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Sunni fighters say militias, not army, should liberate Fallujah and Mosul

The fighters who freed Baiji from IS while fighting for a Shia-dominated brigade say the militias are the most effective fighting force
Iraqi pro-government forces and Shia fighters from the Popular Mobilisation Units fire rockets towards Islamic State positions in Fallujah (AFP)

BAIJI, Iraq - As Iraqi troops and allies almost completely surrounded the Islamic State-held city of Fallujah on Sunday, top Sunni tribal fighters who helped liberate the northern city of Baiji from IS while fighting as part of a Shia-dominated militia told Middle East Eye that they believe sending militias into Fallujah and Mosul is a better option than the army or air strikes.

Since the offensive to retake Fallujah was launched on 22 May, the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) – often referred to as “Shia militias,” but also featuring non-Shia fighters – have been relegated to the margins of the ongoing fighting. 

Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi chose to sideline the PMUs after US pressure, previous reports of atrocities against Sunnis by the groups and concerns that they might take retribution against Sunni inhabitants, whose city has been controlled by IS since January 2014. 

But Sunni fighters with the mostly Shia-dominated Ali Akbar Brigades militia gathered in this northern city that was held by IS for five months told MEE that they believe the PMUs are critical to the success of the fight against the militant group.

Abu Ezaaz, a tribal leader from Alam in northern Iraq, said the militias are the most efficient option for entering IS territories.

Ezaaz is also the government liaison for the Ali Akbar Brigades under the oversight of the Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala which originally set up the brigades. In March 2015, he led a contingent of around 150 fighters in taking back his hometown, north of Tikrit, from IS.

“Hashd al-Shabi are very clean fighters, very human,” said Abu Ezaaz, using an alternative name for the PMUs.

“For example, if some sniper is fighting you, the Hashd al-Shabi will try to use snipers against them, but if the military intervene, the city will be destroyed. If bullets come from a place, they will bomb and air strike that place.”

Backed by US-led air support, Iraq's elite counter-terrorism service has over the past week tried to enter Fallujah, but it has been slowed by resistance from IS and concerns over the presence of an estimated 50,000 civilians trapped in the city.

The PMUs have been involved in clearing the surrounding area of IS forces but have been prevented from taking part in the effort to enter the city centre.

"The Hashed al-Shaabi forces have already done their part by liberating hundreds of square kilometres and surrounding the militants who are inside the city," Brigadier General Yahya Rasool, spokesperson for the Joint Operations Command in charge of the military and PMU operations, told AFP.

"Only the commander-in-chief of the armed forces has the authority to decide who should be involved in breaching operations."

Abu Ezaaz, a Sunni tribal leader, near a memorial to IS atrocities near Tikrit (MEE/Alex MacDonald)

Ezaaz said that his experience of the Ali Akbar Brigades and their recapturing of Baiji was that local Sunnis responded with gratitude, dispelling sectarian fears.

He recommended repeating the strategy for Fallujah and the IS stronghold of Mosul, which is less than 200km from Baiji.

“My suggestion is to let the Hashd al-Shabi liberate these places, to make the city 80 percent safe, and then build unity among Iraqis, like what happened here,” he said.

Other PMU and tribal leaders in Baiji also told MEE that they believe the current strategy being pursued by the Iraqi government was ineffective.

Abdul Zair Arwan, commander of the Baiji branch of the Ali Akbar Brigades, said the PMUs were much better positioned to retake Fallujah.

“If Hashd al-Shabi is given the right to access the city, we can liberate it within two or three days, no more," he told MEE.

"But because of the agenda of our neighbours and big powers, who have many agents inside Fallujah, they don't want the Hashd al-Shabi to take the place."

One of the leaders of the Jaisat tribe in Baiji, who are allied to the Ali Akbar Brigades, also condemned the decision to refuse the PMUs access to the fighting and said that tribal fighters and PMUs should be allowed to help liberate Mosul.

