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Inside Baghdad’s Brutal Battle Against ISIS

As the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria beats a bloody path to the gates of the capital, the hard men of the city are fighting back with their own reign of terror


Shiite tribesmen prepare to join the fight against ISIS outside Baghdad.

Haidar Hamdani/AFP/Getty

If you visited the Interior Ministry compound in Baghdad during the holy month of Muharram this past fall, you would be forgiven for thinking that Iraq, like its neighbor Iran, is a country whose official religion is Shiite Islam. The ministry’s walls are emblazoned with iconography and slogans paying tribute to the Shiite martyr Imam Hussain, as are police stations and vehicles throughout the capital: black banners with scarlet lettering, and the portraits of a smoldering, bearded Hussain staring down at the faithful.

In an office decorated with maps of Baghdad and Shiite posters, I find the man with possibly the ministry’s hardest job: Col. Riyadh al-Musawi, commander of the Baghdad Falcons, the city’s premier bomb squad. The rise of the militant group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, left the city under assault for months and meant bloody, dangerous work for Musawi and his men, with car bombs, suicide attacks and mortar strikes tearing into crowded marketplaces and mosques.

This late-fall morning, Musawi is looking even more worn than usual. The bags under his eyes seem to droop toward the comfort of his plush mustache. He’s been moonlighting outside the city with a Shiite militia — one of the many armed religious brigades that took up the defense of Baghdad after the collapse of the army this past summer. Last night, Musawi helped defuse a tangle of IED traps that ISIS had left behind during a retreat. “They buried them in the desert, in a daisy chain,” he says, pulling out a tangle of pressure-activated triggers. “It was a sleepless night.”

Musawi is a career military officer and a patriot, someone who doesn’t shirk from dangerous work and is well-respected by his men because of it — and yet he’s spending his nights working for a private religious militia. His unofficial job highlights the central dilemma for President Obama as he seeks a congressional mandate for the war with ISIS: Iraq has become a militia state, with its military operations led, in many cases, by the same Iranian-backed commanders who once fought the U.S. military. And while the militias have been effective at pushing back ISIS, they have also deepened the sectarian nature of the conflict, making prospects for any reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites — and Iraq’s hopes for peace — even more distant.

As the Iraqi government, backed by U.S. airstrikes and military trainers, begins an all-out offensive against ISIS, the Obama administration seems caught in a bind. “We are deeply concerned by reports of abuse that we have seen associated with some volunteer militia forces and, in some instances, by Iraqi security forces,” says Jen Psaki, the State Department’s spokeswoman. “We have received assurances from the government of Iraq and the Iraqi security forces that they will use U.S. equipment in accordance with U.S. law and our bilateral agreements.”

But the Obama administration has also argued that its program to supply weapons to the Iraqi government should be eligible for an exemption from arms-control laws. U.S. weapons have already fallen into the hands of Shiite militias, and by supporting — inadvertently or not — paramilitary groups whose excesses are approaching the worst abuses of the sectarian civil war in 2006, the U.S. risks helping to perpetrate the same violence and state corruption that led to ISIS’s stunning rise last year.

The door opens and Musawi’s boss, Brig. Gen. Jabbar, walks in. A portly man who loves to show foreign visitors slide shows of himself at foreign conferences, Jabbar seems flustered, embarrassed, perhaps, by the hulking man with a bristling beard and the black turban and cream tunic of a Shiite cleric trailing in his wake. Jabbar winces as he introduces Sheikh Sayed Maher, a leader in Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or the League of the Righteous — one of the most notorious militias battling ISIS.

By indirectly arming Shiite militias, the U.S. risks perpetuating the bloody sectarian violence that led to the stunning rise of ISIS last year.

Maher, at least, is pleased to see me. As Jabbar and Musawi confer, he hands me a phone and plays videos of himself dressed in camouflage and firing a machine gun. “We’re fighting Daesh,” he says, using the pejorative term for ISIS, derived from its initials in Arabic. As he leaves with Jabbar, he invites me to come visit him.

Maher’s group allegedly receives aid and military support from Iran and is infamous for its rumored criminality. Afterward, I ask Col. Musawi what he thinks of the idea of visiting Sheikh Maher. He chuckles grimly. “If you visit them, maybe they’ll sell you to Daesh.”

