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On the Front Line of the War Against Isis, Joint Action by US and Iran Has Never Felt Closer
Shia militiamen believe the nuclear deal will herald more American help in battle to liberate Iraq
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They are home to more than a million of Iraq’s Shia Muslims, and contain the tombs of that faith’s holiest figures. In recent months they have provided thousands of fighters for the militias battling Isis, but their inhabitants have watched in frustration as US air power has been deployed in support of the less effective Iraqi army.

On 15 July though, in the cities of Najaf and Karbala there was a sense that the nuclear deal struck on 14 July between neighbouring Iran, the world’s leading Shia nation, and the West may yet lead to closer US support for the Shia militias as they try to dislodge their Sunni jihadist foes from captured Iraqi cities.

“American air attacks are playing a role in the battle for Fallujah,” a divisional commander of the Iraqi paramilitary militia admitted grudgingly, though he also listed the occasions when the US had failed to support Shia forces in previous battles against Isis.

The parallel but distinct wars against Isis pursued by the US and Iran in Iraq were converging even before the accord. Over the last year, the Iranians have mostly supported the militia forces, while the US air campaign and training has focused on backing the regular Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga.

Shia religious leaders in Najaf and Karbala, whose shrines are venerated by Shia across the world, are uncertain what the nuclear accord will mean in practice. But some believe it will lead to greater military co-operation between the US and Iran against Isis. “It shows that diplomacy can work,” said one senior clergyman in Najaf. “Now we need everybody to unite to destroy Isis as a threat to the whole world.”

The capture of Ramadi by Isis on 17 May means that the Baghdad government now depends heavily on the Shia Hashd al-Shaabi, or popular mobilisation units. Sheikh Karim Abdul Hussain, the commander of the 8,400-strong Imam Ali division of five brigades from Najaf, puts the militias’ military strength at 120,000 men. He would not comment on how much impact any measure of détente between Iran and the US would have on the war.

A senior Shia clergyman called for the US to supply Iraq with modern weapons and to put pressure on Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar to stop providing covert military aid to Isis, and to rebel groups in Syria affiliated to al-Qaeda. Another demand of the Shia religious leaders is that neighbouring countries, notably Turkey, close their borders to volunteer fighters crossing into Iraq and Syria to join Isis.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the senior Shia clergy, based in Najaf and Karbala, have always been influential in Iraqi politics. Two-thirds of Iraq’s 33 million population are Shia. But Iraqi government corruption, and its failure stop Isis taking control of a third of the country, has discredited Iraqi politicians, including the Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi. The Iraqi army disintegrated in humiliating circumstances when it lost Mosul in June last year and was similarly defeated in Ramadi this May.


This puts the senior Shia clergy at the heart of the Iraqi war effort. The Hashd militia was created after Isis captured Mosul, when Sistani issued a fatwa calling for people to join military formations to fight Isis. The religious leaders say their call was to defend Iraq, not to set up sectarian Shia militia. However, the Hashd is overwhelmingly Shia and far outnumbers the combat-ready strength of the Iraqi army, said by one Baghdad security official to number between 10,000 and 12,000 men.

The number of Hashd casualties is not known, but their training period is often as little as 25 days, leading to unnecessary losses, some say. Black banners with the names of those killed in the war are fastened to walls in prominent places, such as at crossroads, in Karbala.

The outcome of these battles against Isis in central Iraq may be affected by even a limited rapprochement between Iran and the US. It could mean that the US would conduct air strikes in support of military action by the Hashd – nominally under the authority of the Iraqi Prime Minister and his national security adviser, Faleh al-Fayadh, and answerable to the defence ministry on operational matters.

In reality, Iranian control is predominant in only three of the main milita units. “Would it surprise you to know that there are more American advisers in Iraq today than there are Iranian advisers?” said a senior cleric in Karbala, who played down Iranian influence. He added that Ramadi had only fallen because the Iraqi government, under pressure from the US and Sunni politicians, had rejected an offer of help from the Hashd.

Overall, the nuclear accord may not immediately translate into wide-ranging co-operation between Iran and US against Isis. But over time it may encourage the US to do business with Iran’s allies – the Shia militias in Iraq and the Syrian army in Syria – if it is to stop Isis winning more victories.

