The Dreadful Saviors Feared Shiite Militias Battle Islamic State in Iraq

Earlier, fighters with the League of Righteous Shiite militia tortured and murdered. But now they intend to save Iraq from the Islamic State. Can it work? A trip to the front in the city of Baiji explains much about the current state of the war.

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A man lifts his camera and stretches. For a moment he is no longer protected by the wall -- but it's one moment too long. A bullet strikes him in the side and passes through his chest. Hussein Fadhil Hassan, 22, the cameraman for the Shiite militia League of the Righteous, is killed immediately, hit by a sniper with the Islamic State (IS), somewhere in the ruins on the southern edge of the city of Baiji in Iraq. The bullet is fired from a distance of more than 100 meters (330 feet).

At the same time his commander, Rasan, is getting ready to head for the front line in this offensive against IS, which the Shiite militia has been fighting here for the last day and a half. Rasan is wearing a blood-spattered T-shirt and has a bandage over his ear, after being grazed by shrapnel a short time earlier. When the commander and his men leave their command post in an abandoned house, they don't know that their cameraman, who was with the unit for three years, has just been killed -- and that he will not be the unit's only casualty on this day.

There is a huge, detailed map of the city of Baiji lying in the command post. Colored crosses mark the positions of IS and the League of the Righteous, or Asaib Ahl al-Haq in Arabic. Their fighters have advanced a few blocks from the south since the previous day, along a two-kilometer line. The Hezbollah Brigades aligned with them -- not to be confused with Hezbollah in Lebanon -- have advanced from the north. Iraqi Army units are not involved in the fighting.

Ever since the army was repeatedly overrun by the jihadists in their lightning advances early last year, this war has been waged primarily by the Shiite militias, which were for the most part established after the US invasion in 2003 and are primarily funded by Iran. So it is unclear who is in command of this war. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is pushing for American air support, which the militias oppose, because they fought against US troops for years and view them as their enemy? Or Hadi al-Ameri, the Iraqi commander, appointed by no one, of the umbrella organization of about 40 militia groups? Or Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, who is bringing arms and military assistance into the country and poses for photographers on Iraq's battlefields like a victorious military leader?

A Grotesque Stalemate

This has led to a grotesque stalemate. What happens in Baiji and elsewhere is not a battle between unequal forces, but a tough, intense struggle between militias aided by snipers, explosives and homemade cannons.

"And we're the elites among the Shiite groups," says radio operator Abbas. His group, the League of the Righteous, was created in 2006 as a radical spinoff of the Shiite Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr and includes thousands of well-trained fighters. Abbas is crouching in their quarters in Baiji, where men doze between ammunition crates in a living room, under pictures of children on the walls, with the booming sound of nearby mortar shells in the air. "That's why we always go to the front line. We have experience."

They certainly do. The League of the Righteous committed thousands of attacks against American soldiers and members of the Iraqi armed forces. They kidnapped and murdered civilians, most of them Sunnis. Now the collapse of the Iraqi army has provided them with a new reputation, as saviors of the nation.

Somehow it used to be easier, says Abbas. "We would conduct an operation against the Americans, and then we would go home. But this full-time war we are in now, we're not used to this. After all, we all have civilian jobs." Abbas is an elementary school principal, but his deputy is doing his job at the moment.

Abbas says he has respect for their opponent, IS. "They are professionals, too. They find the best positions for their snipers, who can wait for hours without moving an inch. When they withdraw, they mine everything -- houses, bridges, gardens. Sometimes we don't see a single one of them for weeks, and yet we still lose men. They are actually fighting for the first time here in Baiji."

A day earlier, the men put 19 bodies of IS militants on display on the militia-run TV channel. But that was an exception. Normally they don't find any bodies. Most of the 19 dead were from Saudi Arabia, says Abbas. They even shot a Chinese man recently, he adds. "A Chinese! Why here?" he shouts. "Did I kill Jackie Chan?"

The comment is slightly ironic given that radio operator Abbas himself has also fought abroad. His unit recently returned from Aleppo, where they fought for the Syrian regime, as contract fighters for President Bashar Assad. Abbas pauses as the irony dawns on him. "Perhaps this is no longer about countries. We Shiites must defend ourselves everywhere."

