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The Shia Muslims Fighting ISIL

Hideki Nakayama

Sep. 9, 2015

The Popular Mobilization Forces is an Iraqi militia that could hold the key to defeating the Islamic State militant group.

The US-led coalition is continuing air strikes against targets in Iraq. Meanwhile on the ground, a significant role is being played by the militia, which is predominately made up of Shia Muslims. The group was formed in June last year to counter Islamic State militants, who were rapidly gaining ground.

Iraq's most influential Shia cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for the group to be formed. He has repeatedly warned of the danger of the Islamic State group, which is predominantly made up of Sunni Muslims.

Estimates for the number of fighters in The Popular Mobilization Forces run to over 100,000. The militiamen are being trained in southern Iraq. Sistani ordered junior and senior high school students to take part in the group's training during their summer break. It is possible that some children have taken part in fighting.

Former members of the Iraqi military, some of whom have fought Islamic State militants, are also doing some of the training. One of them is 27-year-old Haidar al-Budairy, who has taken part in 16 battles against the militants. He shares his battle experiences with the trainees. "I've been back and forth between battlefields and my hometown," he says. "I feel proud to see young fighters being nurtured."

Haidar joined the fighting after his older brother was wounded on the battlefield. He says he wanted to help the Shia people as a member of the militia, in place of his brother who could no longer take part.

The Popular Mobilization Forces have become an important part in the fight against the Islamic State militants. Their ability to organize and mobilize has been valuable, but challenges remain, especially working with the US-led coalition forces.

Fighting in the southern city of Basra has killed more than 100 people in the past month alone. With the number of victims rising, anger is growing. Some are directing their anger at the United States, and many people still harbor animosity against the US for occupying the country after the Iraq War. Some insist the recent deaths of family members were caused by accidental bombings by US forces.


Hideki Nakayama, an NHK correspondent spoke with Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu.

Shibuya: Hideki, I understand how important the role of the Popular Mobilization Forces is. But how are they working together with Iraqi troops?

Nakayama: They worked together last March, when Iraq's government troops regained control of the northern town of Tikrit from the Islamic State militants. The Shia militiamen were very important in this battle. In May, Islamic State militants gained control of the western city of Ramadi. This time, the Popular Mobilization Forces were not brought into in the fighting, and control of the city was lost. The blunder highlighted the vulnerability of the Iraqi military. The Iraqi government didn't mobilize the predominantly Shia forces, because in the past sending forces to Sunni-dominated regions had sparked religious conflicts. Many people in Sunni-dominated areas such as northern Iraq are still hostile toward the Shia-led government. These people willingly cooperate with the Islamic State militants, who are also Sunnis. This has given the militants a clear advantage.

Shibuya: Does giving power to the Popular Mobilization Forces risk aggravating the conflict in Iraq?

Nakayama: The strategy is a gamble that risks splitting the country. Much of the Islamic State group's recent media strategy appears to be focused on anti-Shia propaganda. The group recently released a video of four Shia fighters they burned to death. It's likely a ploy to recruit more Sunni supporters. Shias have also released videos denouncing Islamic State militants as sub-human animals and praising those fighting the group. It's obvious to me that the chain reaction of hatred will continue and the number of victims will grow.

Beppu: The Popular Mobilization Forces are heavily influenced by Iran.

Nakayama: Yes, that's true. Both the head of training and the fighters who have returned from the battlefield say they received logistical support from Iran. They say Iran is their main source of weapons. It's doubtful that militias strongly influenced by Iran can fight with the US against the Islamic State group. Some Shia militias I interviewed said they cannot trust the US troops, and don't want them in Iraq. And the United States is wary that its weapons will end up in the hands of the Shias. Meanwhile, the Islamic State militants have a stock of US-made, state-of-the-art weapons abandoned by Iraqi soldiers. The Popular Mobilization Forces need to work effectively with the US. If not, they'll have to fight an enemy with far better US weapons. It's a very ironic situation.

Beppu: US-Iran relations are likely to thaw. But can the US military and the Shia militia successfully coordinate their operations?

Nakayama: It all depends on just how much the US and Iran can improve their relations. In July, both countries agreed to a historic accord on Iran’s nuclear program. The two governments have not ruled out the possibility of cooperating to fight a common enemy, the Islamic State militants. A bilateral summit at the UN General Assembly session that could be held later this month, as the leaders of the US and Iran are scheduled to be in New York at the same period. But in both countries, hardliners are ready to attack any diplomatic progress that could lead to the further mending of ties. The longer the building of ties remains frozen, the easier it will be for the extremists to continue their work.