"Inside Baghdad's Brutal Battle Against ISIS": In Chaos of Post-Invasion Iraq, Militias Take Hold

March 24, 2015


Matthieu Aikins

award-winning foreign correspondent. His latest article for Rolling Stone is "Inside Baghdad’s Brutal Battle Against ISIS."

Erin Evers

Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch. She co-wrote the new report, "After Liberation Came Destruction: Iraqi Militias and the Aftermath of Amerli." She has been on the ground in Iraq with Human Rights Watch since September 2012.

Image Credit: Human Rights Watch

"If you visited the Interior Ministry compound in Baghdad during the holy month of Muharram this past fall, you would be forgiven for thinking that Iraq, like its neighbor Iran, is a country whose official religion is Shiite Islam," writes journalist Matthieu Aikins in his latest Rolling Stone article, "Inside Baghdad’s Brutal Battle Against ISIS." We speak to Aikins about the rise of militias in Iraq and its return to the sectarian warfare that ravaged the country in the years after the 2003 U.S. invasion. Aikins, who has reported extensively from Afghanistan, also discusses Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to the White House. We also hear from Erin Evers, Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: Matt Aikins with Rolling Stone, your piece is called "Inside Baghdad’s Brutal Battle Against ISIS." You were there speaking to Iraqi officials and militia leaders. Can you tell us about what you found? And talk about the broader Iraqi policy of deploying militias and how it’s arose, particularly with the collapse of the Iraqi army when ISIS overran large parts of the country last year.

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Sure. Well, what, you know, happened was essentially a reaction to the rapid gains that ISIS made this summer. When the defense of Mosul and other areas collapsed, these militias were called upon as a kind of last line of defense in order to protect the sort of Shia areas of the southern part of the country, including Iraq. And they were effective at doing that. But in doing so, as we’ve already discussed, they took over this preeminent position within the Iraqi state.

So, when I was there, I met with militia commanders, including one from a very notorious militia called Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. It’s a splinter group from the Mahdi Army that once fought the Americans and is now fighting ISIS. And the commander explained to me something that I’ve heard from other places, as well, that on the ground, these militia commanders are often leading the operations, and they’re essentially mixed in with Iraqi army and police units, borrowing weapons, being supplied by ammunition from them, using heavy weapons, and often exercising command and control over Iraqi police and army. And what that says is that the two of—you know, the formal state security services, what’s left with them, and these militias have become entangled to such a degree that it’s hard in many cases to make a meaningful distinction between them on the ground.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking to Matt Aikins in Karachi, Pakistan, right now. I don’t know if that’s a crow behind you or something, Matt. But you begin your piece by saying, "If you visited the Interior Ministry compound in Baghdad during the holy month of Muharram this past fall, you would be forgiven for thinking that Iraq, like its neighbor Iran, is a country whose official religion is Shiite Islam." Explain.

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, the thing is that you would be just confronted with these religious symbols that make, you know, no pretense that Iraq is a state that is supposed to have equal regard for the different sects and religions that compose it. Baghdad is now a Shia city. And so, I think one of the things we’ve seen after the events this summer is that mask has really come off. As Erin pointed out, a lot of these things were happening before. And a lot of them were predicted. What happened in Amerli and in Diyala was essentially predicted by Human Rights Watch and other groups that were investigating it, that there would be what amounts to ethnic cleansing, in my view. But the mask has sort of slipped off now, and there’s really no pretense or attempt at pretense that this is not a sectarian war that’s being fought by the preeminent actors on both sides, ISIS and the militias.

AARON MATÉ: So, Matt, given this dynamic, what do you think this portends for Iraq’s future? Could we see a return to the brutal days of 2006, 2007, when the sectarian conflict was out of control and tens of thousands of killed? Is there a fear of sliding back into that?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: I mean, I think we already are—we already are there, in many ways. You know, last year, there was an estimated 17,000 Iraqis that were killed. That’s the most violent year by far since the peak of the violence, 2006, 2007. In some cases, it’s one-sided, in areas of Baghdad that I visited. These were Sunni areas that had been taken over by al-Qaeda in 2006 and '07, often because the communities wanted some sort of defense against the Shia militias. Now they're being terrorized by Shia groups. There’s absolute, you know, outright warfare in the countryside, massacres on both sides. So I think we’re actually there. With the shift toward offensive operations of the parties’ militias, especially with large areas like Mosul and Fallujah, I mean, they’re going to make what’s been happening in Amerli and Diyala look minor in comparison to the scale of massacres and human rights abuses that are likely to occur.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt, here in the United States, where you just were, you have the Republicans attacking President Obama for negotiating with Iran around a nuclear bomb, and you have, of course, the call to defeat the so-called Islamic State, ISIS. But here you have, on the ground, it’s Iran that is fighting ISIS. How much coordination is going on between the United States and Iran now in trying to defeat ISIS?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, they’re often sharing the same space. One Iraqi adviser told me it was like hide and seek. You know, the Iranians would show up when the Americans weren’t there, and the Americans would show up when the Iranians weren’t there. This is in the sort of ministries and main bases. The Iranians are the only ones present in the field, really, so far.