Shia clerical leaders are cautious, but they hope the US will no longer automatically support the approach of Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar – its traditional allies, which have backed the Sunni-dominated rebels in Syria.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iran, Iraq, ISIS, Shias and Sunnis 
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  1. […] with the West may change Iran’s involvement somewhat in Iraq, with increased chances for joint operations with the US and other nations against ISIS. They both like Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated […]

  2. […] with the West may change Iran’s involvement somewhat in Iraq, with increased chances for joint operations with the US and other nations against ISIS. They both like Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated […]

  3. Cockburns Iranian-Shia tilt is obvious. He now describes the Shia as 2/3 of the Iraqi population. So was the rest of the population liquified by Shia death squads working with tacit US approval. The second agenda that comes forth is the US Iranian deal is to give Iran hegemony over rest of the Muslim world and create a permanent Shia- non Shia war. Thirdly Cockburns appears to have sympathies for the pathological Assad tyranny which has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and made nine million homeless. Cockburn, Iran and Hizbullah appear to be on the same side in this matter.

    • Replies: @Anonymous
  4. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:
    @Sectarian Watch

    Assad didn’t kill hundreds of thousand of civilians and didn’t make anyone homeless. The Turks, the Saudis – the most pathologically sadistic govt in the world – and the Gulf State Arabs supplied the lunatic fringe of Islam with weapons, money and supplies to eradicate not only the Shia but the Christians of Syria and Iraq. Assad is a choir boy compared to Isis. Syria was secular and peaceful before Isis arrived. It was also multi-cultural. All the ancient Assyrian and Aramaean shrines remained intact under his govt. Now – after the Saudis and Turks have had their way – the shrines are gone, the Christians are gone and the Saudis are repeating their genocidal impulses in Yemen. Assad’s troops never kidnapped hundreds of Yezidi girls and sold them as slaves. He never burned down a church or a mosque. He kept a tight lid on the Sunni extremists because – unlike the US govt – he knew what they would do if they were ever given the free reign to do it. Same with Sadaam. The US didn’t liberate Iraq from Sadaam. We just let the lunatics out of the asylum.

    • Replies: @Wizard of Oz
  5. @Anonymous

    A quibble. Peace had surely ended well before ISIL got any sort of grip on Syria. All those “moderates” were being armed and encouraged.

    May I put in a plea to conspiracists to consider a place for naiveté in their scheme of things. The “Arab Spring” for Chrissake!! I wondered about the moralism of William Hague, UK foreign secretary and the eloquent former Leader of the Conservative Opposition, McKinsey consultant and before that First Class Honours graduate from Oxford. And now I am almost shocked to think how naive he could be. Woodrow Wilson reincarnated perhaps?

    • Replies: @neutral1
  6. neutral1 says:
    @Wizard of Oz

    Assad is a dictator whose iron fisted rule kept Syria together.Its time to appreciate that Arabs and their sharia desire cannot exist as a democracy. Iraq, Libya, Bahrain, Saudi ,Qatar, Jordan are/were peaceful under a dictator.
    Democracy failed in Egypt, Algeria, Gaza, Somalia when the majority decided they want to be led by Allah laws

    • Replies: @Anonymous
  7. Romanian says:

    “Every day is Ashura, and every place is Karbala”… this will hold true even after ISIS is destroyed. Alliances of convenience will outlive their usefulness, and the eternal Sunni-Shia conflict as state policies will continue.

  8. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    If Hitler won and democracy lost, we wouldn’t have these problems. He was suicdal and now we have suicidal jihadis all over the place

  9. What you may be missing about Arab history, and the political culture that has struggled to overcome that history, is the fact that the core Arab region – the Levant, Mesopotamia and the peninsula – has been under foreign imperial domination for over 700 years. First it was under the increasingly inept and exploitative rule of the Ottomans, followed by the Franco/British liberation/betrayal during which the Arab lands were partitioned into artificial, illegitimate states to suit the needs of the decaying European empires, and finally, the burden of empire has been taken-on by the US, which has sadly proven to be the most inept, exploitative and brutal in its results of all. No society with so much potential power and wealth as the Arabs have had could overcome such imperial pressures except through forceful, lethal resistance. Unfortunately, western imperialism has been so effective for so long at suppressing the legitimate secular pan-Arab resistance movements – only the Algerian resistance having achieved its minimal goal – that people have fallen-back on religious and tribal identities that can never offer a better future than surrendering to imperial domination can offer.

    It is no accident that the governments that the western powers have destroyed or undermined in the most egregious, outrageous and underhanded ways aree all secular Arab nationalist: Iraq, Libya and Syria.

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