed ethnicity areas in provinces directly around Baghdad. A quick success would underline the government's ability to protect the capital and reassure its worried population.

But he warns that any attempt to use the militias to regain military control of Sunni-majority areas farther north would backfire.

"Eventually, to reestablish control over these areas, if the government plans to successfully do that, they will need political compromises," he says. "Any participation of Shi'ite militias in the extreme north of Iraq would be counterproductive, irrespective of their style, or mode of war, or their integration under state security agencies."

Room for political compromise exists because many Sunnis are uncomfortable with the extreme religious fundamentalism of the ISIL and the past record of their current allies, the Ba'athists.

Analysts say the rejection of Maliki's Shi'ite-dominated government among moderate Sunnis is less about the appeal of the insurgents than anger over what they see as the marginalization and growing repression of their community.

The repression has included the suppression of peaceful protests and attacks on key Sunni figures.

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