It’s hard to imagine that five years ago, Iraq seemed to be on the mend. According to the Iraq Body Count project, at least 17,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2014, the worst year by far since the peak of the violence in 2006 and 2007. The Bush administration, having belatedly realized that it had triggered a full-scale civil war by invading Iraq, managed, with the troop surge, to guarantee a sort of victor’s peace by convincing Sunnis they could reject Al Qaeda and still survive. “Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our troops and the determination of our diplomats, we are hopeful about Iraq’s future,” Obama said in March 2011, as the U.S. prepared to withdraw its combat forces. 


But the optimism of those times belied the fragility of the political accord between Shiite and Sunni, as well as the tremendously corrupt and patchwork nature of the Iraqi state. In Hanash Square, a bustling hub on weekends for Baghdad’s intelligentsia, I meet with Ali Sumery, a diminutive young television director in a dapper brimmed hat and scarf. During the 2010 national elections, Sumery, a longtime political activist, threw his support to the Iraqiya coalition of Ayad Allawi — an opportunist surrounded by opportunists, but at least one who espoused a sort of nonsectarian liberalism. Allawi’s coalition managed to win two more seats than that of the incumbent, Nouri al-Maliki of Dawa, a religious Shiite party. But in the political struggle that followed, Maliki succeeded in retaining power, with the tacit assent of both the U.S. and Iranian governments. Sumery and his friends were disappointed but felt emboldened enough to protest what they saw as Maliki’s increasing authoritarianism and sectarian politics. “They were slicing up the government like a cake,” Sumery says. “They weren’t speaking as leaders for all of Iraq. They were speaking as leaders of sects.”

The American occupation had enlisted religious leaders and exiled carpetbaggers to help run the country, and a cancerous system of party-based patronage had grown within the Iraqi state. It flourished during Maliki’s second term. Each ministry was given to a particular party, which doled out positions to its cronies. As a result, Iraq’s public institutions — which had already atrophied under international sanctions and Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship — became parodies of corruption. One professor at a major university in Baghdad tells me that Ph.D.s from his faculty were readily available for $10,000.

After protests broke out in December 2010 across the Arab world against repressive, corrupt governments, Sumery joined thousands of demonstrators on February 25th, 2011, in a square bearing the same name as Egypt’s famous Tahrir. Maliki responded by ordering Iraqi security forces to attack the protest. “We were planning to occupy Tahrir like they did in Egypt,” says Sumery, “but the government had such a brutal crackdown that we couldn’t.”

Sumery was caught by the police and, along with a friend, another prominent activist, named Hadi al-Mahdi, was beaten and thrown in the trunk of a Humvee. A public outcry led to their release the next day, but in the following months, further protests were met with more violence. Then, on September 8th, Mahdi was murdered in his home by unknown assailants. “He was killed the day before we were planning a demonstration,” says Sumery. Under the threat of such deadly force, the protests tapered off. “We were worried that Maliki would try to establish a dictatorship, and he did.”

Under Maliki’s watch, the Shiite militias gained power and Iraq’s nascent civil society came under pressure from their repressive religious agenda. “They threaten us all the time and call us by phone,” says Ahlam al-Obeidy, a spokeswoman for the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, one of the country’s leading human rights NGOs. “They call us prostitutes,” adds Obeidy, a grandmother.

One of the militias’ targets were gays and lesbians in Baghdad. Downtown, I meet a young man I’ll call Ahmed. A slender 25-year-old who loves Mariah Carey, Ahmed had escaped an abusive father by pursuing a career as an actor. His break had come when he was cast to play a gay character on a groundbreaking TV series in 2009. But the role attracted the attention of neighborhood militiamen, who had already suspected his sexuality. “Let’s be honest,” he says with a sad smile, “you can tell by the way that I walk and talk.”

Not long after the show aired, he found a local commander and his henchmen waiting for him at his bus stop. He says that they forced him into their car at gunpoint and took him to an abandoned construction site, where they made him strip. Then the militiamen took turns: One put a gun to his head, the other held him down and the third raped him. They filmed the attack and cursed him for being gay. When they were finished, they stuffed rope and glue up his anus and dropped him, naked and bleeding, in front of his grandmother’s house. Still, he considers himself lucky to be alive; many of his friends have been killed, including one he says he witnessed having his head smashed open on a curb. The threat from ISIS is even worse; the militant group recently put out videos showing members throwing men accused of homosexuality off buildings. Ahmed is hoping to get accepted as a refugee in the United States. (In February, according to lawyers helping him with his case, his boyfriend was beheaded in Baghdad.) “There’s no life for gays in Iraq,” he says.

