Sunni politician’s abduction, rescue raise question of who controls Shiite militias

Civilians inspect the site of a car bomb attack near a restaurant in central Baghdad's busy commercial Karradah neighborhood, Iraq, Thursday, July 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
Civilians inspect the site of a car bomb attack near a restaurant in central Baghdad's busy commercial Karradah neighborhood, Iraq, Thursday, July 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban) AP

In southern Baghdad Saturday, a federal police commander was expounding to a visiting reporter on the controls the government exercises over resurgent Shiite Muslim militias to prevent them from intimidating Sunni civilians.

But a few miles northeast, in Sadr City, Shiite militia members were holding a leading Sunni politician at a secret location where they’d taken him the previous evening, along with his bodyguards.

With the fall of half of Iraq to Islamic extremists, a catastrophic setback for the government of caretaker Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, the Shiite militias are back with a vengeance, the kidnapping of top officials has resumed, and the relationship of those in power to the paramilitaries is thick _ and murky.

The men who abducted Riyadh Adhadh, the head of the Baghdad Provincial Council, from his home wore military uniforms and arrived in government vehicles, he said after his release Saturday, according to Iraq’s Al Mada press. He said the apparent aim of the kidnapping was to implicate his political party in last month’s capture of much of northern and central Iraq by the radical Islamic State when the Iraqi military collapsed.

Maliki, who revived the Shiite militias as a response to the army’s disappearance, personally intervened to free Adhadh. He did it not by ordering in federal security forces, which he commands, but asking for help from a powerful Shiite militia _ which reports directly to his office.

Shiite militias cruise the streets and highways of Baghdad like kings of the road, unescorted by the lawful security forces. They are present at many checkpoints, sometimes in civilian garb, and as the Adhadh kidnapping reveals, they are now carrying out functions that ordinarily would fall to the police or the army.

“They fight with passion. But they don’t know what they’re doing,” said Lt. Col. Abdulkereem Chaloob Kereem, acting commander of the First National Police battalion in Saidia, south Baghdad, referring to the Shiite volunteers. “We are training 300 a month, taking a civilian and turning him into a military man. And when he is deployed, there will be more training.”

But he said they were under government control.

On the drive to Saidia, a McClatchy reporter passed three pickup trucks transporting armed militia members who motioned to other vehicles to drive past. The emblem of Kata’ib al Abbas was on the doors, a militia well known for operating in Baghdad and Diyala provinces and for forcing Sunnis to leave their homes.

Kereem said the armed passengers could be volunteers known as the “Popular Enlistment Committee for Volunteers,” a description that hardly fit the men in the pickups. Or, he said, “they may be supplying provisions” for active-duty forces, a possibility that seemed equally remote.

In any case, he said it was forbidden for armed groups to move inside cities or to go into neighborhoods.

While their mission, role and restrictions seem something of a muddle, the chain of command was crystal clear. Volunteers “are directly under the prime minister’s office,” Kereem said.

This may explain why the Iraqi Interior Ministry, which Maliki also heads, had so little to say about the abduction. “Our men intervened to end the kidnapping of Dr. Riyadh,” Gen. Saad Maa’n Ibrahim, the ministry’s spokesman, said Sunday. “We did our best. We searched the whole area.”

Asked which militia had carried out the abduction, he said: “Really, no, we don’t know. Talk to him,” referring to Adhadh.

According to Adhadh, a “primitive militia” had kidnapped him. He said Maliki and his acting interior minster telephoned Qais al Khazaali, head of Asa’ib Ahl al Haq, who sent a force to rescue him. “There were confrontations between the force and my kidnappers, and I was free.”

Asa’ib Ahl al Haq is a paramilitary group with close links to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. The group launched numerous attacks against U.S. forces during the American presence here but moved into politics when U.S. troops left in 2011. Now revived as an armed militia, Asa’ib reputedly has issued anonymous threats against Sunnis, demanding that they leave Iraq.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, said in a 2012 report that Asa’ib “represents a significant threat to U.S. interests and any U.S. presence in Iraq, given its continued record of lethal activity, its Khomeinist ideology, and its current political ascension.” Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was the religious leader who led the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

The lingering question on the minds of many observers is whether the kidnappers and Adhadh’s rescuers are operating under Maliki’s instructions or roaming at will. If they’re under his control, then who ordered the abduction?

Iraq’s Interior Ministry is not the only body keeping close counsel about the kidnapping. That also applies to other militias.

“I don’t know about that. I just heard about that,” said Hashem Mohamed Ali, 35, leader of Hezbollah al Nujaba, one day after Adhadh was freed. His group also fought the American military during its presence here and has sent volunteers to Syria to help protect a Shiite shrine near Damascus.

“I’m against any kidnapping, blackmail, and against weapons used not under the law,” he told a visiting reporter. “Volunteers have to be under Iraqi government.”

Like many inside the Iraqi government, Ali blames Iraq’s current woes on the United States, for not fulfilling its commitments to arm Iraq under agreements signed on the withdrawal of U.S. forces at the end of 2011, and on Saudi Arabia, which he says is the origin of most of the suicide bombers sent against Iraqi government targets. He praises Maliki. “He did a good job. How can people say he’s not good? He’s fighting against IS,” he said, referring to the Islamic State.

But the cleric who called for volunteers to defend Shiite Islam’s holy shrines against the determined assault of the Islamic State seems to be of a different view about Maliki, and about the future of Iraq.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani has called for all sides to “form a government that is capable of uniting the Iraqi nation and eliminating the danger of division.” And, in a message delivered by a spokesman during Friday prayers, he said those in power “should not hold onto their positions and ranks but should address the internal and external situation of the country with great flexibility and put the best interests of Iraq ahead of personal and partisan interests.”

Maliki’s Dawa party issued a statement the next day pledging that the new government “is going to have wide national acceptance,” a signal that many in his party want him to go. But he won’t go quietly. Upon the election of a new president of Iraq, Kurdish academic Fouad Massoum, the first written message delivered to him was from Maliki, stating that his alliance had won more than any other group in April elections and that he had the right to form the next government.

McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed.