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The Iraq War Is Not Over

Since the departure of U.S. troops, it’s only heated up.

Jul 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 40 • By KIMBERLY KAGAN
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Another Iranian-backed Shia militia, Asaib Ahl al Haq (AAH), has been responsible for the deaths of many American soldiers through its lethal Explosively Formed Projectiles. This group too began remobilizing in Baghdad in early May. AAH has been fighting alongside Lebanese Hezbollah at a prominent Shia shrine in Damascus since 2012. AAH’s intensified presence in Baghdad is roughly concurrent with Lebanese Hezbollah’s mobilization of a 2,000-man fighting force sent to Syria to reinforce the siege of Qusayr. 

Shia militias have mobilized in Iraq and have resumed extrajudicial killings in Baghdad, Diyala, and Hillah. Since parading in a Baghdad soccer stadium ostensibly to celebrate its tenth anniversary, in front of leader Qais al Khazali, who was long in U.S. custody for his role in the murder of five American soldiers in 2007, AAH took to the streets. 

The groups are responding in part to the wave of Al Qaeda in Iraq attacks on May 20 and 27, an escalating campaign of suicide bombings. The first attacks targeted the approaches to Baghdad and several sites around the country, the second hit the Shia and mixed fault-line neighborhoods that were contested in 2006-07.

By early June AAH had resumed some of the violent behaviors that characterized Shia militant attacks against Iraqis in 2006-07: establishment of false checkpoints, ID checking, kidnapping people from their cars or public places, and executing them. For example, two people were kidnapped from a bus stop near Baghdad University in the late afternoon, and their bodies were found in western Baghdad at a traditional 2006 dumping site, hands bound, shot in the head or chest, a few days later. AAH has also resumed executions with silenced weapons of other targets
with an intent to intimidate: whether pulling shopkeepers from their homes and killing them and their families; executing teachers; executing liquor store owners and conducting other morality policing. These events have occurred in areas not far from Sadr City, as well as in Diyala, in places familiar during the violence of 2006--07. The militias are evidently reasserting their control of East Baghdad while projecting checkpoints into West Baghdad. 

Some of the militia activity is occurring within sight of Iraqi Security Forces checkpoints. Maliki is either tolerating it or has lost control over the escalation. In any case, politicians will not be able to check this violent retribution, which has a dynamic of its own—as Americans learned all too well in the wake of the Samarra mosque bombing in 2006. 

Not all Shia groups are fanning the flames of sectarian reprisals. Even so, the current mobilization is unlikely to be limited. Some Shia militias are targeting Sunni mosques with IEDs in retribution for AQI attacks. The mobilization of AAH makes it hard for the Sadrist fighters to stay neutral, even when ordered to do so by their leader, Moktada al-Sadr, who has repeatedly instructed them not to reignite sectarian conflict. Rogue Sadrist elements—against Sadr’s orders—have paraded in areas south of Baghdad. 

In contrast, AAH’s political bureau chief, Adnan al-Dulaimi, stated that AAH “is ready for [mobilization] and we are ready to protect our people.” Indeed, friction between the Sadrist Trend and its AAH splinter is running high, after AAH attempted to assassinate Hazem al-Araji, one of the most prominent Sadrists, near the Kadhimiya shrine, a sacred site in Baghdad where he has served as a key patron.

The Sadrist Trend has allied itself with Sunni political parties and Kurds in Diyala and Baghdad to control the leadership of the newly elected provincial councils, freezing out Maliki’s coalition. This odd alliance creates new opportunities for Sunni political participation in two swing provinces, where the sectarian fault lines are deepest. But it is difficult to imagine a political settlement that would gain the support of the remobilizing former Baathist elements or the rekindled AQI/ISI.

The United States

The United States must no longer unconditionally back Maliki, who has created this circumstance by choosing to target his Sunni political opponents and by tolerating violence against civilians in the protest movement. The United States cannot simply support the Iraqi Security Forces, which are tolerating the Shia militants willing to kill Sunni civilians. Iraqi Security Forces, even if supported by the United States, cannot target AQI without being able to separate it from the Sunni population. 

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