ERBIL, Iraq—Two injured Iraqi soldiers stretched on hospital beds were still in their uniforms, a haphazard mix of mismatched camouflage in the military ward of a hospital north of Mosul. The walls were peach-colored, as if painted for some other kind of place. The tang of antiseptic hung in the air.
Another soldier was in a wheelchair, his lower half covered in a heavy multicolored blanket.
The three men, all in their twenties, were injured trying to rescue Iraqis fleeing the so-called Islamic State just after dawn on Dec. 26 outside the village of Telskuf, about 20 miles from the besieged ISIS capital in Iraq.
The soldiers say ISIS fighters spotted them as the they dashed from behind defenses to escort the villagers, and opened up with gunfire and mortars.
“A third of the people were killed, a third injured, and a third got away,” one of the soldiers said in Arabic. Two of the soldiers were shot and a third hit by shrapnel from a mortar blast.
The three wounded soldiers asked that their names not be published for fear of ISIS retribution against members of their families still trapped inside Mosul.
These men are not from the Iraqi Army, or the Kurdish Peshmerga, nor are they part of the newly legalized Popular Mobilization Forces—the mostly Shiite militia groups, which now answer directly to Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and which previously were accused of summary killings, kidnapping, and torture.
These three wounded belong to a militia that is mostly Sunni from Mosul, and they’re fighting to free their loved ones. They don’t trust Abadi or his Shiite-dominated administration. And when ISIS is gone, if they feel their community is suffering abuse again, they could become the vanguard of an ISIS 2.0, dragging Iraq into a civil war akin to Syria next door–and miring the U.S. in the chaos.
Abadi’s government is aware of the risk, and is considering completely withdrawing its mostly Shiite army from all Iraqi bases once the fight against ISIS is done, and deploying its newly legalized militia groups to keep the peace in the cities they come from.
But this particular group of locals, the Knights of Ninewa, or Haras Ninewa, aren’t invited. Made up of Arab Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, and Yazidis, this force answers to the former Mosul governor Atheel al-Nujaifi, a man some Shiite politicians blame for failing to stop ISIS's initial takeover of the city in 2014. That intramural conflict has lain dormant as everyone fights ISIS, but will re-emerge the moment that fighting stops.
The resentments are already building. The men in the hospital told The Daily Beast that they get no pay nor medical benefits nor survivor benefits for their families if they are injured, unlike Abadi's now-legal Shiite militia groups. They have no confidence that the Iraqi government will do any better representing the rights of Sunnis and other minorities after Mosul is captured than it did before ISIS rule.
Given the kind of allegations leveled in the past against some of the militias in the mostly Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces, the organization’s current charm offensive seems incongruous at times as its leaders vow to professionalize and eject any member who abuses the group’s newly awarded authority as the prime minister’s de facto strike force.
"Since its first day, it was for all of Iraq, not for a specific sect of religion," PMF spokesman Ahmed al-Asadi told The Daily Beast in an interview at his heavily but discreetly defended Baghdad home.
He described the PMF as “a volunteer force” of nearly 60 different groups that has worked unpaid until now. The Iraqi government has just budgeted a salary for 110,000 fighters as part of the new law, which al-Asadi said is being parceled out among roughly 142,000 “troops.”
Some of the groups were formed originally to fight the U.S. military occupation: Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr’s forces killed Americans by the dozen. But most of the fighters signed up after Iraqi Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa or religious order in 2014 calling on Iraqis to protect the state from ISIS. Some of the factions, like K’tab Hizbullah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq are considered to be veritable extensions of the Iranian military’s Quds Force, although al-Asady disagrees.
Al-Asady concedes that the bulk of the combined officially recognized militias are Shiite, but says there are also groups that include minorities like Sunnis, Christians, and Yazidis.
He says that now that the militias are legal, they will separate from the political parties or movements that gave rise to them, and answer only to the prime minister. The Iraqi military code of justice will also apply to them, although the details are still being worked out as the law Iraq’s Parliament passed is a scant page and a half long.
Such forces have been accused of carrying out a scorched earth policy toward Sunnis and anyone suspected of working with ISIS, a reaction to the continuing campaign of deadly attacks and bombings aimed at Shiite neighborhoods (like the explosions that killed more than 20 people in Baghdad on Saturday).
Reports persist that the most hard line of the groups are holding up to 3,000 prisoners in up to five makeshift jails, some for alleged crimes, and some to exchange for ransoms that help fund militia activities.
Al-Asady denies those reports, but he says Iraq's justice ministry has appointed a judge who is working his way through 300 reported cases of abuse by militia members ranging from alleged prisoner abuse to summary executions. He said only roughly a quarter of those accused are genuine militia members and the rest are part of wannabe groups like the Knights of Ninewa.
He insists the wider force is now being trained to understand the Geneva Conventions and international human rights law.
“Instilling discipline started about a year and a half ago. We opened specialized training camps,” to provide “moral guidance… tasked with spreading this culture across the PMF.”
