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Sectarian cleansing rears its ugly face again in Iraq

“Sunnis were grabbed in the streets or dragged from their homes and instantly killed. In the first week of the events, militiamen drove around with speakers shouting for Sunni men to come out of their homes. On Jan. 13, more than 100 men were taken and have not been seen since.”
This is just a snippet from Amnesty International’s description of actions by Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi in Muqdadiyah in early 2016, in a report issued last week documenting crimes against humanity across Iraq.
Almost one year previously, a similar wave of killings was perpetrated in Muqdadiyah in Diyala province. This time the head of the Badr Brigades, Hadi Al-Amiri, had taken the trouble to visit the town and warn them what to expect: “The day of judgment is coming... We will attack the area until nothing is left. Is my message clear?”
This threat was carried out a few days later on Jan. 26, 2015, when at least 72 unarmed civilians were rounded up and murdered in cold blood. We have had a succession of similar reports by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. In addition to testimonies documenting the summary killings of hundreds of citizens, there are reports of tens of thousands of others who have been captured by Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi and simply disappeared.
It is not unreasonable to assume that most of them will never be seen again. Many disappearances occur at checkpoints manned by Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi militias. Amnesty’s report cites the disappearance of at least 2,200 people at a single checkpoint, Razzaza, between Anbar and Baghdad.
Often summary executions, torture and kidnappings happen in the presence of security personnel or near police headquarters. Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi knows that it can act with impunity. No militia member has ever been held accountable for such crimes. These war crimes are not the result of out-of-control individuals. This is systematic policy.
The same militias were responsible for the killings of tens of thousands of Iraqis during the worst violence in 2005-08. Areas of eastern Baghdad became entirely depopulated of Sunnis as millions fled their homes.
By late 2006, the UN estimated that 45,000 Iraqis were fleeing their homes every month, mostly from demographically-mixed areas. Extremists such as Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi were also responsible for atrocities, but the worst of the systematic campaigns of sectarian cleansing were directed against Sunni populations.
A high proportion of these genocidal operations were attributed to the Badr Brigades, which flooded the security services with its own personnel after its leader Bayan Jabr became interior minister in 2005. Badr was once again given the Interior Ministry in 2014. History is repeating itself.
The same militias that were perpetrating mass sectarian cleansing in 2006 are back in control. In 2014, Al-Amiri was given full security responsibility for Diyala, where the massacres cited at the beginning of this article took place. He is part of the hierarchy of Iran’s Al-Quds Force, which gave him paramilitary training in the 1980s. Al-Amiri’s Iranian family lives in Iran, and he is not shy about declaring his full loyalty to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Amnesty’s report also documents large quantities of heavy and light weapons that have fallen into the hands of Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi militias. A large proportion of these arms seem to have been purloined from the state due to deliberate policy or oversight failures.
Sixteen states were singled out and warned of their responsibility to ensure that arms exports to Iraq cannot be “used by paramilitary militias to flagrantly violate rights.” Unsurprisingly, Iran was singled out as the origin of much of Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi’s arsenal, but the US, China, Russia, Europe and others had all exported weapons that fell into militia hands.
Diyala was a Sunni-majority province in 2003. However, 13 years of bloody campaigns against the population have caused hundreds of thousands to flee. Sunnis are now a minority, meaning pro-Iran sectarian politicians can consolidate their dominance during the 2017 provincial elections and the 2018 national elections. Citizens have been systematically prevented from returning home, and periodic massacres in Diyala and elsewhere send new waves of citizens into exile.
I loathe having to discuss these issues from a sectarian perspective, having grown up in pre-civil war Lebanon, where most of us were color-blind to sectarian differences. Daesh and Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi are as bad as each other. Neither serve any given sect, simply their own murderous political objectives.
The actions of Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi militias have little to do with Daesh (against whom they have been singularly ineffective) and everything to do with achieving hegemony over the Iraqi state. In Mosul, Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi militias are primarily engaged in securing the border with Syria. By hooking up with Iranian proxy militias in Syria, this puts Iran close to having full control over a contiguous strip of territory all the way to the Mediterranean.
Looking at the bigger picture, it is clear that a campaign of sectarian cleansing is being waged in Iraq that has many of the features of genocide. Systematic killings have been carried out by pro-Iranian entities with the aim of eradicating Sunnis from mixed areas. Likewise, the killings and disappearances at checkpoints heading into Baghdad are transparently designed to prevent a relocation of Sunnis to the capital.
Iran’s project in Iraq likewise has nothing to do with sect or religion. There is ample documentation to demonstrate Iranian funding for Sunni extremists such as Al-Zarqawi, who lived in Iran and was trained by the Revolutionary Guards.
Iran’s aim in supporting the insurgency at the time was triggering a sectarian war that would bog the Americans down in an unwinnable conflict. Iran’s objective now in supporting Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi is to consolidate its control of the Iraqi state by exterminating groups opposed to its dominance.
Once Daesh is defeated and pro-Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi groups have consolidated their hold on power in new rounds of elections, Iran’s position will be even stronger. There will be even less need for secrecy about systematic sectarian cleansing against anti-Iranian components of the population.
For the same reason, Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi leaders have waged a media campaign of disinformation against Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi and Defense Minister Khaled Al-Obaidi, in order to prepare the ground for pro-Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi candidates in the coming elections, while resisting legal attempts to rein it in and make it more accountable.
Similarly, Iran has been waging a campaign to ensure that when Iraqi Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani dies, he will be replaced by a pro-Iran candidate — hoping to combine theological power with military and political might.
“The so-called ‘popular militia’ is a religious organization, which carries out mass killings in Iraq with support of Iranian generals headed by Qassim Soleimani,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir last week. “The existence of such armed groups threatens the unity and security of Iraq… There should be no place for Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi if we want a united Iraq.”
In recent days and weeks, we have seen provocative military exercises by Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi militias near the Saudi border, the expulsion and assassination attempt against Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to Iraq, and increasingly hostile statements against the Kingdom by pro-Iran figures such as Nouri Al-Maliki. This demonstrates how Iraq is being used as a proxy tool by Iran against its regional rivals.
Iraq was once a proud Arab state, and it will be again. Baghdad is the historic heart of the Arab world. No amount of Iranian interference, sectarian cleansing or genocidal campaigns against Sunni Arabs can ever change this.
It simply means that when the inevitable counter-blow to Iranian interference in Iraq occurs — assuming that the Tehran regime has not already collapsed under its own unpopularity — the bloody nose that Khamenei receives will be all the worse.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate, a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.