Following the US military's withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2011, Sunni and Shia militias changed course: Some joined the political process, while others went through a period of inactivity. The ongoing conflict in Syria, however, has given a new lease on life to many of those groups.
And despite the apparent sectarian edge of the current conflict, neither the Sunni nor the Shia militias are acting as a monolith. They are both fraught with divisions.
Al Jazeera maps out the different forces dominating Iraq's killing fields.
Iraqi Sunni Armed Groups
Anti-government protests in Iraq since 2011, and the harsh crackdown that followed, gave the country's Sunni armed groups a new reason for political action. Weekly protests in predominately Sunni-populated cities, like Ramadi and Fallujah, created a new momentum demanding political rights for Sunnis.
There are well-known Sunni groups like the Islamic Army of Iraq and other less known ones such as Ansar al-Islam (Supporters of Islam), Jaish al-Mujadiheen (al-Mujhaideen Army), Kata'ib Thawarat al-Ishreen (1920 Revolution Brigades).
General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries
The General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries was announced in January to capitalise on the anti-government protest movement that has been going on in several Iraqi provinces since 2011. Government military intervention in Anbar, armed crackdown on protest camps, and the arrest of prominent Sunni member of parliament, Ahmed al-Alwani in late 2013, triggered an armed response by pro-revolution activists and loyal tribal forces.
The Islamic Army of Iraq supported the protest movement as did the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, which is affiliated with the Baath party. Both groups took advantage of the protests to expand their influence over Sunni strongholds since mid-2013.
A new coordinating body, the General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries (GMCIR), was established to coordinate between the various local tribal players and to be the armed wing of the protest movement.
It claimed to have a presence in Ramadi, Salahaddin, Abu Ghraib, Baghdad, Mosul, and Diyala.
In June, GMCIR spokesperson, former General Muzhir al-Qaisi, told Al Jazeera that his group in not sectarian and it answers to local tribal forces who are revolting against the injustices committed by Nouri al-Maliki's government. He said his group is led by former Iraqi military officers and fighters who fought against US forces in Iraq during the occupation.
When it comes to the relationship with ISIL, Qaisi told Al Jazeera that his group does not condone any human rights abuses and does not coordinate with ISIL. He noted that the GMCIR wants a democratic political solution to the Iraqi crisis. He claimed that his group is in control of Mosul, Salahaddin, Fallujah and Baiji.
The group, considering its local nature, is one of the main groups fighting Iraqi military forces in the current conflict.
Islamic Army of Iraq (IAI)
|The group is thought to be led by former Iraqi military officers [IAI/YouTube]
One of the major Sunni armed groups formed after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the group is thought to be led by former Iraqi military officers. It has kept a distance from armed Sunnis groups affiliated with both the Baathists and al-Qaeda.
During 2006-2007, some IAI members were thought to have joined the US-backed Awakening Councils to fight al-Qaeda. The group also reportedly shifted its attention more towards what it considered growing Iranian influence inside Iraq, especially as US forces began to withdraw.
After a relatively inactive period, the group was seen as a supporter of the anti-government protests that has spread since 2011.
During the recent fighting, the group released a video , allegedly showing its troops patrolling the eastern areas of Baghdad. It also proclaimed its intention to enter the Iraqi capital. The group is thought to be more active in areas around Anbar and Baghdad.
It wants a political solution based on a federal state and demands the removal of Maliki from power.
The Men of the Naqshbandi Order
|group is active in Nineveh, Diyala, and Salahaddin provinces in Iraq [Naqshbandi handout]
This armed group is loyal to Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the most senior member of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's regime still at large. It started its armed activities in July 2003 against US forces in Iraq, and launched itself as a group at the end of 2006, after the execution of Saddam.
The group refused to take part in the political process vowing "not to give up arms until Iraq is liberated from the American Zionist Safavid occupation".
The group is active in Nineveh, Diyala, and Salaheddin provinces in Iraq. It claimed responsibility for many attacks against US forces in Iraq and vows not to fight against any other groups seeking to liberate Iraq.
The group captured the town of Sulaiman Bek in Salaheddin province for about two days in April 2013. This is after government forces used force to break Sunni protests in Hawija, a town west of Kirkuk, leaving dozens of protesters dead and triggering a wave of clashes with government of forces.
The group's ideology is a mix of Islamic and pan-Arab nationalistic ideas.