He said the militias had invited international human rights organizations to lecture dozens of his forces, like the International Committee of the Red Cross. The ICRC confirmed it had held seminars with some of the groups.
U.S. Coalition Commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend says the militia groups have been remarkably disciplined since he arrived, although he’d heard the previous allegations of human rights abuses.
“It all seems to be focused on fighting Daesh,” the general said, using the pejorative Arabic acronym for ISIS.
Townsend said he thought the PMF could be a force for stability in Iraq if it becomes more of a national guard rather than an extension of Iran.
That’s a big “if” when many of the groups already have a heavy complement of Iranian advisers and equipment, leading to allegations that Quds Force commander Qasem Suleimani is orchestrating Iraq’s war on ISIS. Indeed, Suleimani taunts the U.S. on social media, but Townsend does not allow himself to be baited.
Townsend is relentlessly circumspect.
“They [the Iranians] are advising the PMF because no one else is,” Townsend said. “They are a neighbor of Iraq's. They are a fact of life here. I can’t do much about it.”
He, and other senior western officials who asked to remain anonymous, hold on to the hope that Iraq’s desire for independence will trump Iran’s ability to act as puppeteer.
“Not all Iraqi Shia align with Iran. There are plenty of nationalists that see Iran as… a competitor,” Townsend said.
As for Iranians and American military advisers on the battlefield?
“They stay over there, and we stay over here," he said. “I try not to let them trouble me.”
Iraq’s Deputy National Security Advisor Safa al-Sheikh said some of the militias had been somewhat difficult to control, which is all the more reason to bring them under the Iraqi government’s legal umbrella, he said.
“It’s important to have a law, in order to contain the popular mobilization units, to put them [under] discipline,” he said in an interview at his office inside the Iraqi government’s heavily defended Green Zone.
He said there were tens of thousands of minorities who also made up militia groups under the government’s control, adding that “the PMF has been misinterpreted outside Iraq.”
That especially applies to groups like K’tab Hezbollah and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), which are advised by the Iranian military.
“There is a great influence of Iran on them. There is some influence of the Iraqi government on them, and there is a good degree of self interest” driving their actions, Safa said.
Disciplining members who step out of line will be a challenge, he said.
K’tab Hezbollah and AAH are believed to hold the bulk of the illegally detained prisoners, according to human rights, Western and Iraqi officials who all spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Safa said the Iraqi government had not been able to verify the existence of the secret detention facilities, but authorities did find evidence of other abuses.
“We have heard about the detention facilities, but we could never verify these numbers in these reports,” he said. “However they could find violations that happened including killing of some of the detainees—more than 10 people in one incident,” after the battle to drive ISIS out of Fallujah. He said that that particular case was attributed to the individual seeking revenge because his brother had been killed, but he did not offer further details.
“Bottom line, it was not a policy by the groups,” he said.
Safa said the Iraqi government is considering a post-ISIS plan that would see Iraq’s mostly Shiite army withdrawn from all the cities, especially non-Shiite ones, so as not to cause friction with the local population which he says is what contributed to the rise of ISIS in Mosul and throughout Sunni-majority Anbar Province. In their place, PMF forces that came from the towns they would patrol would back up local police as a sort of reserve force.
“Why have them?” said Kurdish Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa. “We should have invested in the Iraqi army. Not have a force from one sect.
"Are we going to the Islamization of this country? Are we going to see the majority set aside the minorities?" he asked.
In an interview with The Daily Beast at his ministry office in Erbil, Mustafa said that while Kurds “appreciate the sacrifices of some of those who have come to help protect Baghdad and the country,” not all of the groups are disciplined.
“This will create a problem for the future of Iraq,” he said.
Mustafa griped that while the militia groups will now be paid by the Iraqi government, his Peshmerga forces had to be funded by the Pentagon—to the tune of $450 million for his roughly 180,000 volunteers. U.S. Forces work closely with the Peshmerga as they do with the Iraqi army, but they do not advise the militia groups.
Back in the hospital, the newly legal status of the mostly Shiite PMF groups doesn't sit well with the injured militiamen from Mosul who have no hope of receiving pay or benefits from the Iraqi government.
“If anything happens to me, no one will take care of my family,” one of the fighters said.
From their perspective the money just goes to the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government. But even more telling, in their view, is the way the U.S.-led coalition doles out critical support during combat.
Just before they were attacked, they say, four Humvees with Americans in them had been observing them from a distance. When they came under fire, they say, the Americans quickly drove away rather than helping them the way they have seen the American soldiers do for the Peshmerga or Iraqi troops.
U.S. military advisors have been ordered to stay out of the front lines by the White House, except in the rare special operations missions accompanying elite Iraqi or Kurdish forces on a specific raid or operation.
But from the point of view of the wounded fighters of the Knights of Ninewa, the Americans should have helped.
"They just left us," one said.
Worse, they think the new incoming Trump administration will work with the Shiite government to keep them down.
"Trump is going to raze the Muslim world," one of them said, to nods all around.
—Saud Murrani contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Bawar Ihsan contributed reporting from Erbil.