The dust had barely settled on the fall of Iraq’s second city when the call came. It was June 2014 and Islamic State had just captured Mosul, the prize in a fight for control of a country already scarred by more than a decade of war, The Guardian wrote in a report.
Just four days after the city’s capture, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shia cleric in Iraq, issued a fatwa urging Iraqis to volunteer in the fight against the militants. Tens of thousands of mostly young men from the poor Shia south and Baghdad suburbs flocked to recruiting centres, military camps and militia headquarters.
One such gathering took place in a sprawling compound in eastern Baghdad, where a large crowd of young men packed into a lecture hall. Excited to volunteer for the fight against Isis, they came with plastic shopping bags stuffed with clothes and little else. Many of the prospective fighters wore brightly coloured bermuda shorts, their mood as carefree and as boisterous as if they were going on a picnic.
Some were wearing green bandanas with the logo of the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia, formed in 2006 by the military commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and closely associated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
The walls around them were lined with pictures of militiamen who fell in the civil war in neighbouring Syria. Muhandis would go on to become the key leader of the Shia militia umbrella organisation the Popular Mobilisation Forces, known as the Hashed al-Shaabi, or the Hashed.
In January this year he was killed in the same US drone strike that took out Iran’s top military commander, General Qassem Suleimani. By the time of his death the militias under his command, acting at the behest of Iran, were at the heart of the Iraqi establishment. In killing him, the US disrupted a fiendishly complicated set of power relations. It is on Iraqi soil, and not in Iran, that many fear the impact of the strike will be felt in the long term.
“Previously, we chose only people who were committed to protecting the [Shia] sect and observed their religious commitments, who prayed and fasted, but now we are accepting anyone,” said the militia chief’s “recruiting officer” in 2014 . A tall, broad-shouldered man with a thin beard and short-cropped hair, he walked among the rows of enthusiastic young men, jotting down names on a yellow notepad.
Only a few weeks earlier he had been commanding a unit of fighters in Aleppo against Isis, signalling the ever-shifting pace of Iraq’s military and political landscape. “We fought the Americans, and we are fighting Daesh [Isis] in Syria,” he said. “Our experience will make them strong. We will give them the best training anyone can give here. Even army soldiers are joining us – they want to get rid of the corruption that caused the defeat of the army.”