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Iraqi Militias Make Comeback Amid Surging Sectarian Violence

There are fears that the reemergence of militias in Iraq could exacerbate a recent uptick in sectarian violence.
With the rising wave of sectarian violence in Iraq, militias that were thought to have disbanded have reemerged and new armed groups have taken root. The development has ignited fears among Iraqis that the country could descend into civil war.

As sectarian violence surges across Iraq, militias that once pushed the country to the brink of all-out civil war have reentered the scene.

Iraq has seen a sharp increase in retaliatory Sunni-Shi'ite attacks in recent months, with a wave of deadly bombings and assassinations resulting in a death toll not seen since 2008, according to the United Nations. Almost 2,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed as a result of the violence since the start of April, and nearly 200 have died so far this month.

The return of rival Sunni and Shi'ite militias in Iraq, which comes amid escalating tensions between Iraq's Shi'ite-led government and the country's Sunni minority, has ignited fears of a civil war and a return to the intercommunal fighting of 2006-07, when thousands were indiscriminately killed each month.

Iraqis say militias and armed groups roam the streets in Baghdad, which at the height of sectarian violence was carved up between Sunni and Shi'ite militias. Locals in the capital say they have become too scared to leave their homes.

One Baghdad resident, who did not wish to reveal her name, told RFE/RL that some shops and restaurants had closed down and people were wary of travelling around the city for fear they would be targeted by militias.

"People on the street are terrified," she said. "People planning trips have postponed them. People who want to arrange or attend special occasions are postponing them. Everyone is hoping the situation will stabilize."

Another Baghdad resident, who also declined to give his name, claimed many feared a return of the death squads and revenge killings of the past.

"The return of the militias is a dangerous situation, particularly in Iraq, which has previously experienced their presence," he said. "Students are all afraid to leave their homes to attend their exams. We are in our junior year and these militias are destroying our future."

Crossing 'A Red Line'

Embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has pledged to clamp down on the militias and other armed groups in Baghdad. In May, Maliki announced that he had issued instructions to the country's security agencies to "strike forcefully against anyone wanting to form a force outside the frameworks of the army or the police."

"We will chase down all the illegal militias and armed gangs that want to instigate a wave of societal fighting," Maliki said. "As far as we are concerned this constitutes a red line."

Al-Qaeda's local wing, the Islamic State of Iraq, and other Sunni militia groups have reformed since the U.S. withdrawal in December 2011. Iraqi officials have suggested that Sunni extremists are joining forces to attack Shi'ite communities and symbols of government authority.

Government officials have said Sunni militant groups and Naqshbandi rebels linked to ex-officers in former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's army are now trying to provoke a Shi'ite militia reaction by bombing Shi'ite mosques and shrines while also targeting Shi'ite communities.

Security officials believe Shi'ite militias such as the Al-Mahdi Army, the Iraqi Hizballah Brigades, and the Asaeb Ahlul-Haq have largely refrained from joining the violence. But militia commanders have not ruled out possible retaliation.

According to Ibrahim al-Sumaydaee, an Iraqi political analyst, the main Shi'ite militias' new armed groups, consisting mostly of untrained youths, have entered the scene to avenge attacks by Sunni extremists.

"The major [Shi'ite] militia groups like Iraqi Hizballah Brigades and the Asaeb Ahlul-Haq are denying responsibility for the attacks," he says. "But what we are facing today is a third generation of Shi'ite militias that are made up of youths that are pushed to fight by their emotions."

Amir al-Taee, a member of the political wing of Asaeb Ahlul-Haq, maintains that his group has not been involved in any retaliatory attacks and denies that Shi'ite militias are regrouping. He claims that remnants of Al-Qaeda and Ba'athists in Iraq are behind the rising violence.

"What is taking place every day in the way of bombings in Baghdad and in some Iraqi provinces is carried out by Al-Qaeda together with the Ba'athists," he says. "Both of them have external agendas and are being supported by [Sunni-majority states like] Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia."

Iraq's Interior Ministry has taken a similar stance and denied the resurgence of any militias. In a recent statement made by the ministry, it has dismissed such reports as generated by the "rumor mill."

Inflammatory Remarks

The renewed bloodshed has coincided with a long-running political crisis in the government, which is made up of an unwieldy coalition of Shi'a, Sunnis, and Kurds. Critics of Maliki accuse him of being an autocratic leader who has failed to adhere to power-sharing arrangements.

Tensions between Iraq's Shi'ite-led government and the Sunni community are high, with the minority group increasingly marginalized since Hussein was overthrown by the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Sunnis, who have staged mass demonstrations in recent months, have accused the central government of persecution.

Independent lawmaker Qais al-Shadher, who is a member of the National Reconciliation Committee, believes the deepening political crisis and inflammatory remarks made by rival politicians has led to the reemergence of armed militias.

"We [the government] didn't fulfill the proposals outlined in the National Reconciliation program," he says. "We haven't embraced the [Sunni] tribes that supported the political process when the government called on them [to fight Al-Qaeda] in 2006 and 2007. That has led to a lack of trust and feeling of disappointment [among Sunnis]. In some cases, political interference has encouraged the former militias to take up their arms once again."

Sectarian tensions in Iraq have also been amplified by the conflict in neighboring Syria. Iraqi fighters from both sects have crossed the border to fight for opposite sides.

Syria's rebels, who are mostly Sunnis, are fighting to depose President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite Shi'a who is backed by the Lebanese Shi'ite militant group Hizballah and Iran's Shi'ite regime.

Sumaydaee suggests that Iraq, like Syria, is fast becoming a playground for regional and Shi'ite-Sunni rivalries.

"This neighboring conflict is driving toward reigniting conflict in Iraq," he says. "I think both sides in the Syrian conflict, and those backing them, are attempting to destabilize the Iraqi political scene for their own design. The Syrian situation does not only involve Syria, but will explode to engulf the region."
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.