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Shiite Militias and Iraq's Security Forces

Author: Lionel Beehner
November 30, 2005
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

There is a growing chorus of complaints from Sunni Arab leaders that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) has been infiltrated by Shiite militias that engage in torture, kidnappings, and, in some cases, deaths squads against Sunnis. Though Iraq’s leadership downplays these outbreaks of violence, experts say there is widespread evidence that an increasing number of members of the Mahdi Army, led by the hot-headed Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and Badr Organization are joining the ranks of Iraq’s military and engaging in paramilitary-style policing methods. “The ISF is not a true national force but rather a carved-up conglomeration of militias,” says Kenneth Katzman, senior Middle East analyst with the Congressional Research Service. The latest evidence: The November 13 discovery of a detention center in Baghdad allegedly run by Iraqi intelligence officials linked to the Badr Organization, where eighteen of the center’s roughly 170 captives—most of them Sunni Arabs—were reportedly beaten, blindfolded, or subjected to electric shocks.

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Sunni Arab leaders accuse Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, a former high-ranking official with the Badr Organization, of turning a blind eye to this torture. The Muslim Scholars Association, a Sunni organization, recently compiled a list alleging hundreds of extrajudicial killings, disappearances, illegal raids, and instances of torture of Sunnis by individuals linked to Shiite militias. Experts say it’s impossible to tell what percent of the ISF is made up of militia members. However, according to the Los Angeles Times, the bulk of Baghdad’s largely Shiite 60,000-strong police force is split between those loyal to the Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization. Squad cars in Iraq’s capital often carry a green ribbon, the Badr Organization’s insignia, or a picture in their windows of al-Sadr.

The U.S. Position on Militias

These militias have put the U.S. government in a difficult bind: On one hand, experts say, these groups are effective in fighting the Sunni-led insurgency. Last year, the U.S. military fought alongside militia groups in counterinsurgency operations in Mosul and Samarra. On the other hand, these groups are fueling sectarian tensions and infiltrating the military, which raises doubts as to where these soldiers’ allegiance lies.

But U.S. officials seem unworried by the spread of militias. “They are increasingly an Iraqi problem, not a U.S.problem,” says a senior Defense Department official who preferred not to be named. Though Iraqi militias were technically banned by theCoalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in June 2004, the U.S. military is “encouraging existing militias into the security services—that is true,” says the Defense Department official. “We continue to examine their loyalties but also are trying to build loyalty [to the Iraqi state].”

The Mahdi Army

The Mahdi Army—named after a Shiite messianic figure—is a militia of several thousand members loyal to the young anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The group led two uprisings last year against U.S. forces before agreeing to a ceasefire in October 2004. The militia is heavily influential in Najaf, a city in southern Iraq, and in Sadr City, a Baghdad slum of some 2.5 million Shiites. Some news reports suggest the Mahdi Army may be regrouping and rearming itself. In recent months, Sadr’s group has been accused of abducting Sunni Arabs as well as members of rival Shiite militias like the Badr Organization, British troops, and journalists, including Rory Carroll, an Irish reporter for the British newspaper the Guardian. On October 27, in Medayna, a village northeast of Baghdad, a group of so-called Sadrists reportedly raided and set ablaze several homes suspected of harboring Sunni insurgents; the ensuing fight left some twenty people dead.

Some experts say the group is not an organized, disciplined unit with clear political objectives. ''I think the Sadrists are a social movement, not really so much an organization,'' said Juan Cole, a Middle East expert at the Universityof Michigan , in an interview with the New York Times. ''So you have these neighborhood-based youth gangs masquerading as an 'army.' Then you have the mosque preachers loyal to Muqtada who try to swing their congregations, and who interface with the youth gangs.''Other experts say Sadr is receiving aid from Iran’s intelligence services and Revolutionary Guard, though this is widely disputed. “Sadr is a very poor prospect as an Iranian proxy,” argues Michael Knights, a London-based associate with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “He’s xenophobic. He’s very disenchanted with Iranian-sponsored exiles who are currently heading up Iraq’s Shiite block, including of course Prime Minister [Ibrahim al-] Jaafari and SCIRI. He has recently flexed militarily with SCIRI’s Badr forces, so he’s generally not an ideal proxy for the Iranians to use.”

