How Iraq’s Shia militias are turning the fight against ISIS into a campaign against Sunnis

Tirana Hassan writes: Behind the relative safety of the large concrete blast walls, a Kurdish Peshmerga commander sat behind a dark wooden desk and described the situation in the battle-scarred towns in Iraq’s northern province of Salahaddin.

“There is no one left in any of these villages, they are all empty,” he told me.

This was not entirely true. As my colleague and I drove into the village of Yengija, some 50 miles south of Peshmerga-controlled Kirkuk, in an area controlled by the Islamic State until late August, the streets were packed — but not with residents.

Men who looked like soldiers lined the main street, scores of them, standing at attention with AK-47 assault rifles slung over their shoulders. With U.S.-provided Humvees parked along the side of the street, it looked like a military parade was about to start. But there was nothing official about this army. The men bore no insignia of Iraq’s armed forces: Most had on mismatched military fatigues, while some wore black balaclavas printed with a menacing skeleton face. From their slender frames, it looked like some were no more than 16 or 17.

It was only when we saw the bright yellow flags flying from a checkpoint and burned-out buildings that we realized who these armed men were. They were part of the Saraya al-Khorasani Brigade, one of the many Shiite militias that have assumed a national military role since the Iraqi government’s security forces crumbled this summer, fleeing their positions as the Islamic State fighters swept through Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

The Khorasani Brigade is a relatively recent addition to the network of Shiite militias in Iraq — and despite a similar sounding name, has no connection to the Khorasan Group, the alleged al Qaeda-affiliated organization that was the target of U.S. airstrikes in Syria in September. The Khorasani Brigade is just one of dozens of similar militias that are essentially running their own show in parts of the country. These Shiite militias are supplied with weapons and equipment from the central government in Baghdad, which is now being assisted by a U.S.-led military alliance in its fight against the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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