One need not have any PR skills to realize the sheer folly of the initial name given to the operation to retake the city of Ramadi from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). “Labeyk ya Hussein,” or “In your service oh Hussein,” refers to one of the most important Shiite figures, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed killed in the 7th-century battle that led to the schism between Shiite and Sunni Islam.
It boggles the mind that those behind the overtly sectarian name for this operation, to retake a Sunni city in Iraq’s Sunni heartland, thought this was a remotely wise idea. The decision has been widely condemned domestically, regionally and internationally. The Iraqi government’s allies, including the United States and France, criticized the name (Washington described it rather understatedly as “unhelpful”), as has powerful Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr.
“Such a name will inevitably be misconstrued, and all who love the homeland and shun sectarianism should not acknowledge such names,” said Sadr, suggesting the eminently more reasonable title “Labeyk ya Anbar,” referring to the province of which Ramadi is the capital.
The operation was subsequently rebranded “Labeyk ya Iraq,” but the damage is already done. Besides, a mere name-change does nothing to alter the conduct and intent of the Shiite militias that are spearheading the assault - the packaging may be different, but the product is the same. The campaign is not yet fully under way, and already a video has gone viral on social media purporting to show militiamen burning a man over a fire.
These militias have garnered a reputation for sectarian abuses against Sunnis in areas captured from ISIS. In April, the retaking of the city of Tikrit resulted in the looting of stores and the torching of homes. “Our city was burnt in front of our eyes,” said Ahmed al-Kraim, head of the Salahuddin Provincial Council, of which Tikrit is a part. Kraim put the number of torched houses in the hundreds.
The Baghdad bureau chief for Reuters, Ned Parker, had to leave Iraq after being threatened on Facebook and condemned by a Shiite militia news channel following eye-witness accounts by Reuters correspondents of abuses in Tikrit.
In March, Human Rights Watch (HRW) highlighted “numerous atrocities” and “repeated abuses” against Sunni civilians. In October, Amnesty International said the militias had “abducted and killed scores of Sunni civilians in recent months and enjoy total impunity.” They “are ruthlessly targeting Sunni civilians on a sectarian basis,” committing “war crimes and other gross human rights abuses.”
In July last year, HRW documented militia “killings and abductions” that “mark a serious escalation in sectarian violence.” In another report that same month, HRW documented “mass extrajudicial killings” that “may be evidence of war crimes or crimes against humanity.”
Little wonder, then, that these militias are so feared by Iraqi Sunnis, and that Ramadi residents have expressed such concern about the initial name given to the operation to retake the city. The government, in its dependence on these militias to fight ISIS, has unleashed a monster beyond its control. The result is that arguably the two most powerful forces in the country - ISIS and the militias - both behave as a law unto themselves.
The Sunni population is caught in the middle, between the barbarity of ISIS toward anyone (including Sunni tribes) that challenges it, and collective punishment from Shiite militias that view Sunnis generally as sympathetic to the jihadists. The problem with the militia approach is that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more Sunnis are targeted and alienated, the more they will view ISIS as the lesser of two evils.
Meanwhile, the jihadists are taking advantage of the sectarian nature of these militias and their backers. ISIS is gaining recruits by playing on Sunni fears and grievances, and portraying itself as their defenders. As such, the government’s reliance on these militias, and the latter’s conduct, are fundamentally undermining the fight against ISIS.
The power of the militias is now so great that the government would be unable to rein them in even if it wanted to - and so far it has shown no desire to do so. “The Iraqi authorities have effectively granted [militias] free rein to go on the rampage against Sunnis,” and are “sanctioning war crimes and fuelling a dangerous cycle of sectarian violence that is tearing the country apart,” said Amnesty International.
HRW added: “The government seems to think that if people blame militias for killings, it can wash its hands of the matter.” Baghdad and its allies may be turning a blind eye for now because of the focus on the threat from ISIS. However, this risks turning Iraq into Libya, whereby the most active militias will demand - and obtain - ever-greater influence, and any government resistance will result in the disintegration of the state’s authority.
However, the problem goes deeper than the militias. Even if Baghdad was able to rein them in or co-opt them, this would not solve the problem as the government is also a serial human rights abuser and aggravator of sectarian tensions. In this respect, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has proven no different than his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki, despite the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS being contingent on Abadi’s administration being more inclusive.
Instead of coming under pressure, he is being rewarded with more weapons - no questions asked - which are finding their way to the militias. Hence Baghdad’s foreign allies, while murmuring concerns about the militias, are indirectly arming them. This is not a sound strategy to defeat ISIS and address Sunni grievances. Rather, it is a recipe for continued turmoil and division in Iraq, which has experienced far too much of both already.
Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya News, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash