Iranian forces in Iraq: Saviours or sectarians?

Iran has been instrumental in the fight against IS, but is this a positive development, or is it adding fuel to the sectarian fire?

Image: Ahmad Shamloo Fard

On Saturday 28 May, the Iraqi Parliament condemned the visit by Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, the head of foreign military operations for the Revolutionary Guards, to paramilitary forces who have been taking part in the Iraqi government operation to retake the city of Fallujah. The reason for this outcry: fears of sectarian violence.

The fears are likely well-founded; after all, al-Qaeda in Iraq spent most of the last decade attempting to fuel a sectarian war between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The Islamic State (IS) has followed hard on their heels, persecuting religious minorities such as Christians, Druz, Yazidis and various Shia sects. With the majority of the members of the al-Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation Units being Shia, despite state sponsorship from the Ministry of the Interior, the groups have considerable power to enact violence against minorities if they should choose to do so.

With the recent history of Iraq pointing towards such trends, be that by IS, the Hashd or Iraqi army, there is good reason for the parliament to be on edge.

There have already been reports of Shia militia torching farms and mosques after retaking Karmah, a city near Fallujah, and throughout the conflict, there have been rumours and allegations flying left, right and centre at various groups purportedly acting on behalf of the government. While it’s true that allowing groups with a sectarian background to form in the first place at a time when divisions and tensions are so high is very risky, the Iraqi government also badly need the military assistance.

At the time of the foundation of the Hashd, back in the summer of 2014, Mosul, second city of Iraq, had just fallen. In six days, two divisions of the Iraqi security forces numbering over 30,000 men, not to mention the backing of heavy armour and support systems were defeated by an estimated 1000 IS fighters. The Iraqi military had proven that despite a decade of training, in the face of terror tactics and the threat of execution, crucifixion or worse, they could not stand in the face of IS.

However, the tribal and sectarian militias, some over a decade old, had been able to stand in the face of the might of the NATO peacekeeping force. They had persevered, and while they had lost men, leaders and arms, and with no formal training, their resolve could not be questioned. With further promises of assistance from the Iranian government, and the desperate situation showing that something fairly radical might be required, the Iraqi government created the Hashd as a part of its security forces.

In the long run, it may prove to be a foolish decision. It has allowed Iranian military assets to be created or beefed up in the region. It has allowed for the potential further growth of the risk of sectarian warfare occurring in Iraq itself on a massive scale. But at the same time, what choice was there? The international community had no interest in offering serious help to the Iraqis; many nations had only just left, and weren’t keen to go back for more.

Since Iran is currently being brought back into the international fold, and since it is actively trying to assist Iraq and Syria against the actions by IS, should we perhaps stop being so suspicious of its actions? Back during the Iran-Iraq war, after all, predominantly Sunni Kurds and Shia Iranians fought side by side. Just because there is a potential for sectarian conflict, it does not mean Iran or Iraq desire one; after all, if it did, Iran would see decades of hard diplomatic work obliterated in an instant.

Who wants that?

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