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Sectarian Tensions Rise as Iraq Takes Fight Against IS Into Sunni Heartland

  • Henry Ridgwell

Iraqi government forces are trying to push out Islamic State (IS) fighters from the vast Sunni heartland of Anbar province. They likely will have to fight without the Iran-backed Shi'ite militias who have proved crucial in the progress made so far against IS in Iraq. There are growing concerns about sectarian violence and revenge attacks — with Tehran’s role in the conflict under the spotlight.

Government forces are battling IS militants around the city of Ramadi in Anbar province — Iraq’s Sunni heartlands that have been the stronghold of IS since it swept through the country last year.

The commander of the Iraqi rapid reaction force, Brigadier General Moauad Hamad, said the fighting was house-to-house.

He said government forces made very slow progress as they cleared about 30 to 40 houses in the al-Houz area. They killed an Islamic State sniper, he added.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi inspected troops in Anbar last week, declaring the start of the operation to drive IS out of Iraq’s Sunni heartland. But they likely will have to do it without the help of Shi'ite militiamen who have played a vital role up till now, said Afzal Ashraf of the Royal United Services Institute.

“It becomes very difficult to have the Shi'ite militias there because there is a big history. Elements within the government and Shia militias conducted a campaign of terror and torture in parts of al-Anbar against what they perceived to be Sunnis, but largely Baathists, who they felt they had scores to settle with,” Ashraf explained.

After IS was driven out of Tikrit earlier this month, Shi'ite militia fighters were accused of looting and burning Sunni homes and businesses.

Speaking in Qatar Sunday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for the militias to be brought under government control.

“I encourage the government of Iraq to restore the rule of law in areas liberated from Daesh or ISIL,” he said.

Iran has played a key role in training and supporting the Shi'ite militia, said Ashraf.

“There was an existential threat perceived by the Iranians that the IS will not just invade Baghdad and Najaf and elsewhere, but would wipe out many of the holy sites,” he said.

Iran’s General Qasem Soleimani has commanded many of the Shi'ite militias who have taken on Islamic State in Iraq. But that control only goes so far, said Ashraf.

"They lack the discipline and the responsibility of an army. And so reining back in crimes or atrocities or bad behavior of any kind is very difficult in that scenario," he explained. "The Iranians will probably want to do the best they can, but they don’t have full command and control.”

Iran and the West struck a framework agreement earlier this month on Tehran’s nuclear program. Former Iranian diplomat Mehrdad Khonsari said Iran should build on those foundations.

“What Iran needs to do is to move in a direction whereby the Americans do not think that the removal of the Islamic State or Daesh, from let’s said Iraq or Syria, is going to lead to its replacement by Shia militia fundamentalists who are as bad in their eyes, if not worse,” said Khonsari.

Iraqi military officials said all Shi'ite militias have been withdrawn from the fight in Anbar province. Meanwhile, the United States is continuing to support Iraqi government forces with air strikes on Islamic State positions.