New fighting in Iraq is bringing back some old faces — many of whom fought American troops from the baking deserts from Anbar and Nineveh provinces to Baghdad and the flat plains of southeastern Iraq before the U.S. military left at the end of 2011.
With the Americans gone, the old combatants are back — some rebranded but still fighting for the same goals as when they battled U.S. forces.
These reborn militias are organized along ethnic and religious lines — Sunni groups fighting the government, Shiites on the defensive. The Kurds, meanwhile, are defending and even expanding their grip on parts of the north against the resurgent Sunni-led extremists.
The revival of such sectarian-based groups, some with close ties to Iran, sharpens the cultural fault lines that have long prevented Iraq from developing an inclusive government demanded by the United States and its international partners.
Here’s a look at Who’s Who as Iraq again teeters on the verge of civil war:
The Sunni camp
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
The main insurgent group, sometimes referred to as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or ISIS, is the latest incarnation of a Sunni extremist movement organized by Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.
Al-Zarqawi’s group became known as al-Qaida in Iraq after he publicly swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden in 2004. Al-Zarqawi waged a ruthless campaign of extermination against Shiite civilians in hopes of triggering all-out religious war. His group’s tactic of kidnapping Westerners and savagely decapitating them in online videos shocked the world.
The core organization survived huge setbacks, including the death of al-Zarqawi in a 2006 U.S. airstrike in Diyala province and a revolt by Sunni tribes in Anbar, who rebelled against the movement’s hardline Islamic rule. After al-Zarqawi’s death, the group rebranded itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and later the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant — the latter to underscore its goals of establishing an Islamic state in a unified Iraq and Syria.
Operating in both Syria and Iraq, it is believed to have about 10,000 fighters who move across the porous border between the two countries. The current leader, who calls himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is a former religious student believed to have been born in Samarra, Iraq.
Al-Baghdadi was captured by U.S. troops in 2005 but was released four years later under a Bush Administration deal to transfer all prisoners to Iraqi control. The former commander of the Camp Bucca detention center, Kenneth King, told America media he believes al-Baghdadi was the prisoner who quipped “I’ll see you guys in New York” when he was released. Baghdadi has pursued the campaign of extermination against Iraqi Shiites, whom hardline Sunnis consider heretics.
The ease with which the Islamic State overran Mosul and northern Iraq is believed due in large part to cooperation from local Sunni tribes angry over the pro-Shiite policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the shadowy Naqshbandi Army, ostensibly with roots in the minority Sufi sect but which many Iraq officials consider a bid to revive Saddam Hussein’s former ruling Baath Party, which was dominated by Sunnis.
The Naqshbani Army was organized soon after Saddam was hanged in December 2006 and is believed led by former Saddam lieutenants and veterans of his Republican Guard and security forces. Unlike the Islamic State, the Naqshbandi Army is a homegrown nationalist group which in the past has opposed the brutal, hardline policies of the Sunni religious extremists that are now working with.
Some analysts as well as Iraqi officials of the Shiite-led government believe the Naqshbandis are primarily interested in rebuilding Saddam’s old, Sunni-dominated Baath party structures, which will likely lead to a break with the Islamic State in the coming months.
For the moment, however, they have joined forces with the Islamic State against the common enemy — Maliki and the Shiites.
The key figure behind this alliance is thought to be Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Saddam’s former vice president and the “king of clubs” in the famous deck of cards given to U.S. troops in 2003 to identify fugitive leaders of the old regime.
He served as Saddam’s liaison with Sunni religious hardliners in the final years of the regime and fled to Syria after the regime collapsed in 2003. Last year Naqshbandi fighters briefly seized territory around the northern town of Hawija after Iraqi security forces fired on Sunni protesters there.
Those opposing the insurgents for now:
The Kurdish camp
Kurdish peshmerga fighters battled Saddam’s forces for years. After the First Gulf War in 1991, the peshmerga managed to carve out a semi-independent region in the north under U.S., British and French protection. The peshmerga allied with the U.S. in the 2003 invasion and later negotiated a deal to become officially recognized as the legal security force of the self-ruled Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq.
Long considered the most effective combat force in Iraq, the peshmerga prevented the Islamic State from seizing oil fields along the Kurdistan frontier and moved quickly to seize Kirkuk, a northern city outside the legal Kurdistan boundary but which the Kurds have long claimed should be theirs.
For now, the peshmerga are fighting the common enemy — the Islamic State and its Sunni allies — and therefore are loosely allied with the Shiite-led government.
But their real loyalty is to the Kurdish regional authority and the Iraqi Kurdish people. That will present Maliki with a serious problem in the coming months.
The Iraqi government will have to rely on the battle-hardened Kurds if it is recover Mosul and other parts of the north.
