Unpopular mobilisation: the Farhatiya Massacre and the rise of Iraq’s militias

A recent massacre of Sunnis in Iraq is symbolic of a bloody history of state weakness

epa07794657 Members of Iran backed armed group Kataib Hezbollah (Hezbollah Brigades) carry their flag during the funeral of their leader Abu Ali al-Debbi, who was killed in a drone attack a day earlier near the Iraqi western border with Syria, at the funeral procession in Baghdad, Iraq, 26 August 2019.  Abu Ali al-Debbi, the chief of logistical support of Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades, was killed late 25 August 2019, near the western border with Syria in an Israeli drone strike in Al-Qaim while on a patrol near the Iraqi borders, Iraqi Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces said in a statement.  EPA/MURTAJA LATEEF
Powered by automated translation

The kidnapping of 12 men and murder of eight of them in a Sunni village north-west of Baghdad this month has exposed long simmering intercommunal fault lines in Iraq, after several years of reduced sectarian sentiment.

The murders, thought to have been conducted by Iran-backed militia group Asaib Ahl Al Haq, provide further evidence of the weakness of the central state.

Fingers have been pointed at ISIS for the killings in the small district of Farhatiya in Salahuddin province on October 17. But residents of the area blame the Shiite paramilitary group, whose name translates as “The League of the Righteous.”

Majid Karim Jassem, a farmer from Farhatiya, said that militiamen conducted reconnaissance in the town to make sure there would be no resistance before breaking into homes and kidnapping the 12 men.

“We have no protection. But we will not move from here,” he said.

The bodies of the eight were found with bullets in the head and chest in nearby fields and irrigation canals. The whereabouts of the other four remain unknown.

A regional network of terror

Despite having long been sponsored by Iran, Asaib Ahl Haq, remain officially within a government organisation of militia groups known as Al Hashd Al Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).

But the PMF is only nominally under the control of the state, despite repeated attempts under former prime minister Haider Al Abadi and the current government of Mustafa Al Kadhimi to depoliticise the organisation.

In reality, they are largely autonomous and have been accused of a raft of local killings, attacks on US and international forces and a murderous crackdown on demonstrators which has led to an estimated 650 deaths.

Asaib Ahl Al Haq are among the most notorious. Its members have been trained by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, who likely retain operational oversight of the group.

Three killed in attack on Coalition base in Iraq

Three killed in attack on Coalition base in Iraq

The group has also co-ordinated directly with Hezbollah, through the organisation’s “Special Operations” adviser Ali Mussa Daqduq, who was arrested by the Americans in 2007 only to be released in 2012 by the Iraqi government. Later that year, Mr Daqduq was sanctioned by the US Treasury for coordinating terror operations with Asaib Ahl Al Haq.

By then, Asaib Ahl Al Haq had begun funnelling fighters into Syria to support the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

But their rise to prominence – and the political mainstream, is emblematic of the slow collapse of the Iraqi state.

As more Iraqis of all sects turn against the militias, Iraq still has hope of moving towards a better future, wresting control of what is at risk of becoming a militia state.

The question is, will they ever be held accountable for the Farhatiya killings?

Iraq’s long history of normalising militias and their atrocities does not bode well.

The Farhatiya Massacre

A report by Iraq’s Human Rights Commission said on October 17 that gunmen entered Farhatiya in four-wheel drives, later dumping the bodies of the eight men in nearby fields.

The killings of Farhatiya came just two days after a not uncommon attack on an Asaib Ahl Al Haq checkpoint in the nearby Shiite majority district of Balad.

Asaib Ahl Al Haq said ISIS was behind the killings in both Balad and Farhatiya, contradicting local accounts and almost every Sunni figure who spoke publicly about the event.

But Qais Al Ghazali, the head of Asaib Ahl Al Haq, called for an official investigation into the Farhatiya murders to “be concluded swiftly to reveal the perpetrators and present them to justice”.

We are all under the noose of Asaib Ahl Al Haq and the other militias. We are all suffering from Iran – Shiites and Sunnis

Other factions in the PMF echoed the group’s line and blamed ISIS for the killings without waiting for the results of the probe.

While there is no conclusive evidence to disprove the accusation that ISIS was behind the killing, elsewhere the extremist group’s name is often used as a shorthand to cover for anything from criminal gang activity, inter-factional violence and even just local disputes.

A Shiite cleric in the Hawza, the religious seminary in Najaf, who has followed the case closely, does not believe the claim ISIS killed the eight.

"This does not bear the hallmarks of ISIS because ISIS does not shy away from claiming responsibility for massacring people," the cleric told The National.

He said the men were part of a local security force under Asaib Ahl Al Haq before the group turned against them.

Sunni Muslim men pray over the bodies of eight out of 12 fellow Iraqis, who were reportedly kidnapped on October 17 and later some of them found shot dead, during their burial ceremony in the Farhatiya area of the Balad region, located 70 kilometres (around 45 miles) north of Baghdad in the Salaheddin province, on October 18, 2020.   Local sources said the four other kidnapped men have not been found and the identity of the assailants remains unknown in the mysterious crime. / AFP / -
Sunni Muslim men pray over the bodies of eight out of 12 fellow Iraqis, who were reportedly kidnapped on October 17 and later some of them found shot dead, during their burial ceremony in the Farhatiya area of the Balad region, located 70 kilometres (around 45 miles) north of Baghdad in the Salaheddin province, on October 18, 2020. AFP

Salahuddin governor Ammar Jaber also said the 12 were members of a local security force in Farhatiya and were unarmed at the time of the killings.

He said official security and paramilitary groups overlap in the area, making it difficult “to know who is responsible for what.”

Flush with cash, likely from its involvement in the underground economy, Asaib Ahl Al Haq has taken advantage of the dire economic situation in Iraq to recruit Sunni men as local enforcers – not uncommon among the PMF.

Exactly what led the militia to then possibly kill the men it had placed on its payroll is – for now – unclear. There is an official investigation but in Iraq, these rarely yield conclusive results.

However, the local accounts paint a dire picture of the killings as either an act of collective punishment against Sunnis by a Shiite armed group for an attack on a checkpoint that claimed the life of a fighter or the killing of local recruits the militia believed had a hand in the attack.

A community under attack

Sunni members of parliament told The National that the killings exacerbate a disconnect between the community and the Shiite led political order. They say it undermines pledges of protection for all and reform made by Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi.

Parliamentarian Jaber Al Jaberi, who represents Al Anbar province, said: “It is a very dangerous signal to the Sunni community and makes the government appear weak.”

Lawmaker Raad Al Dahlaki, who represents Diyala Province in eastern Iraq, said that worse is still to come.

“The massacre will not be the last carried out by lawless militias,” he warned by phone from Baghdad.

Side-lining local security

The irony here is that Iraq’s Sunni communities were once ideally placed to defend themselves from ISIS, a fact that undermines claims by Iran-backed militias that if they leave, ISIS will return in force.

The origins of local security arrangements developed by the Sunni community go back to the chaos after 2003.

At the time, the most loyal members of Saddam’s security forces began a fierce insurgency against American forces.

The new Iraqi army was too poorly trained to maintain security, and insurgents, including Al Qaeda, the forerunners of ISIS in Iraq, soon gained control of large areas.

Violence was endemic: attacks on security forces in western Iraq peaked at 500 per week in 2006, according to US military attack data from the time.

In Baghdad, a terrible civil war was under way as former Baathists attacked the new, Shiite-led political order.

By day, relentless Al Qaeda car bombs and suicide attacks targeted Shiites and any Sunni gatherings perceived as supporting the government.

By night, scores of young Sunni men were rounded up by militiamen loyal to the Iran-backed Badr Organisation and the Jaish Al Mahdi, run by radical cleric Moqtada Al Sadr.

US slashes troop numbers in Iraq

US slashes troop numbers in Iraq

Often disguised as police, or formally in that role, the groups killed thousands of civilians. Among the most violent was Asaib Ahl Al Haq.

Three thousand Iraqis are thought to have been killed in November 2006 alone. But the 2005-2007 civil war was eventually de-escalated by a phenomenon many perceived as almost miraculous.

Fearing the fanatical ambition of Al Qaeda linked militants, Sunni tribes in western Iraq turned on the increasingly draconian rule of the terrorists.

The movement known as Al Sawahat (the awakening) to counter Al Qaeda led to a perfect match of US intelligence collection efforts and local knowledge.

Violence dropped dramatically, helping defuse an almost nationwide civil war.

But the political order in Baghdad remained unchanged. Aside from a few transactional alliances between former PM Nuri Al Maliki and a small number of Sunni Sheikhs, the Iran-leaning government ensured that most of the Sawahat fighters were not on the government payroll.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Sunni men languished in squalid jails, often with no charge against them, having been detained in mass arrest operations that netted hundreds of men with no evidence.

A protest movement emerged in the Sunni heartlands between 2011 and 2014, railing against this injustice, as well as the concentration of political power in the Shiite-led government.

Increasingly violent crackdowns on protesters by the government of Mr Al Maliki soon led to growing resistance.

The old Sunni insurgency had re-emerged, but this time Al Qaeda (now ISIS) were energised by the Syrian civil war.

Syria's civil war, a decade of decay

Syria's civil war, a decade of decay

Sunni areas of Iraq fell into chaos once more and with no assistance from Baghdad, the local Sunni Sahawat stood little chance.

A US military official who was working in Iraq when the Al Sahawat started in the mid-2000s said a second wave of terror that followed the demise of Al Qaeda was inevitable.

“The perception in Washington is that Al Sahawat was the idea of George W Bush. It was, however, an innate Sunni movement that sought fair treatment for the community once it got rid of Al Qaeda,” said the official, who asked not to be named.

“The Sunnis got Maliki instead,” he said.

Tentacles of economic control

It may seem incidental now but the sideling of the Sahawat was a key moment for Asaib Ahl Al Haq and Iraq’s then nascent militia state.

As Mr Al Maliki allowed the country to spiral into chaos, the former PM stunned observers by allying with the Sadiqun party in 2014, the political wing of Asaib Ahl Al Haq. The former PM claimed that Asaib Ahl Al Haq had renounced violence.

Asaib Ahl Al Haq’s political allies in the Badr Organisation, which has its own PMF brigades, had already paved the way for this alliance.

Under Hadi Al Ameri, the self-professed “best friend” of the now assassinated Iranian General Qasem Sulaimani, Badr ensured they had the keys to vital state institutions, including the police and Ministry of Transport.

Running alongside this arrangement, with former PM Maliki’s wholehearted support, was the nurturing of PMF groups such as Asaib Ahl Al Haq.

They would now take on the role of brutal enforcers in a wider project to chop up the spoils of the post 2003 Iraqi state.

As the war with ISIS heated up, the group would be richly rewarded by being allowed to tax and take over local industry from companies in the ports of Basra to the cement industry in Salahaddin, where the Farhatiya massacre occurred.

Iraq’s militia state was consolidated and complete.

But based on narrow, short term control of oil revenue and Mafioso-style control of industry, it allowed services and the wider economy to deteriorate.

Before long, Iraq’s southern Shiite community were desperate for change.

By 2019, the militias of Badr, Asaib Ahl Al Haq and Kataib Hezbollah were ready to use the violence they had so readily used on Sunnis, only now against their own communities.

At Farhatiyah, this bloody history has come full circle. Could Iraq slide back into chaos and civil war?

Under government control?

After the Farhatiyah massacre, Faleh Al Fayadh, the leader of the PMF, accompanied Mr Al Kadhimi to visit the community and give condolences to the victims’ families on October 18.

His presence showed official displeasure at the killing, and that the PMF is officially under the government’s control.

But many in Farhatiya, and beyond, know that Mr Al Fayadh isn’t really calling the shots within the PMF and they see Mr Al Kadhimi’s pursuit of justice as largely notional. Neither man is, they say, ultimately able to control Asaib Ahl Al Haq or any other lethal faction of the PMF.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi meets with families of the deceased. Courtesy Media Office of the Prime Minister
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi meets with families of the deceased. Courtesy Media Office of the Prime Minister

Although Mr Al Kadhimi has cast himself as a reformer, he lacks the political base to make major and long-lasting changes. He has gone head to head with PMF factions but failed to significantly moderate their behaviour.

In July, Mr Al Ghazali mocked the prime minister as a US stooge and said he should not interfere in Iraq's internal affairs after Mr Al Kadhimi took on another militia linked with Asaib Ahl Al Haq – and then backed down – over the killing Iraqi scholar Husham Al Hashimi.

Al Hashimi, a friend of Mr Al Kadhimi and a fearless voice for a strong and independent Iraqi state, was outspoken against the rule of the militias. His friends said he received threats from Kataib Hezbollah, one of the PMF’s most aggressive and well-armed factions, before he was gunned down outside his home in Baghdad on July 6.

But the events in Farhatiya are at a different level politically to the killing of a single defenceless – albeit high profile – scholar.

A government trying to reform between a gun and a revolution

Mr Al Kadhimi, a former intelligence chief, took office after an uprising led from the south and Baghdad demanding a change to the way Iraq is run.

After years of poor service provision, crumbling infrastructure and high unemployment, Iraqis are demanding an end to corruption, nepotism and mismanagement.

It was mostly downtrodden Shiites in the south and neglected neighbourhoods of Baghdad, along with students, what was left of the intelligentsia and independent Shiite clerics, who took to the streets.

