With Sh'ite militias doing much of the heavy fighting in Iraq against ISIL, there are concerns they will alienate the Sunni communities they are trying to save from the Islamic extremists.
Their contribution in the battle for Fallujah that the Iraqi army is currently waging to expel ISIL from the city is vital, yet many of the soldiers are not regulars: they are militia fighters loyal to Hashid al-Shaabi’s# Popular Mobilisation.
This is a sort of coalition whose main component is the Badr brigade that swears allegiance to Shi’ite religious leader Imam Hussein.
But there are also Christians, Sunnis and Yazidis involved, sworn enemies of ISIL. However they advance carefully in Falluja, a Sunni city. Their military leader is Hadi al- Amiri.
“We are encircling the city but we will not enter it. This is a policy which we adopted in our operations in all areas. Our decision is to encircle the city only. We will only go in if the Iraqi forces are in absolute need of support in Fallujah. We took the decision of not entering Fallujah,” he says.
The Hashid al-Shaabi fighters helped retake Tikrit in March 2015, and Ramadi the following December. Now outside Fallujah, they will again attempt to avoid a sectarian confrontation while smashing ISIL’s hold on the city.
It was immediately after the city of Mosul fell to ISIL that the Grand Ayatollah Ali al- Sistani called the Iraqi population to arms to “defend their country and fight terrorists”.
Thousands of volunteers answered the call and went to special training centres created specially for the task of integrating the 40 militias of Popular Mobilisation, which has a total manpower of some 80,000 men.
After stopping ISIL’s advance at the gates of Baghdad, Hashid al-Shaabi militias joined regular army units for the attack on Tikrit in March 2015. They formed most of the 20,000-strong force who took back Saddam Hussein’s birthplace from ISIL.
Now fighting in Fallujah, Hashid al-Shaabi forces are hunting down ISIL fighters, using tunnels to get to and from the front. This is the second-largest Iraqi city still in ISIL’s hands, and once kicked out, ISIL will only have the desert to go to or Mosul, which is being surrounded. Fallujah was the first city to fall to ISIL, in January 2014.