Shiite militias risk sectarian rift
BAGHDAD — Iraqi soldiers are battling to drive the Islamic State out of Fallujah. But just beyond the edges of the flashpoint city are Shiite militias that many Iraqis fear could undermine the campaign against the radical group.
These government-aligned militiamen have helped push the Islamic State out of key areas of the country but also have become a complication for the U.S.-backed military coalition assembled to destroy the hard-line Sunni group. They filled an important void left by Iraq's weakened armed forces, but their religiously motivated agenda has aggravated Iraq's combustible sectarian divisions.
That is particularly problematic in a place like Fallujah, in Iraq's Sunni heartland, where residents have a history of revolt. A decade ago, al-Qaida militants staged a punishing insurgency against then-occupying U.S. troops. Anger at the government in Baghdad helped the Islamic State win control of the area in January 2014.
Iraq's government has ordered the militias to stay away from the fighting inside the city. And the U.S. military says it refuses to give them air support, fearing that their involvement could help the Islamic State rally besieged residents to its cause.
The militias “are sectarian just like Daesh is sectarian,” said Majid al-Juraisi, a tribal leader from the city who fled to Baghdad when the Islamic State took control in January 2014. Daesh is the Arabic name for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.
“We reject their involvement in this campaign — completely,” he said.
The militias — mostly Shiite Muslim groups known collectively as popular mobilization units, or PMUs — have a reputation for brutal reprisals against Sunnis suspected of being loyal to the Islamic State. Iraqis and human rights groups have accused them of torture, forced disappearances and executions.
Iraqi officials fear that in Fallujah, about an hour's drive west of Baghdad, the militias' reputation has played into the hands of the Islamic State. The group appears to be telling residents that the government's assault will result in sectarian slaughter.