The Awakening Councils
This group is made up of Sunni tribal fighters who oppose al-Qaeda and its presence in Iraq. In 2006, they helped US forces expel al-Qaeda from Sunni provinces, like Anbar, where the councils were established, and from Sunni districts in Baghdad.
At that time, the councils were estimated to have about 100,000 fighters who wanted to be integrated into Iraqi forces after helping defeat al-Qaeda. About 70,000 of their fighters were given security and government jobs and about 30,000 continued to man security checkpoints in Sunni areas in return for a monthly salary from the government.
The relationship between the councils and the Maliki government deteriorated especially after the US' withdrawal from Iraq as the councils felt neglected. While such neglect began before the US withdrawal, it worsened in the years that followed.
In 2012, their leader, Ahmed Abu Richa, joined anti-government camps in Anbar and made the same demands as the protesters, such as releasing detainees, more Sunni representation in government institutions, and more integration of Sunnis into the political process.
In March 2013, Abu Richa terrorism charges were filed against him.
At the beginning of 2014, Abu Richa switched sides and aligned himself and his followers with government forces in response to an increasing ISIL role in Anbar. Awakening Council members also reportedly fought along with government forces against al-Qaeda during the ongoing confrontations.
In June, in an interview with Al Jazeera, the spokesman of the GMCIR, former general Muzhir al-Qaisi described the Awakening Councils as "part of an American Project" signalling distrust towards the group.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)
|ISIL is seen as too controversial, too brutal, and divisive [AP]
ISIL is an al-Qaeda-inspired group that has grown powerful over the past three years, becoming more threatening to the regimes in Syria and Iraq.
ISIL is the descendant of various al-Qaeda affiliated groups that have been active in Iraq since 2004. After a surge in violence, Sunni tribal fighters, organised under the Awakening Councils, fought ISIL’s mother organisations, denying them safe havens in major Sunni areas of Iraq.
The ongoing conflict in Syria gave the group a new opportunity to reorganise. The group expanded into Syria to fight the regime there, and in 2013 wanted to unite with an al-Qadea affiliate working in Iraq, the Nusra Front. Yet, the strict ideology and harsh tactics used by ISIL, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi broke down the new alliance.
A deadly crackdown on anti-government protest camps in Anbar province at the end of 2013 gave ISIL the opportunity to expand and fill in the growing security void. In June, the group was a leading force in seizing several major Iraqi towns, including Mosul, from Iraqi military forces.
According to several reports, ISIL took over some major checkpoints on the borders with Syria and Jordan, giving it the opportunity to connect the main areas under its control in eastern Syria and western Iraq.
The group in known for its sectarian ideology and practices and its growing role in Iraq is raising fears among other Sunni armed forces. The group is seen as too controversial, too brutal, and divisive as it advocates strong sectarian ideas and very often fights with various Iraqi forces, such as the Peshmerga Kurdish Forces and the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order.
The number of ISIL fighters is estimated at a few thousand, including foreign fighters.
|Since the fall of Mosul, the Kurdish Peshmerga have taken a lead role in the battle for Iraq [EPA]
Since ISIL took control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in June, the Kurdish Peshmerga have taken a lead role in the battle for Iraq.
There is conflicting information about the history of the Peshmerga, literally meaning "those who confront death". Peshmerga fighters have been around since the birth of a Kurdish nationalist movement in the 1920s, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
But they took on a more prominent role in the 1960s, during the Kurdish Democratic Party's (KDP) conflict with Saddam and the Baathists.
Ibrahim al-Marashi, author of Iraq's Armed Forces , says the Peshmerga were considered "a terrorist group" by the Baathists and during much of Saddam's presidency.
During the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, the Peshmerga provided the US with political and military assistance . The invasion ultimately shifted the status of the Peshmerga to what Marashi calls "an official military under the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)".
Standing 200,000 strong and comprised of both male and female fighters, the Peshmerga are largely "funded by the budget of the KRG and Baghdad", Marashi says .
Nathaniel Rabkin, t he managing editor of Inside Iraqi Politics - a political risk newsletter - says the Peshmerga "seem to be equipped mostly with Soviet-style weapons, either seized from Saddam's army or purchased in later years from former Communist bloc countries".
Rabkin says that from 1995-2005, the Peshmerga "gradually professionalised, to the point where it now functions more or less as a conventional military force".