Even as Maliki’s government began increasingly brutal crackdowns on internal dissent, the Obama administration was claiming victory and pulling out. On December 14th, 2011, Obama told a military audience at Fort Bragg that the U.S.’s war in Iraq was coming to an end. “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq,” he said. “The war in Iraq will soon belong to history.” His words would prove to be as far from reality as his predecessor’s 2003 “mission accomplished.” Despite the colossal effort and money spent on building Iraq’s security forces, a fundamental rot lurked at their core, one that would eventually lead to a near-total collapse.

The roots of that failure go back to the aftermath of the invasion, when L. Paul Bremer, the Bush administration’s civilian official charged with overseeing the occupation, dismissed the entire Iraqi army. Besides providing recruits for the insurgency, Bremer’s rash decision meant that a new force would have to be built from scratch in the midst of a civil war. Over the next nine years, that effort would consume 25 billion U.S.-taxpayer dollars, around a third of the total spent reconstructing Iraq, fueling corruption on an epic scale, as the Iraqi brass embezzled everything they could. 


Meanwhile, the army and police were full of what are locally termed fadhaiyin, or “spacemen.” Some existed only on paper, their salaries pocketed by senior officers, while others split paychecks with their leaders in order to remain perpetually absent. “It’s not about religion or politics, it’s about money,” says Hosham, a shopkeeper in Baghdad who joined the army around 2006. His unit is deployed in western Iraq, but he visits only when he needs to come to an arrangement with a new officer about his pay — around $1,200 per month. “It’s a business,” says Hosham.

In some battalions, spacemen comprise up to half the force, says an Iraqi federal police colonel, whom I’ll call Khalid. He tells me he served as a fighter pilot in Saddam’s army and says that corruption within the officer corps had become rampant in a way that it never was before the U.S. invasion. “They are absolutely unafraid to discuss it openly,” he says. “The way to get rich is to take from your soldiers and give to your superiors.”

Ranks were bought and sold. Soldiers were issued shoddy equipment. The most embarrassing case was $38 million worth of “bomb-detection wands” that were, in fact, based on novelty golf-ball finders and sold by a British entrepreneur who was later convicted of fraud. Despite a public scandal, you can still see the useless wands being used today at checkpoints in Baghdad. With such widespread corruption among senior officers, morale among the rank and file plummeted. “When you tell a soldier to fight, he’ll say, ‘Why should I fight so that my commander can get rich?’ ” says Khalid.

Meanwhile, a new and far more violent insurgency was gaining strength in the brutal sectarian civil war raging in neighboring Syria. In April 2013, the group known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, once led by the Jordanian jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, rebranded itself as ISIS. The movement’s leadership was the hardcore Sunni insurgents who had survived the American occupation – many of them, including its current head, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, spent time in Camp Bucca, the main U.S. military prison, located just outside of Baghdad. Maliki’s increasingly hard-line policies created fertile recruiting ground for ISIS among Iraq’s Sunnis, many of whom, ironically, now blame the U.S. for withdrawing too rapidly. “If the Americans had stayed, they could have kept their promises,” says Sheikh Ammar al-Azzawy, a prominent Sunni leader in Baghdad. Instead, Maliki failed to deliver on pledges to include Sunnis in the security forces, offering them instead menial government positions. “They were trying to turn us into street cleaners,” says Azzawy.

In 2013, in an effort to consolidate a power base among Shiites, Maliki ordered several bloody crackdowns on Sunni protests, which helped pitch parts of the Anbar province into open rebellion. ISIS seized the opportunity and moved in. “The people in these areas, when they’re treated so brutally, will even make a deal with the devil,” says Azzawy. The U.S. response to the crisis was to send Maliki more surveillance drones and Hellfire missiles.

“The hardcore ones, we kill,” says one Shiite militia leader. “What else can we do? Either they flee, or they’re killed in the fight.”