Protesters also demanded an end to militia rule.

This should not have come as a surprise: Mr Al Ghazali had previously warned protesters in the summer of 2018 that “any tongue speaking badly of the Islamic Resistance of Asaib Ahl Al Haq will be silenced.”

But the anger on the streets since last October, the most vocal in parliament and the militias all have one thing in common – they are largely absent of Sunni voices with any real influence.

In many areas, tribal justice is all that remains with a weakened and corrupt state failing in its duties and there are low-intensity hit and run insurgent attacks on the militias who often react with disproportional violence.

A changed Iraq after ISIS

Iraq is no stranger to extreme violence. Countless thousands were killed under Saddam and yet more died in the post 2003 civil war.

But, the brutality of ISIS in both its 2014 takeover and the fight to remove the group shocked in its barbarity and its publicity.

ISIS attempted to exterminate the Yazidis of northern Iraq, uprooted Christians and crucified people in the streets. Shiites, nonconformist Sunnis and suspected spies were murdered by the hundred.

Although US firepower and deep pockets were a decisive factor in liberating Iraq from ISIS, Iraq’s Shiite militias were on the ground in a tacit and unspoken alliance between the US and Tehran.

The images of ISIS extremists driving captured American-made military vehicles through the streets of Mosul were replaced with images of Shiite sectarian flags flying above US provided armoured Humvees driven by PMF factions as they tore into ISIS front lines.

The militias employed collective, forced displacement and summary executions of Sunni civilians, most notoriously in the town of Jurf Al Sakhar.

The PMF factions became local warlords in charge of many of the Sunni regions they had overrun in Nineveh and Anbar provinces, and in Salahuddin, where Farhatiya is situated.

To move forward, Mr Al Kadhimi’s government needs to replace these local PMF units with regular armed forces that answer directly to the government. But this will be an uphill struggle.

No repeat of the past

The last three years have been a period of reflection and relative quiet trying to rebuild shattered lives after the battle for Mosul. But none of the underlying economic, government, sectarian or security issues have been resolved.

Renad Mansour, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, said from London that the Farhatiya killings could be the fuel to another Sunni insurgency if the central authorities in Baghdad don’t get and handle on the situation and start to govern.

Mr Mansour said Sunnis “liberated from ISIS have been waiting for a few years for their government to come back”.

But he predicts more tension “as people in the province of Salahuddin react to these bigger armed groups that are administering the land there”.

The Shiite cleric from Najaf, who is well connected with the PMF militias without supporting them, urged the Sunnis not to repeat the errors of the past by seeking retribution for the Farhatiya massacre in militancy.

The cleric, who has open channels with Sunni mosques, advised the community to link with the civil core of the Shiite community and Shiite religious leaders not associated with the militias, to find common cause and push for inclusive government.

“We are all under the noose of Asaib Ahl Al Haq and the other militias. We are all suffering from Iran – Shiites and Sunnis,” he said.

Caught between a tragic past and an uncertain future

The debate about whether Shiite overreach fuelled a Sunni extremist backlash in Iraq or if Sunni refusal to accept majority rule was behind the last 15 years is unlikely to ever be conclusively settled.

But Iraq’s landscape of conflict rarely stands still. The fact that Iran-backed groups have turned the kind of extreme violence used during the civil war upon their own communities is horrifying, and has united Iraqis across the spectrum.

This could yet be Mr Al Kadhimi’s moment to go down in history as the PM who united Iraq. But at the moment, he seems barely able to prosecute the killers of activists and demonstrators, which does not bode well for the country as a whole, or the people of Farhatiya.

What is behind the rise in killings of Iraqi activists?

What is behind the rise in killings of Iraqi activists?

Even in agrarian Iraq, politics is never far below the surface. In the waning days of the growing season, the farmers of Farhatiya and its neighbouring villages will harvest what are considered some of the best watermelons in the world.

But these same farmers may find it challenging under the present climate to drive to the main market to sell their crops. Jamileh, Baghdad’s main produce souq is in the centre of the Sadr City slum, a stronghold of the Shiite militias.

This problem is a microcosm of militia interference in Iraq’s local economy which, if left unchecked, could permanently hinder national economic development for both Sunnis and Shiites.

But to most observers, the sun-baked fields of predominantly Sunni Farhatiya are little different from largely Shiite villages passed by the slow-moving waters of the Tigris River – one of the great rivers to have sustained and nurtured the foundation of the civilised world – as it meanders towards the Arabian Gulf.