I think you have to acknowledge that Iran has legitimate interests in Iraq. I mean, this is their doorstep. ISIS is a brutal anti-Shia group that poses a grave threat to their own interests. And the fact that we have this longstanding proxy war with Iran has really prevented any sort of constructive engagement on solving the problems that are going on in Iraq, and instead you have a kind of willful denial about the actual common strategy that is currently taking place.

AARON MATÉ: And, Erin Evers, looking forward also, how do you think these abuses will impact the long-term fight against ISIS and also Iraq’s basic unity?

ERIN EVERS: I think, you know, what we’re seeing right now already, actually, is that these kinds of abuses are really radicalizing and ostracizing the Sunni population even more than they already were. So, people that we talked to on the ground who were displaced by the fighting, who were displaced by militias who threatened them with death if they tried to come back to their homes, are essentially now—you’ve got thousands of people displaced as a result of these militia operations who are literally geographically stuck between ISIS on one side, whose ideology they don’t accept and who they don’t want to be a part of, but who do not have a sectarian mandate to kill them and who haven’t specifically threatened to kill them like the sectarian militias have. And so, our concern is that for every tactical gain that the Shia militias are making against ISIS, in the long run they’re actually empowering ISIS and emboldening ISIS and throwing people straight into their hands.

So, the way that I see things going, from my experience on the ground, from what we documented in Amerli and Diyala and other areas all around Iraq, is that if things keep going this way and that if militias keep leading the fight, essentially, you’re going to have a state that is a militia state with a large, you know, kind of swath of territory that militias control, Sunnis kind of hiding in the western corner, and ISIS a problem that is never really fully dealt with, because—you know, because a sectarian—there’s no sectarian solution to the ISIS problem. You can’t get rid of all of the Sunnis in Iraq. They are part of Iraq. And, you know, most kind of average Iraqis don’t want to see the country split up. So, I think that it’s—I think that it poses a huge problem, both politically and in terms of security for Iraq’s future.

AMY GOODMAN: Erin, you have said that the U.S. military didn’t give some weapons to some groups—at least they said that to you. Matt, you write in your piece, "the Obama administration has also argued that its program to supply weapons to the Iraqi government should be eligible for an exemption from arms-control laws."

MATTHIEU AIKINS: That’s right. I mean, obviously they’re worried about the weapons they’re now transferring to Iraq, in a sort of rushed emergency program, being put into the wrong hands, so they’d like to exempt themselves from those legal obligations. I think it’s ironic that, you know, having flooded the country once with weapons by destroying and disbanding Saddam Hussein’s army and then flooding it again with weapons by arming this hastily prepared army and police in response to the insurgency, which is weapons that have now fallen in the hands of ISIS. This, the third solution, is to, again, flood more weapons into the country.


MATTHIEU AIKINS: And I think it just shows the lack of imagination that exists on the part of the policymakers who are responsible for dealing with these problems.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Matt, President Obama is meeting with the new Afghan president, Ghani, today in Washington. You’ve lived in Afghanistan for years. The significance for this meeting—the significance of this meeting, and what President Ghani will be calling for?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: President Ghani is going to be calling for more troops and more money. He understands that the Afghan state is utterly dependent on international funding. The budget gap is extraordinary. It’s something like 20 percent of the country’s GDP right now that’s being spent by the international community on the armed forces alone. So, basically, Afghanistan is going to remain a client state of the United States and the international community for a long time to come, especially if the conflict isn’t brought to some sort of negotiated solution. And Ghani is basically trying to undo the damage that President Karzai did to that relationship, that really threatened a total cutoff of, if not aid, but troops.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both for being with us. Matthieu Aikins, joining us from Karachi, Pakistan, the George Polk Award-winning foreign correspondent, his latest piece for Rolling Stone we’ll link to. It’s headlined "Inside Baghdad’s Brutal Battle Against ISIS." And thanks so much to Erin Evers, a Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch. She co-wrote the new report, "After Liberation Came Destruction: Iraqi Militias and the Aftermath of Amerli." She’s been on the ground in Iraq with Human Rights Watch since September of 2012. And we’ll link to that report, as well.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we look at the issue of Iran, Israel and Palestine. Stay with us.

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