In Mosul, the largest Sunni-majority city in Iraq, Maliki’s operational commander was Mahdi al-Gharawi, a Shiite general who was infamous both for corruption and human rights abuses — which were bad enough that the American military had tried, unsuccessfully, to have him arrested — earning him the nickname “General Deftar,” after the 10,000-dinar note. As ISIS gathered strength in Mosul, Gharawi worked closely with Shiite death squads to target Sunnis. “Asaib and Badr fighters were coming from Baghdad wearing civilian clothes and working in darkness,” says Khalid, the police colonel, who was deployed in Mosul. “They get some names, go into their houses and kill them. In the end, all of Mosul hated us.”

In the early hours of June 6th last year, ISIS launched an attack on government positions in western Mosul. It’s likely that it was only intended to be a raid, but shambolic decision-making by the Iraqi leadership led to chaos and panic within the demoralized army and police ranks. Soon the entire city’s defenses had fled before a much smaller opponent.

The fall of Mosul triggered a catastrophic collapse of Iraqi forces across a wide swath of the country. In less than two months, tens of thousands of square miles and millions of citizens fell into the clutches of ISIS, who also captured tanks, artillery, and enormous quantities of ammunition and weapons that the U.S. had sent to Iraq. Four army divisions were almost entirely destroyed. In the scorching deserts of western Iraq, whole brigades melted away, deserting rather than face thirst and starvation, and leaving key Syrian border crossings unguarded. At the besieged Camp Speicher, a former American base, unarmed recruits and cadets walked off the base, believing they would be given safe passage to Shiite areas by local tribesmen. Instead, they walked straight into the arms of ISIS. 
At least 770 Shiite prisoners were executed at Speicher, and hundreds more in Mosul and other towns that ISIS captured. The group posted videos of truckloads of men being taken to mass graves and shot, part of a pageant of savagery that ISIS would gleefully exhibit as the months progressed: crucifixions, slavery, the beheading of foreign journalists.

Thoroughly post-modern, the ISIS propagandists understood that spectacle itself was reality, and that this reality could spread virally across the globe, summoning the clash of civilizations that they desperately sought. They spoke a language formed in the crucibles of the American occupation and the civil war, the language of Abu Ghraib and the death squads, of power drills as tools of torture, and incinerating airstrikes, of 200,000 dead Iraqis. But theirs was a brutality to overshadow it all. And they succeeded, rendering the West panicked and incoherent in its outrage. ISIS’s Shiite opponents, however, were not at a loss for words. The hard men in Baghdad understood the language of terror. As ISIS raced toward city, the broken Iraqi army fleeing before them, the militias were mobilizing to defend their capital.

Mohammad — not his real name — has grown a paunch since his days of running rockets and ammunition for the Mahdi Army, the Shiite insurgent group that had battled U.S. forces in 2004. He survived the bloodiest years of the war, when bodies lay unclaimed for days in the streets, and when peace came, he did well turning his skills to the import business. When I sit with him, he’s in the process of moving into a new house to fit his burgeoning family. He was looking to enjoy the dividends of peacetime — but when the call came, he was ready.

After the fall of Mosul last summer, Baghdad was in a state of terror. People hoarded water and food. The streets were deserted. Foreigners and wealthy Iraqis packed flights out of the country. “People were in shock,” Mohammad says. “They were afraid Daesh would enter the city. The leaders in the government had screwed up everything.” 


Then, on June 13th, the country’s highest Shiite religious authority, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, ruled in a fatwa that it was a religious obligation for every man to take up arms against ISIS — on behalf of the state, he was careful to say, not any sect. But in practice, it galvanized a takeover of Iraq’s security forces by hard-line Shiite militias.

The Mahdi Army had lain dormant since 2008, when its leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, was pressured to make peace with the Iraqi government ahead of the American withdrawal. Sadr, who remains one of the most powerful political figures in Iraq, announced the creation of a new force, Saraya al-Salam, or the Peace Brigades. Mohammad, resuming his duties as an arms supplier, found that the prices he had to pay on the black market had risen dramatically. Everyone was arming themselves for the coming battle against ISIS. Even the widespread looting of Iraqi arms depots — often by deserting soldiers and officers themselves — couldn’t satisfy demand.

“People were buying weapons and ammunition like crazy,” he says. “The price went up sixfold. For example, something like a Kalashnikov that might have cost $600 was now $3,000. Katyusha rockets? Before one was $200, now it costs $1,200.”

