August 2, 2015

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The Dreadful Saviors: Feared Shiite Militias Battle Islamic State in Iraq (Christoph Reuter, 8/02/15, Der Spiegel)

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."

Our occupation of Iraq just prevented this from happening in a more timely fashion.
Posted by at August 2, 2015 10:23 AM
  

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