For Iraq’s Sunnis, sectarian militias pose an extra threat

Sarah Margon writes: The traffic on the road to Tuz Khurmato, a town about an hour south of Kirkuk, was light on a recent morning when we set out to meet senior officials from the Kurdish security forces, the pesh merga. Their fortified bases, lean-tos flying various Shiite militia flags and makeshift camps for displaced families dotted the side of the highway. Official Iraqi security forces were nowhere to be seen, even at checkpoints.

Inside a dusty office at the pesh merga base, a field commander relayed what he had seen during recent weeks of fighting. “They don’t respect human rights, they arrest anyone,” he said. “They kill, they behead, they burn houses.” He was referring not to the Islamic State but to the government-backed Shiite militias alongside whom the pesh merga are fighting the Sunni extremist group in an uneasy marriage of convenience.

The lines between Shiite militias and official security forces have been blurred for years. But with the Iraqi army’s near-total collapse this summer, their strength has increased. Politicians, security force personnel and civilians alike have told Human Rights Watch that these militias “control security” throughout much of Iraq, a point only reinforced by the recent appointment of Mohammed Ghabban, a Shiite politician with strong links to the Badr Brigade, a notorious militia, as Iraq’s interior minister.

In certain parts of Iraq under siege by the Islamic State, the militias continued the fight even after U.S.-led coalition airstrikes shifted to other targets. They did this primarily by attacking Sunnis who didn’t flee the Islamic State advance, considering any remaining families “collaborators,” and ransacking, burning and even demolishing scores of Sunni villages. In some cases, they traveled from village to village in U.S. Army-issued Humvees, which were probably obtained from the Iraqi government. [Continue reading…]

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