Sadr ordered a parade in Baghdad on June 21st. Mohammad, who says he helped organize it, had only six days to prepare, but he was amazed at its size and the array of weaponry on display. Thousands of armed men marched through the streets accompanied by long-range, truck-mounted missiles and anti-aircraft guns. The message was clear: If the Iraqi state couldn’t defend Baghdad, the militias would. “The guys were excited and happy to hold their weapons again,” Mohammad says. “Even for me, it was a shock. I didn’t expect us to have these kinds of weapons.”

The same month, the prime minister announced a government program called al-Hashd al-Shabi, or the Popular Mobilization. Across the Shiite heartlands of the south, tens of thousands volunteered, almost all through the auspices of one of the religious militias. In one small town in the south, a group of middle-aged men showed me video clips of themselves wildly firing at ISIS positions with belt-fed machine guns, which they struggle to hold against their enormous potbellies.

But at the core of the mobilization were experienced and motivated militiamen, who saw their fight as a religious duty, and a continuation of the battle they had fought against Sunni opponents since the American invasion. They deployed in a defensive arc around Baghdad and the holy cities of Samarra and Karbala and, over months of fighting, stopped ISIS’s advance.

“Their resistance is very important — they’re the last obstacle against the advance of ISIS toward Baghdad,” says Dr. Hisham al-Hashemi, a security researcher based in Baghdad. “All of them are affiliated with some Shia religious party. For prop-aganda purposes, they have a few Sunnis and Christians, but, no, it’s an entirely Shia phenomenon.”

These militias enjoyed close links with Iran and often fought with Iranian advisers in the field. In photos that circulated widely online, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the top branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, posed with militiamen and Iraqi officers. “The aftereffect of all this was an increase of Iranian influence,” says Phillip Smyth, an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Iran has gained a significant foothold in Iraqi politics and on the battlefield. It’s a huge threat to U.S. interests.” 

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Perhaps the militia that best exemplifies the opportunistic rise of sectarianism is Asaib. Originally an Iranian-backed “special group” within the Mahdi Army — U.S. officials believe it was responsible for incidents like a 2007 commando raid that abducted and killed five American soldiers — it was patronized by Maliki, and is one of the most feared militias in Baghdad.

I decide to take up the offer of Sheikh Maher, the Asaib commander I met in the bomb-squad office, to learn more about the group. Maher lives in Shahla, a poor Shiite neighborhood. A line of concrete blast barriers plastered with martyrs’ posters surrounds a blue-domed mosque near his house, which sits on a muddy lane beside an empty butcher’s stall. Welcoming us warmly, Maher has his bodyguard fetch us glasses of tart, homemade tamarind juice, and we sit cross-legged on the carpet.

Maher’s career tells the story of the shifting tides of power in Iraq. Thirty-seven years old, he was once a conscript in Saddam’s army who’d been jailed for desertion. After the American invasion, he decided to join the security forces. (He shows me a photo of himself clean-shaven, looking fit in blue-and-gray tiger-striped fatigues.) Then, with the rise of the Sadrists, he joined the Mahdi Army and began his religious education in 2008, which helped him assume a leadership role. In 2012, he joined Asaib. He shakes his head when I ask about the allegations of massacres carried out by Asaib that have been documented by Human Rights Watch and the press. “There is some propaganda against Asaib that they are brutal killers,” he says. “It’s not true.”

In 2013, Maher had gone to fight against Sunni rebels in Syria, part of an Iranian-backed mobilization of Iraqi and Lebanese Shiite militias that had turned the war in President Bashar al-Assad’s favor. It was a sign of a deeper realignment taking place in the Middle East. “We were fighting against Daesh in Syria before Sistani’s fatwa,” he says. “It’s the same tactics: snipers and IEDs.” Now Maher spends weeks with his unit holding the frontline west of Baghdad, which is shared between different militias.

Maher is adamant that it’s the militias, not the Iraqi government, that are leading the fight. “When the army comes, they’re working under our orders,” he says. “We get our ammunition from the army. If we need tanks, we get the army to coordinate. We borrow heavy weapons from them also.”

For Maher, the fight is an existential one against an enemy whose brutality justifies the harshest tactics. Aware of what would befall them if they were captured, his militia routinely executes prisoners. “The hardcore ones, we kill. What else can we do?” he says. Any Sunnis who remain in the area meet the same fate. “We treat them like Daesh. Either they leave their houses and flee, or they’re killed in the fight.”

