by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.Iraq’s Shia militias have earned notoriety as some of the country’s most-potent but least-welcome allies in the war against the terror organization “Islamic State” (IS). The militias fall into three categories: the first generation, which challenged the Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein during the Iran–Iraq War; the second generation, which fought Western soldiers during the Iraq War; and the third generation, which is resisting IS in the north of the country. The Badr Organization, the oldest of Iraq’s Shia militias, has built a legacy fighting all Iraq’s perceived occupiers from Saddam through the Americans to IS.
Hadi al-Amiri, an Iraqi politician, has led Badr for decades. He has maintained a close relationship with the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (also known as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; IRGC), the religious vanguard of the Iranian military. “I love Qassem Suleimani!” al-Amiri told The New Yorker. “He is my dearest friend.” Suleimani commands the Quds Force, which conducts the IRGC’s operations in the Middle East and the rest of the world. Badr and the IRGC share a long history. While the Iranian Revolution propelled Iran’s Shia clergy to power 1979, Iraq’s militant, restless Shia minority benefitted from its larger neighbor’s revolutionary know-how. The IRGC started arming and training the future members of Badr as early as 1983. According to Stanford University, “the Badr Organization is heavily influenced by Iran. At its inception, the organization operated out of Iran for two decades. The organization still receives funding and ideological guidance from the country.” From the start, Iran has used Badr to fight its proxy wars in Iraq and later Syria.
Like Iraq’s other Shia militias, the Badr Organization has done little to contain sectarianism. In fact, many of its members — no longer constrained by Saddam’s police state — used the anarchy of the Iraq War to enact retaliatory violence on the country’s Sunni minority. Journalists uncovered files documenting a paramilitary prison holding Badr’s Sunni enemies. “The documents show how Washington, seeking to defeat Sunni jihadists and stabilize Iraq, has consistently overlooked excesses by Shi’ite militias sponsored by the Iraqi government,” reported Reuters. “The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have both worked with Badr and its powerful leader, Hadi al-Amiri, whom many Sunnis continue to accuse of human rights abuses.” Since the start of the war against IS, Badr has joined the People’s Mobilization (Hashd), an umbrella organization for the Shia militias. Amnesty International asserts that paramilitaries have been abducting and executing Sunni civilians, blaming them for the power of the terrorist organization that has overtaken much of Iraq’s north and west. Badr’s history implies that it has likely partaken in these sectarian abductions and executions.Despite military and paramilitary notoriety, Badr has always remembered the importance of politics. The Globe and Mail noted at the end February 2015, that the militia had twenty-two of its politicians in the Council of Representatives of Iraq. The Washington Post observed that — as irony would have it — the Iraqi government appointed in October 2014 a Badr member to chair the “the Human Rights Ministry”. Badr’s political ambitions have managed to endanger not only Sunnis but also the stability of the country, for the Shia militias are competing for power in a government that depends on them.
Badr has struggled to distinguish its military goals from its political ones: “I worked for four years every day [as an politician] and people never recognized that. Now, just four months as a fighter and all the people are talking about is Amiri. […] It’s because people love the one who defends them,” al-Amiri told Foreign Policy. If al-Amiri seeks to resolve all his problems on the battlefield, he may face new difficulties. Earlier this year, the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has his own militia in the Hashd, almost crippled the Iraqi government when he encouraged protesters to breach the Green Zone and assault the Council of Representatives. Badr assembled its militiamen to protect Baghdad during the chaos. An extremist militia, meanwhile, threatened to attack Kurdish security forces and destroy a truce between Badr and the Kurds if they refused to return disputed territory to Baghdad. As Badr tries to balance its Iranian relationships with its Iraqi ones, the goals of different militias in the Hashd may contradict one another. Diplomats fear that, once the Shia militias have confronted the Kurds and defeated ISIS, they will use their Iranian weaponry against one another. Badr will need to decide where it stands.
The competition for authority in Iraq extends from the quiet proxy war between America and Iran to the subtle discord between the country’s Shia militias. Whether al-Amiri and al-Sadr will clash or, as politics demands for now, oppose each other in secret but support each other in public, remains a mystery. Till Iraqi security forces retake Mosul, the war against IS will unite them. Al-Amiri and Badr, however, have worrisome ambitions and goals for the future of Iraq.
- Dr. Hauke Feickert, “Iraqis argue over war strategy“, offiziere.ch, 04.08.2015.
- Mustafa Saadoun, “Iraqis divided over Soleimani’s role in their country“, al-Monitor, 20.05.2016.