Rise of Shiite militias risks return to Iraq civil war

'The fight will not be public'

BAGHDAD — A suspected participation of Shiite militias fighting alongside the regular Iraqi army against Sunnis in Anbar province has stoked fears that the war-torn country may again return to the 2006-2007 dark days of sectarian fighting.
According to the Washington Post, members of the Iranian-backed Shiite group Asaib Ahl al-Haq have admitted to an increase in targeted killings on their part, which they claim is a response to bomb attacks on their neighbourhoods.
The Post's report quotes militiamen who conceded that Asaib al-Haq is disguising its role by working with the official security forces. They wear military uniforms during operations outside Baghdad.
"The fight will not be public," one militiaman is quoted as saying.
"The army isn’t well-versed in street fights, so we go, we help them clean it up," adds another.
The Iraqi forces have been pressing an assault against rebel-held areas of Anbar province. The standoff has prompted more than 140,000 people to flee their homes, the UN refugee agency said, describing it as the worst displacement in Iraq since the peak of the 2006-2008 sectarian conflict.
Foreign leaders have urged the government to do more to reach out to the disaffected Sunnis in a bid to undercut support for rebels.
But with parliamentary polls looming in less than three months, Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki has taken a hard line.
Violence has surged across Iraq in recent months, with more than 1,000 people killed nationwide in January, the highest such figure since April 2008, according to government data.
Asaib Ahl al-Haq members say their priority is to combat ISIS but not to cause a return to civil war. However, many observers disagree, adding that the problem goes beyond one particular group, but rather an increase in the activities of many Shiite militias.
Iraq's PM has claimed that he is against the presence of all militias in the country.
"There is no place for Asaib Ahl al-Haq militants within the security forces or armed forces," insisted government spokesman Ali al-Moussawi, adding that such accounts are mere "fabrications".
However, such government denials are met with high suspicion throughout the country. And many international observers are sceptical too.
Michael Knights, an analyst with the Washington Institute, warns against the dangers posed by the presence of Shiite militias inside the security forces.
"They can bring a very sectarian approach to security, but within the cover of the security forces, which is more worrying than militias that operate openly and illegally," he said.