A small Chihuahua appears in the doorway. Maher’s blunt features light up. “Katyusha!” he says, and extends his hand, which is as large as the dog. “She just had puppies,” he tells me. He shows me a video of her playing with his pet monkey Tutti.

Thanks to the collapse of state security forces, Iraq’s future belongs to militiamen like Sheikh Maher. He tells me that he’s currently contemplating an offer to join the army as a colonel, as befitting his stature as a religious leader. “I want to help my country,” he says. “And I want to join under the cover of the law.”

In addition to his three wives here, he has another one who lives in the U.K., but he isn’t planning to emigrate anytime soon. “If I go to the U.K., they’ll say that I’m Daesh,” he jokes, indicating his frayed beard and shaved mustache. He laughs and shakes his head. “Iraq is a terrible country, but it’s my home.”

Down the road from Sheikh Maher, separated by a dried-up river, is Ghazaliya, a newer neighborhood that was built during the war with Iran in the 1980s. Many of the houses in the area were home to military officers, mostly Sunni Arabs who benefitted as a group from Saddam’s patronage. Ghazaliya had been a wealthy area then, with coffee shops and clothing stores, but during the ethnic cleansing that swept Baghdad at the height of the U.S. occupation in the mid-2000s, it became a Sunni enclave controlled by Al Qaeda, who were sometimes welcomed by residents who sought protection from the Shiite death squads. As we drive in, the main streets look deserted apart from a few desultory shawarma stands and tire shops.

I’m traveling with Lina Ismail, a young woman who works for a local human rights NGO. She goes to these Sunni neighborhoods to gather testimony and offer financial and medical support in the face of a wave of renewed persecution by the militias, which have made these areas dangerous to visit. Since the fall of Mosul, Ismail says, the number of kidnappings in the city has increased dramatically as militias like Asaib move through the streets, often using vehicles with official license plates. “The police are afraid of the militias,” she says. “This Popular Mobilization has legitimized them. They’ve been doing horrible things in Ghazaliya.” At night, convoys of militia fighters come from Shahla and other areas and roam the neighborhood, harassing and abducting the residents. “They’re living in terror,” says Ismail. “They don’t know when the patrols are coming. They even arrest people in their homes.”

Though the government has promised the militia fighters salaries, many haven’t been paid for months, if at all. Some believe they’ve been using the ransom money from the kidnappings to finance operations. No one knows how many have fallen victim. Ismail says she sometimes hears of more than a dozen cases in Baghdad each week. One website that tracked press reports counted 421 bodies found in the capital between June and January. The government has forbidden journalists from visiting the morgue. “After the return of sectarian killings, they’re trying to do a press blackout,” says a doctor who works there. “They’ve expelled the old manager because he was a Sunni. The new one is a leader in Asaib. He brags about it. The killings began after Maliki entered Anbar and escalated after Mosul. The situation is very difficult. The militias have taken over Baghdad.” 

Haider al-Abadi and Barack Obama

Even worse, the doctor says, are the areas outside the city in the so-called Baghdad Belts, where both ISIS and the militias are active. He visits several times a week in order to volunteer in clinics there. The government is using indiscriminate artillery and airstrikes, he says, including barrel bombs: “The situation in the outskirts is miserable. It’s chaos. There is no control by either side. Sometimes it’s Daesh, sometimes it’s the Popular Mobilization. It’s like a seesaw. Those killed out there do not make it to the morgue. “The bodies are buried locally. If they suspect someone, they torture and kill them without any mercy.”

In the living room of a modest home in Ghazaliya, Ismail and I meet with Medhat Dhari, an electrical engineer, and his wife and son. They came to the neighborhood to escape Shiite death squads during the sectarian war. “We were moving a lot then,” Dhari said. “We transferred to this area. It was a little safer.”

During that time, in Baghdad, both Sunnis and Shiites could be killed simply for being in the wrong neighborhood or having the wrong name on their identity card. Every family was touched by death. But for a few years, things were getting better. After losing 12 family members, the Dharis felt like survivors of some apocalyptic calamity. But then the militias began abducting Sunnis in Baghdad again, and this time there was no Al Qaeda to fight back. Dhari’s 19-year-old nephew was abducted and killed the year before. When his parents recovered his body, he bore marks of horrific torture.

