America’s ‘indigenous’ partners in Iraq are making things worse

Stripes, which has been doing some of the best reporting on the situation inside Baghdad as ISIS militants continue to advance toward the city, has an excellent post up on Thursday which examines the current state of play in the Iraqi capital.

“There are about 120 Iraqi battalions stationed around the capital, according to Abdul Kareem Khalaf, an Iraqi military analyst and former interior ministry spokesman,” Stripes reported. “While numerical superiority didn’t help the Iraqi army in Mosul, the mostly Shiite force faces less opposition from the public in Baghdad, and will get more support from irregulars.”

Outside the city, Shiite militias in masks have established checkpoints in order to “protect” the local population. Two of the largest groups performing these operations are those linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

The powerful sectarian militias that have taken up the defense of Baghdad make it highly unlikely that the undermanned ISIS forces advancing on territories to the West of the city can take it outright. The Islamic State may not need to sack Baghdad in the next month, however, as reporting from Iraq indicates that the cyclical sectarian violence again sweeping the country could increase ISIS’s domestic support among the country’s Sunni population.

“Iraqi officials complain that media reports claiming that the Islamic State has advanced on Baghdad through Abu Ghraib are inflammatory,” The Washington Post reported on Thursday. “But there is no doubt the security situation around the capital is precarious.”

Mortar shells fired by the Islamic State have already fallen in central Baghdad in recent weeks, and suicide bombings have picked up pace — a wave of blasts killed at least 40 people on Thursday, local media reported. While the army is holding its ground around the capital’s perimeter, Abu Ghraib is seen as a weak point, and sympathy for the radical fighters is growing here, residents say, because of the actions of heavy-handed Shiite militias.

“If 10 members of Islamic State come, then they will become a thousand, because all the people of Abu Ghraib will join them,” one Abu Ghraib resident told reporters.

“Nobody can talk, as we are too afraid,” another reportedly whispered to The Post reporter as Shia militias stood guard nearby. “Sometimes they kidnap people and take a ransom.”

“They arrest people, and nobody knows where they are taken,” said Talal al-Zowbai, a parliamentarian from Abu Ghraib. “This makes so many people want to volunteer with Islamic State to fight the militias.”

On Monday, the BBC reported that sectarian attacks and reprisal killings reportedly linked to Shia militias were on the rise. Those attacks come in response to increasingly devastating ISIS-linked car bombing attacks aimed at primarily Shiite neighborhoods in Iraq have grown more deadly.

This week, the prominent Shia politician, member of parliament, and the nation’s deputy interior minister, Ahmed al-Khafaji, was killed in a car bomb attack. On Thursday alone, over 36 people were killed in a series of car bomb and mortar attacks in and around Baghdad. 150 have died in similar attacks since Sunday.

The United States is waging a war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and every member of this administration has conceded that American needs partner networks on the ground in order to follow up on airstrikes. It seems, however, that some of those partner networks the U.S. is relying on to provide ground support are not reliable partners, and may even be exacerbating tension in Iraq.

With violence escalating, and coalition airstrikes enjoying only limited successes, time is on ISIS’s side. If the coalition needs a new Anbar Awakening to win the war against ISIS, relying on sectarian militias for support is going to result in a very long war.