In Iraq, Shiite Muslim militia's reemergence gives U.S. pause
He looks more like a desk jockey now than a militant, his graying hair framed by rectangular glasses, his round belly protruding under a button-down shirt.
Ali Faris acknowledges that he got soft after the American troops he once fought withdrew from Iraq. He stored his weapons at home and became a receptionist. But the rise of a fearsome Sunni Muslim insurgency in Iraq and Syria has brought the 46-year-old Shiite Muslim father of four back to the front lines, into a transnational battle that is threatening to rip apart the Middle East.
Twice last year, Faris traveled to Syria with a team of Iraqis to help defend the golden-domed shrine to Sayyida Zainab, the prophet Muhammad's granddaughter, a revered site for Shiites and a target of the Sunni insurgent group that calls itself the Islamic State. Now in Baghdad, Faris has volunteered again, fighting alongside government security forces as they try to keep the insurgents from entering the Iraqi capital's western suburbs.
The veteran militant's journey illustrates how the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have become profoundly intertwined as sectarian rivalries flare across a violent region and create fresh complications for U.S. policymakers. The Sunni group, which had called itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, shortened its name over the weekend and declared that it had established a caliphate in the lands it controls in both countries.
The chaos also has enhanced the influence of Faris' militia, Asaib Ahl al Haq, or League of the Righteous, an Iranian-backed organization that carried out some of the deadliest attacks against U.S. forces at the end of the Iraq war. It has reemerged as an important ally of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki as he fights to stave off the insurgency and hang on to power. A new parliament convenes Tuesday to begin selecting the next prime minister.
U.S. and Iraqi officials say that Maliki enlisted the militia, which was in the process of remaking itself into a political organization, in desperation after watching the Islamic State overrun government forces in western Iraq this year.
Last month, after the insurgents seized the second-largest city, Mosul, in a blitz through northern Iraq, the influential Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani called on Iraqis to defend the country. That prompted thousands more Asaib militants to volunteer for battle, including many who returned from Syria, the group says.
For many Shiites, the Sunni insurgents straddling Iraq and Syria represent an existential threat. An Al Qaeda splinter group that regards Shiites as heretics, the Islamic State has attacked shrines and summarily executed Shiites in both countries, according to human rights groups.
The Islamic State said that its control of territory on both sides of the frontier in effect erased the Iraqi-Syrian border. For Asaib, that border already had lost some of its meaning.
"We are fighting the same insurgents, whether in Syria or Iraq," Faris said. "Their leadership is the same. Our conflict with them is the same."
Faris first traveled to Syria last July, three months after the Sunni group, then known as ISIS, declared its intention to establish a caliphate on Syrian soil. He declined to discuss details, but according to associates of other Asaib fighters, many journey to Syria via Iran, where they receive weapons and training reportedly sponsored by the elite Revolutionary Guard.
At the shrine in a southern suburb of Damascus, he joined the Abu Fadl al Abbas brigade, made up of a rotating cast of tens of thousands of Shiite fighters from neighboring countries who have flocked to defend the ornate edifice of blue tile and mirrored glass.
Situated between the airport and central Damascus, the suburb also holds strategic importance for President Bashar Assad. Some scholars believe Assad has played up the shrine's importance to attract Iranian-backed militant groups such as Asaib and the Lebanese group Hezbollah to help protect his capital.
Faris, however, described his monthlong stay as a religious duty. When he returned to Baghdad to a hero's welcome, he treated his relatives to silver Shiite jewelry and showed countless pictures of himself at the shrine.
He returned to Damascus in October as Assad's army mounted an offensive. Two mortar rounds fired by Sunni rebels nearly struck the shrine, one landing at a perimeter fence and another hitting a nearby hotel. An Asaib fighter was shot to death by rebels as he tried to bring ammunition to comrades caught in a firefight, Faris said.
"He told me the day before, 'How can I go back to my mother alive?' " Faris recalled. "He wanted to sacrifice himself for God."
Until recently, Asaib leaders were reluctant to discuss their members' role in Syria, perhaps fearing it would detract from their efforts to transition from militancy to politics. Even now, the black banners that appear in Baghdad's Shiite neighborhoods to announce a fighter's death obscure the location if it occurred in Syria. It simply says he was killed "for the faith."
As the insurgency in Iraq has intensified, Shiite militias here are advertising their presence again.
"It is the duty of all Muslims to defend the shrine," Qassim Daraji, a member of Asaib's political wing, said in an interview at a stone villa that serves as one of the group's political offices in Baghdad. "So of course our members took part — because they are Muslims, not because they support Assad. This is something we are proud of."
In and around Baghdad, residents say Asaib fighters are running checkpoints in Shiite neighborhoods, patrolling minority Sunni districts in white trucks and establishing security perimeters around key shrines. In the contested area of Abu Ghraib, just west of Baghdad, they are distinguished by their black T-shirts or military camouflage with an eagle emblem on one shoulder and the Iraqi flag on the other.
Although military officials say Asaib is firmly under their command, the group's resurgence is a source of grave concern for Sunnis, who accuse the group of kidnappings and killings during the darkest days of Iraq's sectarian civil war. Experts believe Asaib, formed in 2006 when its leaders split with the radical cleric Muqtada Sadr, has become Iran's favorite proxy in Iraq and that its military role will only increase its influence.
For the Obama administration, which opposes Assad's government in Syria but is sending up to 300 military advisors to help the Iraqi government combat the insurgency, Asaib's role is particularly awkward. The group claimed responsibility for more than 6,000 attacks against U.S. and coalition forces from 2006 to 2011.
"In Syria these guys are fighting and killing U.S.-backed Sunni rebels. In Iraq we are deploying advisors alongside them," said Michael Knights, a former U.S. government advisor in Iraq who is a Lafer fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "There are a lot of strange contradictions in the U.S. positions in Iraq and Syria, but this is the starkest."
Analysts say the militia has helped shore up Iraq's security forces but could pose a threat to the government in the long run if it isn't disarmed.
Dismissing such concerns, Daraji said: "Our role in this battle is one of necessity. If the Iraqi security forces are capable, we won't participate. If the Islamic State doesn't exist, we will not fight. We'll come back to our offices."