Commander Rasan and his men return to headquarters from the front line, bringing along two bodies in black bags: the young cameraman and one of their snipers. At first, Rasan and his men had tried to retrieve the sniper in a Humvee, but they were forced to pull back when they came under a barrage of fire from IS. "First they shoot at the tires, then at the windows," explains the shaken commander. "And they have armor-piercing ammunition." His men eventually manage to pull out the body by climbing through the ruins and carefully avoiding the enemy's lines of fire.

The offensive has come to a standstill. After several hours, additional fighters arrive from Baghdad as reinforcements, traveling in SUVs, taxis and pickup trucks. Despite the seemingly makeshift nature of their operation, the men agree that they are more capable of driving back IS than the Iraqi army. "The army can't do it," says Rasan. "It no longer has any real leadership, and it has no fighting spirit and no faith. This is a war between Sunnis and Shiites. The army has no place here."

The situation in Baiji seems to back his position -- at least the military situation. The enormous refinery on the city's outskirts, which produced more than a third of Iraqi gasoline, was taken by IS in the late summer, but then it was recaptured by the League of the Righteous and other militias. After that, the militias handed over control of the area to the army. "IS was back after a month," says the commander, "and now we're repeating the whole thing."

A Devastated No-Man's Land

However, the political impact of this religious war is evident on the road from Baiji to Baghdad. The drive from Baiji to the northern suburbs of the capital takes about two hours, passing through a devastated no-man's land, Sunni areas that were recaptured by militias and the army as much as a year ago. But hardly anyone has returned -- or has been allowed to return. Tikrit, Awja and Dur are now empty places, first destroyed in the fighting and then by the victors, who don't defuse the explosives in the buildings mined by IS but detonate them instead.

The only sign of life along this stretch of road can be found at checkpoints that appear every few kilometers. They are recognizable from a distance by the Christmas tree lights and plastic flowers covering their railings and the yellow, green, white and red of Shiite militia and Iraqi flags.

It's easy to get through the checkpoints with militia escorts or passes, but almost impossible without. Even the Sunni governor of Tikrit, who had fled the city and wanted to return there two weeks ago after it had been recaptured, was not allowed through. Entering the area is also extremely dangerous. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly documented kidnappings and murders committed, in areas controlled by the Shiite militias, by men wearing militia uniforms and driving militia vehicles.

Of the millions of Iraqis who have fled from IS since early 2014, hundreds of thousands of Sunnis are stranded in their own country. They are either unwilling or unable to return home, but they are also unable to move forward, because Iraq has been de facto divided for some time by strictly guarded provincial borders and rigorous bureaucracy. For instance, Sunnis from Anbar can no longer travel to southern provinces like Najaf or Nasiriyah. They can only enter Baghdad if they have someone there who can vouch for them and provide a written guarantee that they are not terrorists.

The only crossing from Anbar Province in the west to Baghdad passes over the Bsebis Bridge, a pontoon structure made up of barges strung across the Euphrates River. The stranded live in crowded tent camps on both sides of the river. Only pedestrians and carts are allowed to cross the bridge, bringing garlic and tomatoes to Baghdad and car tires and Pepsi to Anbar. Police officers drenched in sweat check documents and issue passes for those who want to continue to Kurdistan from Baghdad, or entry papers for the fortunate few with a sponsor in Baghdad.

Everyone else is in the same position as Umm Abed, a shy mother of three children, who fled from Ramadi a few weeks ago. "We were afraid, because Daish had threatened to kill all government officials," she says. Daish is the Arab name for IS. "And my husband was a government official." He was responsible for opening and closing the compartments in irrigation canals. They escaped with the clothes on their backs and ended up in Bsebis Camp 4, along with 400 other refugees.

Now they survive on handouts, and it is one of the ironies of this civil war that most of the help comes from supporters of radical Shiite preacher Muqtada al-Sadr. In a meeting with SPIEGEL, al-Sadr's spokesman, Saleh Obeidi, warns against treating all Sunnis as helpers of terrorists. "That's how we'll destroy the country once and for all!" he adds.

As the mother speaks quietly, men gather around and loudly berate their corrupt Sunni politicians, the Shiite regime and the Americans, who are always blamed for everything. Umm Abed is barely audible as she talks about her fear of IS, of the militias, and of the coming weeks without electricity, when temperatures are forecast to reach 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). In fact, she says: "We are afraid of everything."

At the edge of the Bsebis Bridge, it feels like the Iraqi state is guarding a leaky ship, desperately sealing off one area and fending off attackers in another. And yet it has little power to stop its gradual demise.

