Why Iraq's Shiite Militias Won't Bother to Defeat ISIS

Jimmy So
October 20, 2015

Much has been written about ISIS, and much has been made about the group's bloodlust. The self-proclaimed Islamic State has a fondness for public massacres and beheadings, raped thousands of Yazidi women, looted museums, and destroyed historic sites. ISIS's celebrations of depravity, and the force and speed with which it has taken to its violence, has caught many off guard, so much so that there is a scramble to decipher ISIS's methods and intent, prompting valuable efforts such as Graeme Wood's "What ISIS Really Wants" in The Atlantic, Michael Weiss's and Hassan Hassan's book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, and Jessica Stern's and J.M. Berger's ISIS: The State of Terror. Fascination with ISIS often comes with a suspicion that the world is dealing with a new type of terrorist insurgency—more fierce, more global, harder to track, let alone defeat.

HolyLands_TinyNicolas Pelham, the Jerusalem correspondent for The Economist, a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, and a longtime resident of the Middle East, has been looking at ISIS in a different way, situating the terror group within the historical context of the region's move away from pluralism. This began not with fundamental Islam but with the breakup of the multicultural Ottoman Empire and the rise of a clique of westernized, anti-religious revolutionaries known as the Young Turks, who deposed the sultan, turned the caliphate into a republic, and then with a force and speed that would make ISIS look like amateurs, executed with fearful efficiency the genocide of the Armenians in 1915. Under the commission of Columbia Global Reports, Pelham is completing Holy Lands: Reviving Pluralism in the Middle East, to be released in April of 2016. The book offers a powerful theory on the recent events befalling the region and explores what the future holds, based on expert analysis, rich historical context, and extensive first-hand reporting:

This is the story of why one of the world’s more tolerant regions succumbed to the contagion of cultural erasure historically found in the West, and how perhaps it might find its way to recovery. The first chapter offers a historical overview of the transformation from religious multiculturalism to sectarian mono-culturalism. It traces three stages in the process: The breakup of a multicultural empire into secular nation states, the rise of religious nationalism by regimes struggling to bolster their legitimacy, and the subsequent lurch to an obsessive and exclusive sectarianism. Chapters two and four explore how two communities traditionally quietest and unaccustomed to power, Jews and Arab Shiites, dealt with that process. Chapter three explores the geopolitical context that gave rise to modern Sunni Jihadism, and the surprising and largely unrecognized role the dispersion of Palestinians played in its genesis. The fifth asks what can be done to avert the headlong descent into a pan-regional war.

Such a comprehensive and cohesive look at the region and its history helps to put a group like ISIS into perspective. It is not that ISIS is a distraction, but ISIS can certainly serve as a distraction to some. An excerpt of portions of the third and fourth chapter of Holy Lands can be read in the June 4, 2015 issue of The New York Review of Books. In this section, Pelham unmasks some of the lesser-known hypocrisies of ISIS, particularly the group's preference for foreign Islamists:

According to Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, foreigners make up 43 percent of ISIS’s fighting strength of 20,000 men. In some parts of Mosul like Josak, an upscale district, residents told me, English and French are more widely heard than Arabic. Blond Americans are said to have taken over the Turkish consulate. A policeman who fled his hometown of Hit in Anbar province after its capture by ISIS received a photo on his cell phone of his house. The word waqf, which refers to endowments Muslims make to a religious or charitable cause, had been scrawled on its walls. “Saudis, Tunisians have taken it over,” he told me. “They must have sold my furniture and stolen my savings.”

Foreigners have also secured important posts. A dual German-Egyptian national, Sameh Dhu al-Kurnain, now heads Mosul University’s education department. Perplexingly, he has closed the French department, which the great Orientalist Louis Massignon helped establish in the early 1950s, but not the English department; he has banned Iraqis from completing their studies abroad. “In the land of the Caliphate we need mujahideen, not doctorates from the land of the kuffar [i.e., the nonbelievers],” he explained when a medic sought an exit permit.

“So how come you have a German doctorate?” the medic bravely rejoined.

“I left my wife, I left Germany and married jihad,” replied the Egyptian, suggesting the medic do the same.

