top of page

Iran’s Shiite Crescent

The news that Ramadi – the Sunni capital of Iraq – fell to the forces of the Islamic State (IS) last month is the largest setback that the international coalition has suffered in the past year in its mission to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist organisation, per President Obama’s phrase. Perhaps more significant than this gain, however, is the force currently assembling near Ramadi to expel IS from the city. Prior to Ramadi’s fall, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had refrained from pushing Iraq’s various Shiite militias into the fray, due to sectarian considerations, and possibly because of the reports of looting and reprisals after the militia-led force liberated Tikrit from IS forces earlier this year. Many of this militias, such as Asaib Ahl-al Haqq (AAH) are under the direct patronage of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF). Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Iran has sought to greatly expand its regional influence through a subnetwork of Shiite militias. Initially pushing a narrative of “shrine protection” – such as the golden-domed Sayeeda Zainab shrine in Damascus – these militia groups have fostered a form of pan-Shiism and Khomeinism, which is a way for Tehran to revive waning support for Iran’s ideal, its revolutionary form of Islam. After Islamic State stormed into Iraq last year, many of these militias began popping up. Some had Iraqi fighters redirected from the war Syria into Iraq, others such as Ansar Allah al-Awfiyya sprang up, joining various groups that are listed as being a part of “al-Muqawama al-Islamiyyah fi al-Iraq” (“The Islamic Resistance in Iraq”). Links to a larger Iranian network of militias was rather unsubtly demonstrated by the number of selfies that Major-General Qossem Soleimani, head of the IRGC-QF, had taken with fighters outside Tikrit. In the initial years of the US-led occupation of Iraq, Iranian-led militias were implicated in numerous human rights abuses of Sunni Iraqis, including murder, rape and torture. These horrors, masterfully captured by Fred Kaplan in The Insurgents, told of how, during the worst years of the pre-surge violence, arms of the Iraqi state were actively involved in sectarian bloodletting: Shia doctors murdered Sunnis in their emergency wards, or refused them treatment; Iraqi policemen functioning as death squads. Given that IS have only made meaningful progress in areas dominated by disenfranchised Iraqi Sunnis, distrustful of Shiite-dominated Baghdad and whom view the US and its allies as a patron of Shia power in the country: the staggering reliance that the anti-IS coalition have on Shia militias is deeply concerning. Iraq, of course, has fought with the army it has, and the world has seen the results.

Much commentary, including by officials of all stripes, has focused on the ineptitude of the Iraqi Security Forces, or their so-called “will to fight” (or lack thereof). In War on the Rocks, Douglas Olivant notes that, pace the pundits, Iraqi troops had been engaged against IS and Sunni militants for approximately 18 months, while taking significant casualties. Olivant argues that there was a clear failure to properly equip the Iraqi Army in Ramadi to deal with one of IS’ favourite tactics, the Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (SVBIEDs). IS employ SVBIEDs, often as armoured suicide truck bombs, to counter-attack and soften up targets during assaults. When IS employed 14 of these – armoured fuel tankers, to be precise – against the Kurds near Mosul, all of them were destroyed by a combination of Western airpower and, perhaps more crucially for Ramadi, anti-tank missiles. There were no anti-tank missiles to be found in Ramadi, and only limited airstrikes by Western air forces. If the Iraqi Army are unable, or unequipped in the battle against IS, other forces will fill the vacuum. These forces, many of whom employ the same – warning, the following link is graphic – tactics that Islamic State themselves use, will simply perpetuate the base conditions on which IS have festered. Joseph Power is Young Australians in International Affairs Middle East and North Africa Fellow.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email for more information.

Image credit: Al Arabiya

bottom of page