A Barricaded Capital

The state has barricaded itself into the capital, which seems endlessly far away from the suffering on the Euphrates. Its command post in Baghdad resides in one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces, protected by several rings of concrete barriers and dominated by a giant control room filled with monitors, with American and British advisers darting back and forth. This is the headquarters of Baghdad Operations Command, the capital's switching point for all deployments of army, police and intelligence forces. It is a place where the state still feels so safe that it keeps its highest-ranking IS prisoner, the former "Governor of Baghdad," and his family there.

The man in charge here is General Abdul-Amir al-Shammari, a soldier for almost 30 years and not one of the corrupt protégés of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The general is unwilling to say whether he is a Sunni or a Shiite. He is a busy man and he's not in a good mood. "We need more soldiers, more accurate missile and explosives detectors." He pauses. "But actually the problem lies elsewhere: We are our own worst enemies! We have lost our courage! For the last 30 years, this army has been used for individual political and religious interests, but not for what it ought to be doing, which is to defend Iraq!"

He is literally bursting with frustration: Over Saddam's insane idea to invade neighboring countries; over the corruptibility of all officials under Maliki, which went so far that even the lowest ranks in the army were sold en bloc, in return for money and votes; and over soldiers who were paid but never showed up for work.

"And then, from January to August 2014, we did nothing but lose and defend ourselves against Daish. Thanks to the coalition air strikes, we are at least back on the offensive," he says, glancing sullenly at his smartphone. "We need a big victory, but how are we supposed to achieve that? We don't even have our own TV station."

Every major Shiite militia has its own station. In times of fear and chaos, the stations have become powerful tools of propaganda and self-suggestion. Their aim is not to provide information, but to create the impression of unity and strength. They air endless loops of footage showing fighters crawling on the ground, funeral processions, fluttering flags and speeches to encourage viewers to persevere.

'The New Equation to Save Our Country'

The most powerful counterpart to gloomy General Shammari is a man who not only controls several TV stations, but also commands a much larger army. Hadi al-Ameri, a native Iraqi who lived in Iran for more than 20 years, once led the Tehran-funded Badr Brigades. Today he is the supreme commander of the nearly exclusively Shiite armed groups, the Popular Mobilization Forces, known in Arabic as al-Hashd al-Shaabi, which nominally have more than 100,000 fighters but de facto consist of about 60,000. His wrinkled face is on posters all over Baghdad, along with the words: "The new equation to save our country."

Ameri, who is about 60, has a forbidding reputation. US Embassy memos published by WikiLeaks mention his fondness for torturing victims to death with power drills. But the war against IS has turned him into the man of the hour. He publicly derides the "weaklings" in the army and threatens the United States with attacks if the Americans choose to arm Kurdish or Sunni formations while ignoring Baghdad.

To attend an interview at his home in Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone, we pass through three checkpoints and change cars once before we end up in his conference room. But then he's late for the meeting, because he has just met with the US ambassador. Isn't America his mortal enemy? "There is no embargo against conversations," says Ameri. "We just want to make it clear that we reject US air strikes. They would bomb us and call it a mistake. But we would not accept it as a mistake."

It is said that a room can suddenly feel crowded when Ameri walks in. Still, he is an expert at showmanship and puts on a jovial face.

When asked who gives him orders and what, exactly, his position is, Ameri responds, "I don't do anything without discussing it with Prime Minister Abadi first. I am just a soldier among soldiers."

And will you dissolve your militias once IS has been defeated? "No, we must remain! We will become the third column of the armed forces, next to the army and the police."

Ameri is surprisingly open about this. On the other hand, he has no one to fear who could prevent him from achieving his goals. His plan is to create a state within the state, a plan born out of necessity in the fight against IS and promoted by the Iranian leadership, which created a similar parallel army in Iran 36 years ago, the Revolutionary Guards.

Only a day after their deaths, the two militia fighters killed in Baiji are laid to rest in an ostentatious funeral at the world's largest cemetery in Najaf, one of the two most important Shiite holy cities in Iraq.

As a precaution, the League of the Righteous and other Shiite militias have acquired several hectares of land in the cemetery, where they bury their fallen fighters in row after row of graves, each marked with a photo panel and decorated with plastic flowers and sometimes with a sunshield for the tomb stele. Millions of Shiites are buried there, and year after year the field of graves continues to grow northward into the desert.

The gravediggers of Najaf like to relate an old prophecy. They say that the world will end when the cemetery reaches the holy city of Kerbela in the north. There are still 60 kilometers to go.

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