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Iraq's pro-Iran Shiite militias lead the war against Islamic State

| Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015, 11:50 a.m.

MANSOURIYA, Iraq — Shiite militias backed by Iran are increasingly taking the lead in Iraq's fight against the Islamic State, threatening to undermine American strategies intended to bolster the central government, rebuild the Iraqi army and promote reconciliation with the country's embittered Sunni minority.

With an estimated 100,000 to 120,000 men under arms, the militias are rapidly eclipsing the depleted and demoralized Iraqi army, whose fighting strength has dwindled to about 48,000 troops since the government forces were routed in the northern city of Mosul last summer, according to American and Iraqi officials.

A recent offensive against ISIS terrorists in the province of Diyala led by the Badr Organization further reinforced the militias' standing as the dominant military force across a swath of territory stretching from southern Iraq to Kirkuk in the north.

As they assume a greater role, the militias are sometimes resorting to tactics that risk further alienating Sunnis and sharpening the sectarian dimensions of the fight.

They are entrenching Iran's substantial hold over Iraq in ways that may prove difficult to reverse. Backed and in some instances armed and funded by Iran, the militias openly proclaim allegiance to Tehran. Many of the groups, such as the powerful Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kitaeb Hezbollah, are veterans of the fight to eject American troops in the years before their 2011 departure.

In one telling sign of how far Iraq is sliding into Iran's orbit, giant billboards advertising the militias' prowess and featuring portraits of Iran's late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, now obscure the plinth in central Baghdad where Saddam Hussein's statue stood before Marines tore it down in 2003.

The militias' growing clout is calling into question the sustainability of a strategy in which American warplanes are bombing from the sky to advance the consolidation of power on the ground by groups that are backed by Iran and potentially hostile to the United States, analysts say.

If the fighting continues on its trajectory, there is a risk the United States will defeat the Islamic State but lose Iraq to Iran in the process, said Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Though Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has welcomed American assistance and is calling for more, the militias' strength threatens to undermine his authority and turn Iraq into a version of Lebanon, where a weak government is hostage to the whims of the powerful Hezbollah movement.

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