Meeting shia militias

Enno Lenze English

Large swathes of Iraq are governed not by the Iraqi government but by the Shia militia Badr organization. The other Shia militias and the Iraqi police are subordinate to the Interior Ministry, which is largely run by the Badr organization. The question of who is running the show and where is often difficult to answer. But how did this happen? I met members of the Badr organization and talked to them about the situation.

What are Shia militias?

It is difficult to explain the Shia militias supported by Iran (which are also called "Hashd al-Shaabi" and controlled by the Badr organization) without delving far into the Middle East conflict. Apart from this conflict of power between the Iraqi government and Shia militias, there is the Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq. It has its own border crossings to the rest of Iraq, has its own military, police and laws. The relationship between the Shia militias and the Kurdish regional government is complicated. The Kurds are happy when they have their peace. But there were always fights between the two groups. The relationship between the Iraqi government and the Kurdish regional government is also complicated. At the moment people are arguing mainly politically, but the last fights are less than three years ago.

Who are the Badr?

The Badr Organization is a political and military organization in Iraq, founded by Iran. It plays a leading role where a power vacuum is existing. Wherever it is present, it does not go away easily. What poses a big problem from the state's point of view is welcomed by parts of the population, other parts don't care. And that's what makes it so complicated. Already in the early 2000s Badr fought with 10,000 men in Iraq against Saddam's army, which was completely dissolved later. Subsequently, they became politically active and competed in the elections, in which they received single-digit percentages. The organization immediately began to fill key posts in various ministries. They appointed ministers and military governors. The positions at the top are not the decisive ones in practice. It is much more important that the Badr organisation has enforced the Ministry of Transport and the Interior as well as the police and military with their people over the years. And there is no real counterweight. Politics and administration in Iraq are characterized by corruption and self-interest. There are hardly any civil servants who would do something against the power of the Badr organization out of love for their own people or out of patriotism.

Who controls what?

Badr therefore not only has de facto control over these parts of the administration, they also have nothing to fear from the military, the police or the government. They have even ignored instructions from the Iraqi and US governments to stay out of fights or areas. For example at the Battle of Falluja 2016, in which the 4th Badr Brigade participated in combat operations and also showed presence in the city. It was without consequences for them. Their reason was to prevent war crimes by the Iraqi army against civilians. The Iraqi army, in turn, accuses Badr of having committed war crimes out of vengeance there.

The Badr organization has been able to expand its power particularly in the fight against ISIS since 2013 in Syria and since 2014 in Iraq. The Iraqi army imploded after the attack from ISIS militants. There have been reports of 30-80% deserters. The Iraqi government asked the people to arm themselves and fight. One was supposed to register as "Hashd al-Shaabi", ie as a people's defense unit, and then operate under the high command of the Iraqi army. There are now around 50,000 Hashd al-Shaabi fighters in Iraq, of which up to 30,000 are said to be under the control of the Badr organization. Since this project has completely slipped away from the Iraqi government, there are no reliable figures. Elsewhere I was told that the Badr had 17,000 men under arms. It would be possible for another 13,000 militiamen to come under their command. In the end, everyone wants to be on the winning team. The Badr organization was able to present the Iraqi state and the Iraqi army as weak and itself as a savior. And they didn't even lie about it. The situation was that bad. Because they actually run the Ministry of the Interior, all parts of Hashd al-Shaabi are formally subordinate to them. In practice this varies. From the perspective of a German who is used to reasonably functioning hierarchies, it is difficult to understand.

The population of the areas had already experienced Saddam, the Americans, the new Iraqi government and ISIS during their lifetime. Most are fine with any administration that does not actively persecutes them. It is currently assumed that the Badr organization controls the provinces of Diyala and Salah al-Din and the city of Mosul. Thus, five million (13%) of the Iraqi population would have to live under their administration.

These are the areas between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Region. In the province of Diyala, near Chanaqin, I met the Badr organization in 2016. At that time, we had to take a long detour around a broken bridge or drive through the area controlled and militarily protected by them. They were considered war criminals, the enemy, the Evil. Even though I had never seen her, I was very worried. To my surprise, they explained to me that journalists in the area enjoy free escort and that I can safely drive through their area safely, as long as I don't stop or film. A few minutes later we had crossed the area and saved around two hours of detour. The militia officers at the exit readily talked to me about this confusing game. They were shy of the public, but explained to me that they have no problem with me as long as I don't attack or disturb them.

 Mosul- the other planet

I went to Mosul last week. The checkpoints there are occupied by Shia militias, the police in the city are wearing Iraqi uniforms. Both flags often fly in parallel on the flagpoles. Again I was able to drive into their area without problems, again I didn't feel good. But there were practically no problems. Stopping, taking pictures and filming was also no problem this time. The companions they provided only worried about my safety. They told me that they had tens of thousands of men under arms, more than 300 armored Humvees, and a dozen tanks and APCs (armored personnel carriers). I couldn't check it, but they had a lot of modern weapons - better than many of the other militias.

Instead of winning elections or chasing the government out of the country, they just go where no one else is. They occupy the checkpoints, take over the offices, ensure relative security and go after  ISIS. From a normal resident's point of view, this is positive and there is hardly any resistance against them. Reports of acts of revenge and atrocities are piling up. But without independent observers or investigative authorities, it is hardly possible to investigate something like this according to our standards.

The Iraqi state is unable to regain power. Many are not interested in it at all. In the end, Iraqi soldiers who earn a few hundred dollars a month would have to fight this fight. But for them it is much easier to do nothing or to join the other side. If in doubt, just do both. Collect the state salary, but work for the militias.

The Americans could try to drive out the Badr organization, but they, too, have no desire to sacrifice their soldiers and ultimately gain no advantage. Without a functioning Iraqi army, only the next militia would take over the site again. Or you would have to stay there as an occupying power. The Kurds are also not interested - for the same reasons. If Badr were able to create a corridor from Iran to Syria, Iran could use this route to carry heavy weapons to Syria and Lebanon. There they could be aimed at Israel and thus serve as a bargaining chip in the event of a US attack on Iran. And that brings us back to the big picture of the Middle East conflict.

There is no reconstruction in Mosul. Neither is it cleaned up. There are hardly any NGOs. The reporting from the city is missing. Nothing really happens in Mosul. The houses have crumbled and there is no heavy equipment to clean up. And who should you clean up for? The population is severely decimated. And when you clear buildings, there is a lack of building materials for new ones. Cement, windows, even doors or light switches. As in Berlin 1945, these would have to be secured from the crumbled houses and re-built. The population lives on. The administration is interested in power, relative stability and its own politics. Rebuilding the city is not a priority

The strong role of Badr worries me politically and on a large scale. An unstable Iraq does not create security. The population in the country is not happy. The people in Mosul don't care. Hold your head down, buy bread, get through somehow. For many it is better than under ISIS, for others it is not. As always in Iraq, there are losers at different levels, but there are no winners.


(Translated from the german version by Kristof Kietzmann)