It is also easy to forget that, amid all the obsessive coverage of ISIS's horrible deeds, Prime Minister al-Abadi was also putting together a counterstrike against ISIS by relying on controversial Shiite militias:

Ten days after Mosul’s capture, as ISIS approached Baghdad airport, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiite spiritual leader based in Iraq’s Shia shrine city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, issued a call for jihad against ISIS and its Sunni allies. In their panic, cloistered and quietist Shia clerics who for a decade had struck pacifist poses turned into militant mullahs. The night I arrived in Najaf, a Qatari Shiite preacher, Nazar al-Qatari, had put on military fatigues to rally worshipers after evening prayers. All were obliged, he cried, to fight for Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ...

Abu Jaafar Darraji, a senior commander from the Badr Organization, the largest and most openly pro-Iranian of the militias ... claimed that his Badr militia could outgun the official Iraqi army and set up an alternative system of government. Pointing at Khamenei’s portrait, he said, “He’s the wali amr al-muslimeen, the legal ruler in all the Muslim lands.” Once the militia—the hashad—had accomplished its mission of vanquishing ISIS, it would, he said, be the Iraqi branch of Iran’s Basij, the zealous youth group of vigilantes Khomeini founded in 1979 to uphold his revolution and purge Iran of his enemies. ...

With over 100,000 registered recruits the hashad is willing to expend young lives. While I sat at the gates of Najaf’s shrine, a fresh funeral cortege arrived every five minutes. Each makeshift coffin is wrapped as if for a military funeral—flags made in China stuck on with sticky tape. Relatives wept; fellow fighters stared blankly ahead awaiting their turn to go to the front lines like sheep in an abattoir. In much the same way as Ayatollah Khomeini sent his human waves to block Saddam Hussein’s eight-year invasion, so large numbers of low-income southern Shiites are heading north. “We know we’re going to die. We go to the front as if on a pilgrimage,” an armchair apologist with a UNESCO seat in religious studies at the local university told me. The editor of a local periodical, al-Asala, is more circumspect: “They don’t send their sons to the front,” he said. “They send the poor.”

Such is that supply that the Shia militias have enough excess manpower to carve out Sunni-free zones in and around Baghdad. At his fortified villa in Baghdad, Mudher al-Janabi, a Sunni tribal leader and politician, despairs of ever leading his tribesmen back to their home village of Jurf al-Sakhar, just south of Baghdad. Local officials had failed to repair the irrigation system from the Euphrates, he said. The farmlands of his region, regarded as Baghdad’s breadbasket, had turned into caked scrub. Some of his kinsmen had changed their names from Omar, a Sunni name, to Ammar, a neutral one, in the hope that they might slip through Shiite militia checkpoints barring their return. Al-Abadi had promised to include Sunnis in the Iraqi government but al-Janabi didn’t believe him. “What can the prime minister do?” he asks. “He’s not in charge.”

Al-Abadi might be conscripting a Shiite surge that is not without its dangerous repercussions on the region. Baghdad is experiencing something of a renaissance, with the reopening of lively cafes, bars, book markets and festivals, and museums. But the growing divide threatens to turn Iraq into a decimated North and a perilously comfortable South:

Few Iraqis in the south openly champion separation from the rest of the country, but the chasm is widening. It is not only a question of ISIS imposing its rules on personal behavior and punishing people only slightly out of line. While ISIS destroys museums, the south refurbishes them; while ISIS destroys shrines, the ayatollahs expand them; and while ISIS is burning relics and books, the Imam Ali shrine hosts a book fair where scripture shares space with romantic novels. On the new campus of Kufa University, a burned-down wreck under American occupation when last I saw it, three engineering professors spoke of the golden age that awaits a united Iraq, or at least its Arab provinces, once the militias defeat ISIS.

But a dissenting fourth engineer quietly questioned why the south should bother. As long as al-Sistani’s jihad was defensive he supported it, but why, he asks, shed blood against ISIS for a Sunni population that is neither welcoming nor particularly wanted? The further north the militia advances, the more lives are lost, and the returns from the battle diminish. Compared to the south’s mineral wealth, the Sunni provinces offer few natural resources. Much of their territory is desert, and their feuding tribes will only cause trouble. Better, he argued, to safeguard what the south already has. In short, he said, breaking a taboo by uttering a word he claims many privately already espouse, why not opt for taqsim, partition? A heavy silence followed.

Read the entire excerpt, which made Longreads' "Top 5 Longreads of the Week."

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