Regardless, Sadr has emerged as a powerful figure in Iraqi politics and relishes his new kingmaker position. Though he has refused to participate directly in Iraqi politics, his supporters won a handful of parliamentary seats in the January 30 elections and thirty of his candidates joined the mainstream Shiite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, ahead of the December 15 parliamentary elections.

The Badr Organization

The Badr Organization, formerly known as the Badr Brigade, was built by Iraqi Shiite defectors and soldiers captured by Iran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. Its members were funded, trained, and equipped by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. In 2003, the 10,000-strong militia changed its name from the Badr Brigade to the Badr Organization of Reconstruction and Development after pledging to disarm and devote itself to peaceful purposes and is now the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a Shiite opposition party founded in 1982 by Iraqi exiles in Iran. SCIRI, which has emerged as Iraq’s most powerful political party, advocates the creation of a separate, Shiite-run region comprising nine oil-rich provinces in southern Iraq. In a rare November 27 interview with the Washington Post, SCIRI’s leader, Abdul Aziz Hakim, downplayed his organization’s ties to Iran and denied accusations that the Badr Organization practiced torture or targeted Sunni Arabs.

The group, however, has remained armed, experts say, and has been accused of assassinating, torturing, and unlawfully detaining Sunni Arabs. Peter Khalil, former director of national security policy with the CPA and a Middle East analyst with the Eurasia Group, says the Badr Organization continues to receive support, both military and financial, from Iran (Al-Malaf.net, a Jordanian news site, alleges the Badr Organization still receives a monthly stipend from Tehran of roughly $3 million). The militia group has also said it will run candidates, separate from SCIRI, in the upcoming December 15 parliamentary elections as part of the United Iraqi Alliance, the most powerful Shiite coalition.

The Badr Organization has recently clashed with British troops in Basra and with the al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, also based in Iraq’s predominantly Shiite south. In August, after Sadr’s headquarters in Najaf were set aflame, the Mahdi Army staged a reprisal attack against Badr troops. “It’s a mafia-style war between two descendants of Iraq’s leading ayatollah-led families, the Sadrs and the Hakims, who don’t exactly express affection for each other,” writes Robert Dreyfuss, a national security expert, in TomPaine.Com. Further attacks were called off by Sadr after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani intervened to quell the dispute. The Badr Organization denied responsibility for setting fire to Sadr’s offices.

The Wolf Brigade

One of the Badr Organization’s offshoots is the Wolf Brigade, a unit of roughly 2,000 special commando police officially under the Ministry of the Interior that is among Iraq’s most feared groups. Last November, the brigade—which was formed in the fall of 2004 by a former three-star Shiite general and SCIRI official whose nom de guerre is Abu Walid—fought alongside U.S.-led forces in Mosul, a Sunni stronghold northwest of Baghdad. Its members dress in garb—olive uniform, red beret, wraparound sunglasses—redolent of Saddam’s elite guard; their armband logo is a menacing-looking wolf. Last December, the Wolf Brigade won further notoriety after the success of Terrorism in the Grip of Justice, a primetime show on U.S.-funded al-Iraqiya television that featured live interrogations of Iraqi insurgents by Wolf Brigade commandos. In one show, Abu Walid questioned around thirty shabbily dressed suspects, some clutching photos of their victims, waiting to confess their crimes.

The Wolf Brigade was reportedly responsible for the July seizure of eleven Sunni bricklayers who were then locked in the back of police cars and held for sixteen hours in scorching-hot temperatures. The brigade’s fierceness has given it a mythological aura among Shiite Iraqis: Parents are said to warn their children about the “wolves.” There are also patriotic songs devoted to the group.

However, in May, the Sunni-controlled Muslim Scholars Association and other Sunni Arab leaders accused the Wolf Brigade of targeting Palestinian refugees in Iraq, using torture to extract confessions from prisoners, raiding Sunni homes, and engaging in “mass killings” and arrests in northeastern Baghdad. Walid denies the charges. Yet human rights groups say the Wolf Brigade, because of its counterterrorism television show, is violating the Geneva Conventions by publicly humiliating detainees. Despite its heavy-handed tactics, the group has proved useful to counterinsurgency operations. In mid-November 2004, the Wolf Brigade successfully arrested more than 300 suspected insurgents, including several Sunni officials, in Baqubah, a city northeast of Baghdad. The militia has also spawned copycat groups, not necessarily under the aegis of the Interior Ministry, with names like the Tiger, Scorpion, or Snake brigades.

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