The price of relying on Tehran-backed militias


By Mosa ZahedM.Zahed

London, Middle East Forum for Development – The Iraqi government has declared that it will start an investigation in to the massacre of 72 unarmed Iraqi civilians who were reportedly executed in cold blood by Shia militias this week in the village of Barwanah, located in the Diyala province, following a military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Detailed eye-witness accounts described the horror which unfolded north of Baghdad, after Iraqi government forces retook two dozen villages from ISIS near the town of Muqdadiya, including Barwanah. According to one eye witness account, thirteen men were lined up by Shia militias and shot. “I saw them falling like domino pieces” the eye-witness told Reuters news agency. According to reports, Iraqi soldiers looked on and cried as paramilitary forces
went about their business and massacred the unarmed Sunni civilians.


Of course facts should be established before drawing final conclusions as to what exactly happened in Barwanah. However, if an independent investigation is indeed launched and the results confirm the survivor’s accounts of the massacre, it will come as no surprise to those who have been closely monitoring the conflict in Iraq. These government-backed Shia militias, with links to Iran, have gained notoriety in the post-Saddam era for assassinating Iraqi dissidents as they were authorised to operate with impunity alongside Iraqi forces, particularly during the reign of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Shia militias such as Asaib al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah flourished under favourable circumstances and successfully repressed Iraqi civilians by applying brutal skills and tactics gained through training with the Quds Force, the extra-territorial arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, under the orders of Commander Qasem Soleimani. Through abductions, torture and summary executions, Iraqi security forces, in coordination with these pro-government militias, have in the past decade spread terror throughout the country and fuelled sectarian tensions, which paved way for the current conflict.


Iran’s covert operations in Iraq, following the fall of Saddam Hussein and his establishment in 2003, have undeniably been the continuation of its regional strategy which is centred on expanding influence. However, following the outbreak of the current crisis, Tehran aspires to present itself as an ally in the fight against ISIS, as if the Ayatollahs suddenly care about the fate of the Iraqi people. General Soleimani, who was once dubbed as the Iranian general who secretly runs Iraq, rid himself of his mysterious prestige and is now overtly identified in photographs circulating in social media, in which he is seen posing with Shia militias in Iraqi cities as a “liberator”. Soleimani’s presence in Iraq is in violation of a travel ban imposed by the UN Security Council, and the government of Iraq is required to deny him entry to the country.


Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had nothing but praise for Tehran as he recently told the World Economic Forum in Davos that Iran was providing crucial backing in the war against ISIS. “I have received quite sizable (amounts of) ammunition free of charge. And we have been promised deferred payments on some arms sales to Iraq,” he said. He went on denying the presence of Iranian soldiers on Iraqi soil even though photographs and video footage indicate otherwise.


Devising an effective strategy to defeat ISIS should be the priority of the al-Abadi government. Nevertheless, by relying on Tehran and its proxies in this conflict, which originates from Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian policies and Iran’s interference, will come at a heavy price. The recent alleged massacre of civilians at Barwaneh village is a clear and grim reminder of what is to come if Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi continues to tolerate the presence of high ranking Iranian officials on the ground in Iraq and Shia militia forces that operate outside any legal framework. Al-Abadi should take note on how the sectarian policies of his predecessor dramatically backfired on him, subsequently resulting in the current crisis, and ensure he does not make the same mistakes.


(Mosa Zahed is the founding director of Middle East Forum for Development, a non-governmental organisation in London)


Originally published by at



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