“We have relatives in the city, we have families in the city and we see the city is under occupation by IS,” said Hamid Amrisi.

“We have good power, good weapons, brave people – we want to go and liberate the city. Why is the international community stopping us from going, like in Fallujah?

“The military is not strong enough to have such fighting alone. They need us.”

Controversial atrocities

On Saturday, the influential leader of the Badr Organisation - an Iran-linked Shia militia - Hadi al-Amiri, who has been involved in directing operations against IS fighters near Fallujah, warned that the PMUs would enter the city eventually.

“No one can stop us from going there,” he said at a commandeered farmhouse about a mile west of Fallujah.

“Right now, the only thing that is stopping us from going there are civilians," he added.

The PMUs have been highly controversial in Iraq, with many human rights organisations and Sunnis accusing the groups of harbouring sectarian views and carrying out atrocities.

Since the Fallujah offensive began in late last month, reports have already emerged of PMUs destroying Sunni religious sites in the surrounding areas of Fallujah.

According to Al-Jazeera, Sheikh al-Jumaili, a member of Fallujah's tribal council, said Shia militias torched mosques and homes in al-Karmah, a town about 16km northeast of Fallujah, after it was captured by government forces on Friday.

He reportedly said the militias had demolished the historic areas of al-Karmah and Ibrahim Ali Hassoun Mosque with explosives.

In response, Brigadier Rasool Yahya said there was an official policy of not targeting mosques, although he added that “when a mosque becomes a centre for terror then we deal with it".

Despite the controversy, the PMUs are highly respected among non-Sunni Iraqis, with the pictures of their martyrs adorning streets, buildings and highways across the country.

Many supporters say they have grown frustrated at what they believe is the continuing corruption and incompetence of the Iraqi army.

A Shia Turkmen soldier, currently living in a camp for internally displaced Iraqis near Karbala and whose name has been withheld for his safety, told MEE that he believed the PMUs were a more effective force than the army.

“We have some officials, some commanders in the Iraqi army, who don't care about winning this fight,” said the soldier, who was on leave at the time of the interview. “All they care about is the money. However, the PMUs, they fight with faith.

“A couple of months ago, we were in Ramadi in the battlefield and we called one of our commanders and said 'we are hungry, please help us'. They wouldn't answer.”

PMU necessity? 

US military commanders have long pushed for the Iraqi army to take the exclusive lead in fighting IS in Iraq and marginalise the input of the PMUs, not least because of the influence of neighbouring Iran on many of the groups.

Fighters from the Ali Akbar Brigades on a street near Tikrit in northern Iraq (MEE/Alex MacDonald)

For some, the campaign to liberate Ramadi, which was almost entirely driven by the Iraqi army with air support from the US-led anti-IS coalition, heralded the sidelining of the PMUs, even though the fighting left large areas of the city in ruins.

However, the intense symbolic and strategic importance of retaking Fallujah and Mosul, combined with misgivings about the army's preparedness, means that it has been impossible to push the PMUs out of the conflict.

The capture of Mosul by IS in 2014 came as a major shock to the government of then Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. In the face of the IS onslaught on the city, the Iraqis were accused of effectively crumbling and failing to put up any resistance, despite ostensibly much higher numbers.

An investigation shortly after revealed that the army had as many as 50,000 "ghost soldiers" who did not exist or no longer reported for duty despite still receiving salaries.

A report by Reuters last week highlighted the concerns of American officials that the Iraqi army was failing to reform despite 17 months of retraining.

Retired US Lieutenant General Mick Bednarek, who commanded the US military training effort in Iraq from 2013 to 2015, said that a variety of problems – including a lack of Iraqi army recruits – meant that the army could struggle to take the lead in liberating Mosul.

“The Iraqi military’s capacity hasn’t improved that much - part of that is the continuing challenge of recruitment and retention,” Bednarek was quoted as saying.

“Our [officers] train who shows up, and the issue is we are not sure who is going to show up.”