The Peshmerga, according to Marashi, "are battle hardened fighters, trained in combat in mountainous terrain". However, "they don't have much experience in urban combat". But in comparison to the Iraqi army, Rabkin says they may have less equipment, but they're “better trained and organised" just without "significant [quantities] of modern tanks or artillery".
Rabkin says only senior officials in the Peshmerga are "veterans of the Baath-era military". The junior commanders and current fighters are largely trained by "foreign military advisers, including US special forces".
With charges of corruption rampant in the Iraqi government, the Peshmerga seem to have evaded much of the controversy.
Can the Kurds defeat ISIL fighters in the Kurdistan region? Marashi believes "ISIL stands no chance of taking territory", because it simply "is not experienced in combat in mountainous terrain".
For the moment, Kurdish officials insist the Peshmerga troops are deployed to protect civilian populations and Kurdish-populated areas. But there are concerns that the Peshmerga presence in disputed areas, such as oil-rich Kirkuk, may lead to unilateral annexations.
Shia Armed Groups
In response to ongoing events in Iraq, powerful Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, called on his supporters to regroup to defend the people, country, religion, and holy places. In response, thousands of fighters paraded through Baghdad, Kirkuk, Basra and Najaf on June 21.
Sadr called his fighters the “peace brigades”, saying they are a nationalist force not a sectarian one and it is ready to defend all religious sites in Iraq. Sadr also insisted that ISIL does not represent Iraqi Sunnis.
The parades that carried heavy weaponry such as rockets, raised fears among observers of the return of the Mahdi army, the powerful Shia militia loyal to al-Sadr, that worked outside the state's control.
Since the US invasion of Iraq, Sadr's Mahdi army has been one of the most powerful militias in Iraq. It fought US forces, Iraqi government forces, and Sunni militias.
It was also seen as part of the sectarian fighting that engulfed Iraq. After heavy confrontation with government forces, al-Sadr disbanded his army and reportedly turned it into a social and charitable network.
Sadr kept an offshoot of the Mahdi army, the "Promised Day Brigades”, as an armed wing of his movement that continued to fight American forces in Iraq until the US' withdrawal.
Sadr, who joined the political process and whose followers became the second most powerful bloc in the Iraqi Parliament after the bloc of Maliki himself, has often disagreed with Maliki politically.
In February, Sadr announced his withdrawal from politics complaining that Maliki was failing to coordinate with other political forces. Still, Sadr's bloc remained in politics and he did not withdraw from public life.
Sadr is critical of Maliki and supportive of his replacement. He is also keen to rebrand his armed followers and to avoid portraying them as sectarian forces.
Asaib Ahl al-Haq (The League of the Righteous)
A militia group that fought US forces after its invasion of Iraq, Asaib Ahl al-Haq has political representation in the Iraqi parliament, and is seen as being close to Maliki.
Asaib Ahl al-Haq was part of the al-Mahdi army until it split in 2006. After the US withdrawal, the group wanted to join the political process. Yet, its name has been in the news over the past two years with reports of its return to armed activity.
It is one of the Iraqi militia groups reportedly fighting in Syria. It has also been on bad terms with fighters loyal to al-Sadr in Baghdad. Fighters from the two groups have clashed with each other since the end of last year, prompting al-Sadr to accuse Maliki of backing the group since mid-2013, as the government needed support from loyal Sunni and Shia militias fighting ISIL in Anbar.
The website of the group says it is currently fighting along with government forces in Diyala, Anbar, and Samarra.
Kata’ib Hizbollah (The Battalions of the Party of God)
A militia group that has fought US forces in Iraq during occupation years, the group is thought to have been formed after the US-led invasion, from small Shia armed groups. It is also thought to be one of the main groups to continue fighting US forces in Iraq until their withdrawal in 2011. Rockets and roadside bombs were the main tactics used by the group that was designated a “terrorist” organisation by the US state department in 2009.
Kata'ib Hizbollah reportedly refused to lay down arms after the US forces withdrawal citing ongoing instability. The group says it is has been careful not to target any Iraqi forces or civilians during its attacks on US forces.
Kata'ib Hizbollah played a role in fighting along with Iraqi security forces in Anbar province since the end of last year and particularly in Fallujah. The group says it has formed "People’s Defence Brigades" to "defend the country and holy places" and fight ISIL. It lists among its local enemies Sunni groups such as the Naqshabandi Order and the 1920 Revolution Brigades.