Shiite Militias Are Taking Over the Fight Against ISIS Because Iraq’s Real Military Is Hopeless

Shiite Militias Are Taking Over the Fight Against ISIS Because Iraq’s Real Military Is Hopeless

Shiite Militias Are Taking Over the Fight Against ISIS Because Iraq’s Real Military Is Hopeless

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May 26 2015 4:56 PM

Shiite Militias Are Taking Over the Fight Against ISIS Because Iraq’s Real Military Is Hopeless

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Iraqi fighters of the Shiite militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq stand guard outside their headquarters in Basra on May 18, 2015.

Photo by HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI/AFP/Getty Images

Still fairly new on the job, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter made the classic Washington mistake of saying what he actually thinks over the weekend: Carter told CNN that Iraqi forces “showed no will to fight” when they fled Ramadi in the face of a much smaller ISIS force last week. The remark prompted pushback from Baghdad, but Iraqi authorities can’t seem to agree on whether abandoning the capital of Anbar province was a screw-up or a deliberate decision. The office of Prime Minsiter Haider al-Abadi says it is investigating military commanders who “neglected their duty.” But one of those military commanders described the soldiers’ actions as a “tactical retreat” meant to allow Iraqi forces to regroup to retake Anbar province.

Either way, Iraq’s official military doesn’t appear to be in any position to take on ISIS. Shiite militia groups have proved much more effective at fighting ISIS than Iraq’s official military, and it’s the Shiites who are taking the lead in the Iraqi government’s new campaign to retake Anbar. While some force against ISIS is better than no force against ISIS, there are reasons to be concerned about sending a primarily Shiite force into the majority-Sunni area.

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The Shiite militias have named the Anbar campaign “Labaik ya Hussein”—a slogan honoring the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad whose defeat and beheading in 680 A.D. is one of the defining moments in the history of Shia Islam and the schism between the Shiites and Sunnis. The name is not exactly designed to assuage the fears of Sunni locals who see the campaign as an Iranian-backed Shiite takeover. It also plays into the hands of ISIS, which portrays itself as fighting on behalf of Iraq’s beleaguered Sunni population. But even if the Shiite militias are ultimately able to defeat ISIS, Iraq’s government is setting itself up for more conflicts when this one is finally over. 

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs.