Round face, piercing eyes, black turban. The face of Muqtada al-Sadr flew over all Baghdad as if it were one of the magical carpets of The Arabian Nights. The pamphlets of the so-called Mahdi Army were scattered by wind and sand and were lost in the strong amber mist produced by the desert storms. It also appeared in the huge amount of posters pasted throughout the city. The concrete walls raised as protection in each street provided the perfect frame for that plump and imposing figure. He emerged as one of the men who were preparing to take power.
Only a year after the fall of Saddam Hussein and the US invasion; the ambitions of power surfaced throughout Iraq. Muqtadaá is the son of an important Shiite cleric killed by the Saddamist secret police. It had become a symbol of the Shiite resistance that now pointed its weapons towards the American Marines. The Mahdí Army of Muqtadaá was just one of the many Shiite militias trained and armed by Iran that began to compete for power. Fifteen years later, that bid becomes increasingly violent and threatens to launch the Second Iraq War.
In the bottom there is always the conflict that has been going on for more than 1,400 years. The struggle between the factions within Islam. With the death of Muhammad, there was a division between those who believed that the leadership of the Muslims should be in the hands of the clergy (the Sunnis) and those who accepted Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad, as his successor (Shia). Since then, they face each other.
80% of Muslims around the world are Sunni and their political power is led by Saudi Arabia. The remaining 20%, who live mostly in Iran, southern Iraq and Lebanon, are Shiites and obey the directives of the Ayatollahs of Tehran. Saddam was a member of the Sunni Iraqi minority that subjugated the Shia majority and fought in the 1980s an eight-year war with Iran that left more than a million dead and two million wounded. All this is ancient history but it is still present in the spirit of what is happening in the Middle East today and that is moving around the rest of the world with the intensity of a typhoon.
When the Iraqi army, with the support of American and Kurdish special forces, liberated Mosul last year, the government of Baghdad (Shiites) immediately declared victory over ISIS (Sunnis) and the end of their caliphate. The three-year conflict against the jihadist terrorists who had seized much of the north of the country was over. But the statement was premature.
The strength of Islamic militant ISIS militants remains a major threat, not only because of its own capacity as an insurgent movement but also because Iraq's ruling elites did not know how to improve the conditions that allowed ISIS to have some support from the local population. The inability to address the basic needs of many people immersed in extreme poverty and exhausted by conflict, to remedy political and social divisions, and to forge a common national framework that unifies the country, Not only do they make possible the return of ISIS but it could soon pave the way for another devastating civil war as rival groups compete for control of the Iraqi state.
After the parliamentary elections of May 2018, Iraq was supposed to turn the page to a new post-ISIS chapter, even post-sectarian, in which politicians would remedy the polarization of the country, endemic corruption and military instability. However, things are getting worse.
The weakened Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, who took third place in the elections, presented a series of symbolic anti-corruption initiatives that failed to convince anyone. To do anything in the land of the ex-Babylonia one has to give "bakshish", a certain "charity" that oiled the way of any need.
After the May elections, mass demonstrations took place in much of southern Iraq. The most violent were recorded in Basra, the city of Sinbad the sailor over the Persian Gulf, where protesters burned the buildings of the provincial council and the Iranian consulate and assaulted the offices of political parties. Iraqi security forces and Shi'ite paramilitary militias responded with deadly force and tortured the imprisoned.
Basra owns Iraq's largest oil reserves, accounts for 80% of the country's oil exports, and provides more than $ 7 billion a month to government coffers. It should be the richest province in Iraq, but it is among the poorest. Like much of the country, the city does not have drinking water, electricity or jobs.
The uprising of Basra, of the Shiite population against a government of the same current, strips away the frustration of the population and the little credibility that the government has In fact, this was the case with all the governments that followed each other since the fall of the Saddam regime. Iraq has all the characteristics of a country susceptible to relapse into violence.
Beyond political and social polarization, it suffers from the inexorable accumulation of weapons and military organizations, the absence of viable institutions and multiple alternative authorities that supplant the State. Many areas of the country are beyond the influence and control of the government, including the predominantly Shiite south, where power is diffusely distributed among parties, militias, tribes and clerics.. Since 2003, the internal conflict was between the Sunni Arab and Shiite communities. But now, the kalashnikovs are all wielded by Shiites and are aimed at each other.
When ISIS was launched in 2014 to conquer an enormous territory between Syria and Iraq – bridging the border between the two countries – it filled a political and ideological vacuum that still exists. It capitalized on feelings of marginalization among Iraqi Sunnis, as well as discontent over corruption and the incapacity of the Baghdad government.
These deep-seated resentments are still very present, but it is unlikely that Sunni Arabs will have the strength at this time to return to arms. They are too bruised, bloodied and fatigued as a result of innumerable wars against internal enemies (ISIS, Al Qaeda in Iraq, tribal internecine struggles) and external (the United States, the Iraqi armed forces dominated by Shiites and groups of Shiite militias). On the whole, Shiite militias are more powerful than the Iraqi armed forces, which collapsed in the face of the ISIS offensive in 2014.
Shiite armed groups such as Al-Nujaba, Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata'ib, Hezbollah and Badr they grew and gained experience during the war against the Islamic State. Many of its leaders are not only linked to Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), but also they are led by warlords that the United States keeps on its list of dangerous terrorists.
Two of the top leaders of these militias were prisoners in US camps but were part of the Popular Mobilization Force that joined the "official" Iraqi paramilitary forces between 2016 and 2018 to fight the enemy in common at that time, which was the ISIS . In this way, they managed to build an important arsenal and even "borrowed" tanks and missile launchers that the US military had ceded to the Iraqi generals before leaving the country. "We are not rebels or agents of chaos and we do not want to be a state within a state," said Hashim al-Mouasawi of the Al-Nujaba militia a few weeks ago. But they are better trained and armed than the official forces. When the former Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, demanded that the Baghdad government demobilize the militias, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi responded that this was impossible because they were "the hope" of Iraq.
A year later, Al Abadi finds himself in the middle of a war between Washington and Tehran. The White House of Donald Trump wants a responsible administration to emerge in Baghdad and diminish the influence of Iran. But the United States has not been able to separate the militias from the central government until now. The Shi'ite paramilitary groups do not submit to the control of the army even though they are entrenched within state institutions and exploit state resources.
The most powerful and oldest militia, the Badr Brigade (formed in the 1980s in Iran), commands the federal police and heads the Ministry of the Interior since 2003. The Badr fighters liberated bloody battles against the men of Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia. The Islamic Dawa party of Prime Minister Abadi does not have a militia of its own, but he used his control over the armed forces to suppress his rivals. He also mobilized and armed the fighters of the tribes that are still predominant in much of Iraqi territory. The Grand Ayatollah, Ali al Sistani, the leading Iraqi Shiite cleric and custodian of the holy city of Najaf, he had to mediate several times to avoid major confrontations.
The fight against the US forces, first, and later with the al Qaeda insurgents and their successor, the ISIS, made so far that the Shiite militias were more concerned about fighting a common enemy than facing each other. The creation of the Popular Mobilization Force (MPF), which formed an umbrella for the different factions after the collapse of the Iraqi army when ISIS took Mosul, is a state institution that supposedly submits to government control. But, in reality, it is led and dominated by a variety of autonomous militia groups aligned with Iran that do not respond to the Baghdad executive.
The FMP is taking so much power that it could at any time absorb the conventional armed forces and become the regular Iraqi army. This would be a major problem for the United States and a good part of the world because the militias would control a much more powerful last generation arsenal that other countries in the region have. According to a Pentagon report, Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of the Badr Brigade and de facto head of the PMF, warned US special envoy Brett McGurk that he would overthrow any government formed as a result of Washington interference. As a signal, several mortar rounds were fired at the US embassy this week in the fortified green area of Baghdad. And in Basra, they attacked with rockets the American consulate that is located inside the airport of the city.
In a short time, those shots could find another destination: any rival militia. With the sophisticated weapons they already possess and a part of the heavy armament (from tanks to bombing planes) that is still in the hands of the professional army, it would lead to protracted conflict. The only one who could stop this new Iraqi war is Ayatollah Sistani. Since 2003, the statements and fatwas of the cleric helped contain the sectarian confrontation.
In 2014, when ISIS seized Mosul, Sistani forced former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step down, what paved the way for Prime Minister Abadi, and mobilized volunteers to prevent ISIS from expanding. Now, he also wants to get rid of Abadi who is weakened and is the face of failure. Few leaders in the history of Iraq fought with the clerics in Najaf and left unharmed. It is also true that so far Sistani, who is close to ninety years of age, has not managed to avoid confrontations between the different factions or unify them into a single Shiite force. Each time it appears with more clarity that, as has been happening for fourteen centuries, everything will be resolved on the battlefield and with an ocean of blood.