Last year, on the evening of September 17th, Dhari’s eldest son, Mamdouheh, failed to return from his job at a cafe in the neighborhood. Dhari, fearing the worst, spent the night driving around to the police stations, praying he would not find his son’s body. His mother stayed home and kept calling her son’s phone, which was off. In the morning, one of the kidnappers answered and said they belonged to a prominent Shiite militia.

“Your son has confessed to some crimes,” he told her.

“But he’s just a kid,” she answered.

The kidnappers demanded $50,000 in ransom — a typical amount — and briefly put Mamdouheh on the phone to prove that he was alive. They gave the family until 8:00 that evening to pay, or else they would kill him.

Dhari went to an office of the national security ministry to seek help. They told him to get a police report first, which he spent the day trying to do. When he came back with it, the ministry told him to get a court order, and he realized they were deliberately wasting his time. Later on, he says, one of them would tell him, “We know who these guys are, but we can’t do anything.”

Meanwhile, the family was frantically trying to put together the money. “Hurry or you will lose him,” the kidnappers texted. The most they were able to get was $15,000, which the kidnappers agreed to. They gave Dhari an address; he drove there and could see someone watching him from behind a curtain. By then it was midnight. His phone rang. “OK, put it down and go,” the voice said. “In 10 minutes, you’ll take Mamdouheh.” Dhari left the cash and drove around, waiting for another call. It never came.

In the morning, the police rang and told him to come — they had found his son. He had been shot in the back of the head and thrown into an empty lot, his hands and legs bound with plastic ties.

As Iraq slid into chaos last summer, Obama was reluctant to intervene militarily, fearing a return of American troops to the quagmire of a sectarian civil war. Even after the fall of Mosul, Obama reiterated his skepticism of direct engagement to reporters: “There’s no military solution inside of Iraq, certainly not one that is led by the United States.”

But since then, the U.S. military commitment in Iraq has steadily escalated. Following Mosul, Obama launched airstrikes against ISIS and agreed to send up to 715 more military personnel, in addition to the couple of hundred advisers and thousands of contractors who were already present in Iraq. After the beheading in August of journalist James Foley led to public outrage, the president announced the formation of an international coalition against ISIS and authorized the military to deploy up to 3,100 troops — which the U.S. claims will not engage in ground combat, though Canadian special forces already have. In December, Congress approved a bill to spend $5 billion to fight ISIS, including $1.2 billion in training and equipment for the Iraqi military. Now, Obama has requested that Congress authorize a new war against ISIS, one that would give the president the power to take action in any country where the militant group is present.

So far, the strategy has succeeded in halting ISIS’s offensive. But with an estimated 100,000 fighters, Shiite militias now outnumber the Iraqi army and police, and have been responsible for virtually all significant advances on the ground against ISIS, in many cases accompanied by Iranian military advisers. The heavy Iranian presence has, in turn, led to some awkward situations for their American counterparts back at headquarters. “The Iranians and Americans are working in the same places,” says Dr. Hishemi, who works as a consultant for the Iraqi government. “When one comes, the other leaves. It’s like hide-and-seek.”

In August, Maliki was forced under U.S. pressure to abandon his third term as prime minister. His successor, Haider al-Abadi, is from the same Dawa party but has been praised by the Obama administration for his conciliatory gestures to Sunnis and Kurds. But Maliki and the old guard remain a potent political force. “You can have a new leader, but if you don’t support him in changing the policies of his predecessor, that change will mean little,” says Maria Fantappie, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. “Many people who were part of the previous government are still very powerful.” (A representative for Prime Minister Abadi did not respond to requests for comment.)

For now, the U.S. Marines and special forces deployed in the country remain concealed behind the high walls of the Green Zone, or else ensconced in several large military bases, where they’re training Iraqi forces, including one near Ramadi that has been repeatedly attacked by ISIS. Central to Iraqi government and the U.S.’s strategy is the creation of a new National Guard, which will enlist local fighters, both from Sunni tribes and the militias. It remains to be seen whether it will provide an effective means for Sunni reintegration, or merely official cover for a militia takeover of the Iraqi forces.

