Instead of uniting communities, the fight against armed group is causing divisions between Shia and Sunni populations.
Baghdad – Iraqi Sunni lawmakers said they would reconsider an earlier decision to suspend all parliamentary activities if the government agrees to create a Sunni force to be in charge of security in Iraq’s Sunni-dominated provinces.
“As a matter of principle, we are in negotiations to ban all the militias,” Raad al-Dahalaki, a lawmaker familiar with the negotiation process, told Al Jazeera. “But since the government does not have the will to do so, our alternative demand is to form a Sunni force similar to the Shia one equipped and armed by government.”
Sunni lawmakers, who hold 73 seats in the 328-strong parliament, suspended their parliamentary activities on February 14 to protest against the abduction of fellow politician Zaid al-Janabi and the killing of his uncle, Qassim Swedan, a well-known tribal sheikh, his son and seven bodyguards in southern Baghdad.
The group was driving towards Janabi’s home in Latefiya town, 40km south of Baghdad, earlier this month when unknown gunmen blocked their way. The attackers ultimately released Janabi and killed the others, leaving the bodies in cars under a bridge in northwestern Baghdad. Sunni lawmakers said the gunmen had to pass through many checkpoints to get to Janabi and his entourage, and it would have been difficult to freely move without being recognised by security personnel – unless the attackers were government-backed militiamen.
The situation has threatened to undermine the national reconciliation efforts led by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi, who has reportedly taken significant steps to reach out to Sunni politicians and tribal leaders.
“The guns have to be exclusively in the government’s hands and any weapon outside the [hands of] state must be withdrawn, whether with militias or others,” Salah Muzahem, a senior Sunni lawmaker, told Al Jazeera.
We have to put an end to these violations and make security services, which misuse their power, accountable.
Shia militias are viewed by Sunnis and Kurds as a force above the law, unable to be controlled by the Iraqi government – particularly after the dramatic collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of advances by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Last June, ISIL seized Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, and gained control over the neighbouring province of Salahuddin and vast parts of Kirkuk and Diyala. ISIL now controls most cities and towns in Anbar province.
Shia militias, under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, have been playing a key role in the war against ISIL. Sunni politicians say they are aware that disarming the Shia militias at this critical juncture is not a realistic demand.
“If they did not respond to us [on disarming the Shia militias], then [the government] has to arm our tribes so we would be able to defend ourselves,” Muzahem said.
No Sunni lawmakers or officials have publicly named the culprits in the Janabi case. According to security officials, Swedan, a well-known former senior Baath party leader, was seen by Shia residents and local security officials in southern Baghdad as one of the most influential figures within the Sunni armed factions operating in the area.
Shia residents have accused Swedan of being involved in the killing and displacement of hundreds of Shia families in southern Baghdad during the peak of the sectarian bloodshed in 2006-2007.
“Swedan’s background had made him a typical target for most of the Shia parties in the area. Most of the Shia militias – and even tribesmen – were targeting him for years,” said a Mahmoudiya National Security officer who asked that his name be withheld.
Shia militias active in towns south of Baghdad – particularly Saraya al-Salam (the Peace Brigade), affiliated with the anti-US leader Muqtada al-Sadr; the Badr Organisation; Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah-Iraq – have taken it upon themselves to prosecute Sunnis suspected of collaborating with or belonging to ISIL.
According to Sunni lawmakers, Shia militiamen, in collaboration with Iraqi security forces, have executed dozens of Sunni prisoners, and detained suspects and residents since June 2014.
“We have to put an end to these violations and make security services, which misuse their power, accountable,” said Talal Khudhair, a senior Sunni lawmaker and a member of the team negotiating with Shia blocs.
“We were promised [by the Shia blocs] that all our demands would be implemented in three months’ time. Regrettably, nothing has happened so far,” Khudhair told Al Jazeera, noting the situation has been “getting worse”.
Most Shia parliamentary blocs and parties condemned the attack on Janabi and his entourage, with Abbadi vowing to go after the killers. The strongest and most controversial reaction came from Sadr, who halted the activities of his two armed groups, Saraya al-Salam and the Promised Day Brigade, “as a goodwill gesture”.
Sadr announced his decision in a written statement, without giving any further explanation – a move that surprised his followers and rivals alike. Saraya al-Salam consists of tens of thousands of fighters and owns one of the largest arsenals in Iraq, including long-range missiles.
Halting this armed force would weaken the Popular Mobilisation Forces in their war efforts against ISIL, analysts say. Several Shia blocs asked Sadr to delay his decision until the war against ISIL ends.
“We respect your desire, but the country needs men to maintain the momentum of the battle and preserve the holy sites in Samarra,” Mofaq al-Rubaie, a Shia lawmaker and former national security adviser, said in a statement addressed to Sadr. “Saraya al-Salam is not accused of anything and no accusations were made at them by anyone.”
Meanwhile, Sunni negotiators who know the Iraqi government is too weak to give up on the Shia militias at this critical time, have amended their demands on disarming these militias, asking instead to form their own militias.
“We asked to arm our tribes and not send any troops to the Sunni-dominated areas, except from the people of the area,” Dahalaki told Al Jazeera.
“Of course, our first option is to build state institutions, but in light of the absence of this option, we have to pick up the tough choice to protect our people and our possessions, and that is to form a Sunni hashed [mobilisation force] that includes our sons and that is equipped and armed [by the government] to liberate the areas controlled by ISIL.”