Full cooperation by the peshmerga, however, would come at a high price. The Kurds may resist ever handing back Kirkuk, and they have long demanded full control of the oil wealth in much of northern Iraq. Many analysts and international officials fear the Kurds may declare full independence from Iraq if it appears Maliki can’t regain the upper hand against the Islamic State.
The Shiite camp
Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq
With Islamic fighters threatening Baghdad, the government is already turning to its own brand of Islamic militants — the Iranian-backed Shiite extremists that fought American forces in Baghdad and the south in the bloodiest years of the Iraq War. They were part of a network of Iran-backed Shiite extremists once referred to collectively by the U.S. military as the “militias” or “special groups.”
Among the most dangerous was Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, whose name means League of the Righteous in Arabic. Its leader, Qais al-Khazali, was believed behind the January 2007 killing of five U.S. troops at a government building in Karbala by Shiite gunmen who posed as U.S. military officials to get past Iraqi guards. Khazali was arrested by U.S. forces in 2007 but was freed by the Maliki government in 2010 over strenuous American objections.
While U.S. forces were still in Iraq, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq broke away from the Mahdi Army of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and now gives its allegiance to an Iraqi Shiite cleric who lives in Iran.
In March Britain’s newspaper The Guardian wrote that Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq was directly controlled by Iran and operates under the supervision of Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force. Since the ISIL victories in the north, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq has been working closely with the Maliki government, providing fighters to supplement the ranks of the Iraqi Army.
Before the current round of fighting, the group announced it had given up armed resistance against the Iraqi government and had been seeking to promote itself as a political movement to promote a Shiite-controlled state friendly to Iran. Even before Iraqi government losses in the north, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq had revived its military capabilities, sending Iraqi fighters to Syria to defend the Iran-backed Syrian government of President Bashar Assad against the Islamic State and other Syrian Sunni rebels.
The Badr Organization, formerly the Badr Brigades, has also reversed course and revived its military structure since the escalation of fighting against Sunni militants. Under the command of Iraq’s Transportation Minister Hady al-Amry, Badr is now fighting alongside the Iraqi Army in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad. Iraq’s state-run TV has showed armed militiamen wearing combat fatigues with the insignia of the Badr Organization.
Under the original name Badr Brigades, the movement was organized by the Iranians in the 1980s from among young Shiite men who fled Iraq to escape a Saddam crackdown. Its members fought alongside the Iranian army against their fellow Iraqis during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War and returned home only after Saddam fell.
As part of a Shiite faction that cooperated with the Americans, the Badr Brigades agreed to lay down their arms, support the U.S.-backed government and rebranded themselves as a Shiite political movement, even winning seats in the Iraqi parliament. Many of its members, however, joined the Iraqi paramilitary police and were believed responsible for some of the most brutal attacks against Sunnis during the sectarian conflict from 2005 until 2007.
With the rise of a challenge by Sunni militants, Badr has broken with his old allies in the relatively moderate Shiite bloc and is now closely allied with Maliki — and presumably with the Iranians.
This Shiite militia group is believed to be influenced — if not directly controlled — by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards , which provided training and support. In 2009 the State Department put the group on its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, accusing it of numerous rocket attacks on Baghdad’s Green Zone. The group was also notorious for its use of the dreaded “EFPs,” or explosively-formed penetrator,” a lethal type of roadside bomb that caused numerous American casualties especially in Baghdad. The U.S. military believed those EFPs were manufactured in Iran. Kataib Hezbollah members also received training by cadres from Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, among them Ali Moussa Daqduq, He was arrested by U.S. forces in Iraq in 2007 but was released by the Iraqis in November 2012 over strong American objections.
Promised Day Brigades/Peace Brigades
These are successors to the Mahdi Army, known within the U.S. military as JAM, an acronym from its Arabic initials. Led by the cleric al-Sadr, the Mahdi Army battled U.S. troops in Baghdad, Najaf and elsewhere in southern Iraq until its leadership accepted a ceasefire with the Shiite-led government in the latter years of the war. The extent of its ties to Iran are unclear although there is evidence of some Iranian support.
Al-Sadr himself is a rival to Maliki within the Shiite community and is apparently not playing as big a role in the fighting as other Shiite militias. Al-Sadr rebranded the Mahdi Army as the Promised Day Brigades and later organized a special unit under the name Peace Brigades to defend Shiite religious shrines and the Shiite stronghold in Baghdad’s Sadr City district.
Although there is no love lost between Maliki and al-Sadr personally, the government has appeared more tolerant of the two groups since the Sunni threat escalated, allowing them to stage huge rallies with weapons in Sadr City. If the Islamic State lays siege to Baghdad, expect al-Sadr’s group to play a much bigger role in defending the capital.