Inside Baghdad’s Brutal Battle Against ISIS
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.”
Dems 'Have Passion for Stealing' Elections: Fox News Lets Gingrich's Lies Go Unchallenged
- Same lies, different day