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Iran-Backed Iraqi Militias Take Charge of Anti-ISIS Battle, Increased Sectarian Strife Feared

Iranian-backed Iraqi militias have claimed that they will lead the Iraqi campaign to free the recently captured Sunni-majority city of Ramadi from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Reuters reported today. The announcement raised fears that such a move will exacerbate sectarian strife even further.

Iraq’s Shi’ite militia announced on Tuesday they had taken charge of the campaign to drive Islamic State from the western province of Anbar, giving the operation an openly sectarian codename that could infuriate its Sunni population. …

In Iraq, the regular military’s failure to hold Ramadi has forced the government to send Iran-backed Shi’ite paramilitaries to help retake the city. Washington is worried this could enrage residents in the overwhelmingly Sunni province and push them into the arms of Islamic State.

A spokesman for the Shi’ite militias, known as Hashid Shaabi, said the codename for the new operation would be “Labaik ya Hussein”, a slogan in honor of a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed killed in the 7th Century battle that spawned the schism between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims.

The United States hopes that the Iraqi government can unite Sunnis and Shiites in the fight against ISIS, but the presence of Iran-backed militias could alienate Sunnis in the area, “especially if [the militias] emphasize sectarian aims,” Reuters noted.

A report by Bill Roggio in the Long War Journal on Sunday identified one of the militias involved in the fighting as a United States-designated terror group.

Iranian-backed Shiite militias, including Hezbollah Brigades, a US-listed Foreign Terrorist Organization, are leading the Iraqi government’s counteroffensive to regain control of Ramadi, which was lost to the Islamic State last week. The militias are now eclipsing Iraq’s security forces in the fight against the Islamic State. …

Hezbollah Brigades confirmed on its website that it was involved in the fighting in Ramadi. The group blamed the fall of Ramadi on Iraqi politicians who held the militias back from the fight in Anbar.

Last week, Jacob Siegel and Michael Pregent wrote in The Daily Beast that the Iraqi government’s fear of “the creation of a capable Sunni force to fight ISIS” is one of the factors that allowed ISIS to take Ramadi. Pregent himself also observed that “Iran needs the threat of ISIS and Sunni jihadist groups to stay in Syria and Iraq in order to become further entrenched in Damascus and Baghdad.” Similarly, Jonathan Schanzer, Vice President for Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, noted after the fall of Ramadi last week that “Iran looks at this as an opportunity for them to come in with their militias and take over.”

[Photo: wochit News / YouTube ]