Row over Iraqi Shia militias
A UAE list of terrorist organisations has provoked outrage in Iraq’s ruling Shia coalition, writes Salah Nasrawi
Every time Iraqi Shia armed groups are accused of abuses against Sunnis, the country’s Shia ruling elite comes to their defence. They even express indignation for their being called militias, insisting that they are paramilitary forces which function as back-ups to the regular security forces.
But last week’s reaction to the United Arab Emirates move to include some of these militias on its new terrorism list was so furious that it almost provoked a diplomatic tussle. Iraq’s vice-president and former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki accused the UAE of itself supporting terrorism, while some Shia leaders accused it of being sectarian. Protesters in several Shia cities demanded that the oil-rich state make an apology.
The controversy started on 15 November when the UAE blacklisted 83 organisations as terrorists in line with a law it has issued to combat terrorism crimes. The measure is part of the Gulf state’s crackdown on Islamist-oriented groups deemed to be a threat to its security. Though the list includes the Islamic State (IS), the Al-Nusra Front and other jihadist groups, it also includes well-known Sunni Muslim organisations active in politics or charities.
At least one UAE group, Al-Islah, which the authorities say is part of the Muslim Brotherhood, is included on the list.
The UAE move has satisfied a promise by its government to crack down on Islamist political groups in co-ordination with other countries in the region such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia which also consider groups like the Muslim Brotherhood to be terrorist organisations.
In August, the UAE passed a law which defined a wide range of activities as terrorism crimes. Under the law, people charged with crimes like attempts on the lives of the UAE president, the rulers of other emirates or their families, or endangering their freedoms or safety risk being sentenced to death by hanging.
The law also imposes harsh punishments on other “terrorism crimes”, including attending meetings by people deemed to be terrorists. Those who “declare publicly their hostility” to the state or the regime, or show “disloyalty to the leadership”, risk being punished by ten years in jail.
UAE officials did not comment on the reaction of the Iraqi Shia groups to the list, but Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Mohamed Gargash said organisations on the list could appeal to his country’s courts to revoke the decision if they could provide evidence that they were not involved in terrorist activities.
While it remains unclear how the UAE measures will affect foreign organisations, the move can still carry political and moral weight. Groups which have been included on similar lists in the past have suffered from negative publicity even after they are removed from them. Terrorism branding may also have political ramifications, such as condemning the political and ideological goals of the communities the groups represent.
This explains the strong reaction to the news of the inclusion of Shia militias like Asaib Al-Haq, Kataab Hizbollah and the Badr Organisation on the UAE list. These groups have joined the so-called “popular mobilisation” of Shia fighters who answered a call by Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani to arms after the Islamic State group captured Sunni towns in the country in a major offensive in June.
“We condemn these false accusations,” said a statement by the leadership of the Iraqi National Alliance, a Shia party, after an emergency meeting chaired by its head, Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, and attended by Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi and other Shia leaders.
The sharply worded statement also slammed the UAE move as “hostile” to the Iraqi people and “clear support for terrorism and criminal forces”. “It is like throwing a rescue rope to IS while it is breathing its last,” the Shia leaders said, demanding that the UAE revoke its decision.
The Iraqi government, which has been reaching out to the country’s Sunni neighbours whose relations with Baghdad were strained in the years of former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s rule, did not react immediately to the UAE decision. But the Alliance’s statement seems to reflect the views of Iraq’s ruling Shia elite.
There is controversy in Iraq over the Shia militias, and the country’s Sunnis have accused them of committing atrocities while carrying out retaliatory attacks. Last week, Sunni vice-president Osama Al-Nujiafi told senior Shia politician and leader of the Iraqi Supreme Islamic Council Ammar Al-Hakim that the government should “put a halt to violations by irresponsible groups” against the Sunnis.
The UN human rights agency and international rights groups have accused the Shia militias of gross violations, including abducting and murdering Sunnis in retaliation for attacks by IS. Amnesty International has said that the militias, armed and supported by the Iraqi government, enjoy impunity for their actions.
The Al-Abadi government has vowed to rein in the Shia militias, and on Friday minister of the interior Mohammad Salim Al-Ghaban denied any connection between “these factions and the kidnapping or blackmailing of citizens.” However, Shia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr acknowledged that violations had been carried out by “some” of these militias, though he distanced his Sadrist Movement from the atrocities.
“Those who terrorise people and attack them and their property are not part of our Movement. They are infiltrators who belong to enemy militias,” Al-Sadr said.
Iraq’s Shia militias were created after the US-led invasion of the country in 2003 in order to fill the security vacuum and resist attacks on Shia neighbourhouds by extremist Sunni insurgents. Some of them, such as the Mahdi Army and the Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, joined armed confrontations with the US troops.
The issue of the Shia militias became even more contentious after the IS advance and its seizure of nearly one-third of Iraq’s territory earlier this year. Iranian-backed Shia militias are reported to have played a key role in halting the IS onslaught, protecting the capital Baghdad and key Shia shrines and retaking key towns from the terror group.
In recent months the Iraqi government has been talking about integrating the Shia militias into the security forces. It is already paying their salaries and providing them with weapons. Many of the militias also wield enormous influence in Shia neighbourhouds. They are represented in parliament and government and play an increasing role in Iraqi society.
Many questions now surround the UAE’s decision to include the Iraqi Shia militias on its terrorism black list. While the UAE has not explained why the Iraqi Shia militias are on its list of terrorist organisations, the simmering sectarian crisis in Iraq has cast a shadow over the move. Many Iraqi Shias feel that they are being targeted by the Arab Sunni world as Iraq’s sectarian tensions reach fever pitch.
One precondition set by the US-led international coalition to help Iraq combat IS is for a political process to be designed that will allow the various communities of Iraq to come back together. A central piece of that strategy, pushed for by the coalition, which includes the UAE and several other Arab countries, is to create a mainly Sunni national guard to police Sunni-dominated Iraqi provinces.
The Shia political groups that dominate the government have been reluctant to endorse the creation of such an autonomous force for fear that it will be infiltrated by loyalists to former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and other Sunni insurgents who might turn against the government once they are allowed to operate independently.
As a counter-proposal, the Shia groups want to incorporate the Shia militias into the national guard, which, they say, should also be put under the prime minister’s command. Some Shia lawmakers say that if a bill to set up the guard comes before parliament they will insist that the Kurdish Peshmergas forces are also part of the new guard units, a move the Kurds have vehemently rejected.
The fury of the Iraqi Shia leaders at the inclusion of several Iraqi Shia armed groups on the UAE terrorism list comes from the continuing ethno-sectarian tensions in the country, with Iraq’s communal factions expected to rely more heavily on their armed groups as an insurance policy.
This trend is expected to continue until an all-inclusive security system is established and a political solution to Iraq’s sectarian crisis found.
By branding their armed groups terrorists, the Iraqi Shias feel that there has been a deliberate attempt by some Sunni Arab governments to mix what the Shias perceive as their legitimate self-defence against terrorism with the brutal violence driven by the ideological appeals of the IS.