The U.S. is now funneling more weapons into Iraq to replace those seized by ISIS last summer. Alarmingly, in its request to Congress, the Obama administration sought, and received, potential exemptions to laws that would require monitoring the use of transferred U.S. weapons. Militias like Kataib Hezbollah — closely linked to both Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah — have already photographed themselves with American-supplied arms and equipment, including Abrams tanks. “We are concerned by such photos and are looking further into the matter,” says Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman. “Iraqi security forces should not lend or provide U.S.-origin equipment to militia forces without U.S. permission.”

In its rush to stop ISIS, America has allied itself with forces far beyond its control. “The legality of the U.S. providing Iraq with arms and military aid is questionable at best,” says Erin Evers, a
researcher for Human Rights Watch. “It’s disturbing to see Iranian-backed militias with American weapons. These militias aren’t just fighting ISIS, they’re also targeting civilians. It’s radicalizing the population.”

Today, Iraq has been, more or less, partitioned into three separate countries: the Kurdish-controlled North, the government-held Shiite South, and the Sunni territories that ISIS had dubbed the Islamic State. There was nothing inevitable about it, but in Iraq today, the international problems of geopolitics and terrorism have fused with grievances between local communities. The rise of the militias at the expense of a formal Iraqi state only deeper entrenches the root causes of the conflict. “For a lot of people in Iraq, the militias are heroes,” says Evers. “What we have now is a cycle of sectarian killings — that’s what this conflict has turned into.”

This spring, the Iraqi government is likely to try to retake the city of Mosul, as well as Fallujah and swaths of Anbar Province that ISIS has controlled for more than a year. The U.S. plans to provide training and firepower to back the mission up. “There will be a major counteroffensive on the ground in Iraq,” retired four-star Gen. John Allen, Obama’s envoy to lead the coalition, said recently. “In the weeks ahead, when the Iraqi forces begin the ground campaign to take back Iraq, the coalition will provide major firepower associated with that.”

But many inside the country worry about the human cost of an offensive. “Before the U.S.-led coalition and the Iraqi government undertake any more major firepower efforts, they need to think long and hard about the civilians in those areas,” says Evers. “If things don’t change, it would just be an absolute bloodbath in Mosul.”

Sunnis in Iraq now find themselves in an impossible situation, caught between ISIS on one side and the militias on the other. Lina Ismail, the human rights advocate, asks me to meet a family she learned about, on the outskirts of Ghazaliya. We drive around, passing police checkpoints, until we find the place. It’s an old property, from when the area was still semirural, and the walled compound is spacious, with an orchard and a pasture, though the one-story house is shabby and modest. A young girl holding the hand of an even smaller sibling comes out to greet us, silent and dark-eyed, and we follow them down a path under the trees, a sheep trotting ahead of us.

We enter the house through a low, curtained doorway. Umm Zohair, the family matriarch, is seated on a couch in the living room, the black folds of an abaya gathered around her. Ismail asks her about her health. “I’ve been sick,” she says quietly. “I need surgery, but we’re a poor family.” Ismail says she might be able to help.

Zohair’s daughter-in-law Umm Abdullah, wearing a full-face veil, explains their story. Her husband, Zohair, the eldest son, had graduated from college but had only been able to find a job as a taxi driver. His younger brother Marwan was a day laborer. Their father, Abbas, tended the livestock. Around a month earlier, a group of armed men in uniforms had come to their house in the middle of the night and forced their way in. They took away the three men, and the family has heard nothing since. The police at a nearby checkpoint — whom the militia would have had to pass — claimed to know nothing. “Some say they could be in the airport prison, some say in the Interior Ministry, some say in Kadhimiya,” Umm Zohair interjects tearfully. “We’re dependent on God. We don’t know.”

No one mentions the possibility that they’ve simply been killed. A small child appears in the doorway and is dragged away, shrilly protesting, by his sister. The house seems full of children, in the laps of the women, playing on the carpet, most of them too young to understand anything but the solemnity of these strangers, and the fact that they haven’t seen their fathers and grandfather. “It’s terrible,” says Umm Abdullah. “They’re crying all the time.”

The women search my face for a trace of hope; after all, to them I’m the American, the first they’ve seen since the U.S. soldiers left, a representative of that blind, mighty power that came into the life of every Iraqi, wielding salvation and despair like a deranged god. What is there to say to them about the history that we share, about the tie that will bind us even as I walk away, under the apple branches, to where a little girl still plays by the wheels of our car? Iraq burns; its fate will forever remain on our conscience.

In This Article: Iraq


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