Iraqi armed groups grow as IS grip shrinks

The Iraqi forces are set to drive IS from its stronghold of Mosul, taken in 2014 when the militants seized large areas of Iraq and Syria.  

John Davison –
For Iraqi police officer Jassem and his brothers, the battle against IS is personal. The militants captured and beheaded their father, a militiaman, in 2014; before that, the family lost another son
fighting the militants.
“We were able to identify my dad’s body by the tattoo on his arm. The head wasn’t found. They had also drilled holes in his hands and cut fingers off,” 31-year-old Jassem said on the front line in Mosul as Iraqi forces battle with IS in the city.
After the murder, Jassem’s youngest brother signed up with the army and another joined a paramilitary group.
With a further brother already with the Counter-Terrorism Service, that meant their mother had all four of her surviving sons at war. “Mum wasn’t happy,” said Jassem, not giving his full name because he works in intelligence.
But his brothers still answered the call to arms. “They said Iraq was falling apart, and they wanted to protect it,” he said.
The family from southern Iraq — far from Mosul which lies near the country’s northern border — is just one of many where entire sets of brothers have taken up arms against IS out of revenge, duty or just to earn money.
The US-backed Iraqi forces are now set to drive the group from its stronghold of Mosul, taken in 2014 when the militants seized large areas of Iraq and Syria.
But the fight has further militarised Iraqi society, pushing young men into the armed forces and, increasingly, sectarian and tribal militias.
This has raised fears of new outbreaks of violence once the caliphate has crumbled.
Iraq’s top cleric issued a fatwa in 2014, calling on all men able to carry arms to fight IS.
On another Mosul front line, Counter-Terrorism Service commando Hamza Kadhem said that before IS arrived, he was the only one of five brothers to have picked up a gun. “The others all joined after the fatwa,” he said.
They joined the Hashid Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces, a state-run umbrella that includes militias.
Two are deployed west of Mosul, and another two near the Syrian border, where fighters have played a crucial role in cutting off IS supply lines.
Before the call-up, they had worked as farmers in the southern Kut region, more than 500 km away. As well as others from the south, young men from around Mosul are also keen to fight.
They are now flooding to join tribal militias also under the Hashid, security officials and militia leaders say.
Many residents said in recent weeks they want to join, or know relatives and friends who are trying to do so.
“Many men are volunteering in the Hashid groups. They either want to fight terrorism or to get wages,” one security officer in the area said, declining to be named because he was not authorised to speak publicly.
He said the number of those seeking to join could be in the thousands, on top of the several thousand that local community leaders estimate are already in the tribal militias.
This would not pose security problems because the Hashid ultimately answer to the government and have limited powers, the officer added.
Provincial government officials, however, say the rising number of recruits to paramilitary forces and the formation of new militias is dangerous because it raises the risk of factional clashes.
“These Hashid groups are subservient to the people who lead them, not to the state,” said Abdul Rahman al Wagga, a council member for Nineveh, of which Mosul is the capital.
“So if a Hashid leader wants to impose himself in a certain region, and another sheikh or clan doesn’t like it, they might attack,” he said by phone. “I think after IS, these groups will not be reined in. Their agendas are party, political or regional, and won’t serve Nineveh, or Iraq.”
Ramzy Mardini, a fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, said turning to armed forces, particularly militias, was inevitable in an atmosphere where communities fear for their own safety. — Reuters