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Iran-backed militias ‘impede’ religious freedom in Iraq: US monitor

Progress on the promotion of religious freedoms in Iraq is being “impeded” by Iran-back militia groups, a US government monitor has said.

In its annual report published on Wednesday, the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) placed Iraq on a special watch list for nations of concern.

Iraq is a Muslim-majority country, with a predominantly Shiite population in the center and south and a smaller Sunni population in the north and west.

It is also home to some of the oldest Christian communities in the world and several smaller sects including Yezidis.

Iraq’s ancient Jewish population has all but vanished since the creation of Israel in 1948.

The country has been wracked by sectarian conflict since the US removed Saddam Hussein from power in 2003.

The bloody sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites sowed the seeds for the Islamic State (ISIS) conflict in 2014, when the Sunni jihadist group seized control of Mosul, Shingal, and the Nineveh Plains where a rainbow of religious sects have coexisted for millennia.

Those who remained were either forced to convert to Islam, pay a religious tax, or exterminated.

When ISIS was defeated in Iraq in 2017, many liberated areas fell under the control of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs), also known in Arabic as Hashd al-Shaabi.

The PMFs were established in 2014 following a fatwa – of religious call to action – from Iraq’s highest Shiite religious authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

However, several pro-Iran militias, established to fight the US occupation and Sunni groups during the civil war, then joined the PMFs – many of them becoming proxies for Iran’s political and military interests in Iraq.

Today, some of these factions are thought to be responsible for rocket attacks on US personnel and infrastructure in Iraq – attacks which have risen in frequency since the US re-imposed sanctions on Iran.

In Wednesday’s report, USCIRF said the PMFs have become the main obstacle to improving religious freedoms in Iraq.

“More than any other single factor, a lack of security, mainly due to the corrosive presence of largely Iranian-backed militias of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)—al-Hashd al-Shaabi, also known as Popular Mobilization Units (PMU)—continued to impede progress toward improved religious freedom conditions,” the report states.

Although the PMFs have been brought under the umbrella of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), and measures have been taken to fully integrate the units into Iraq’s official military apparatus, many continue to act independently.

The report draws particular attention to two PMF brigades – the 30th Shabak Brigade and 50th Babylon Brigade – both of which operate in Nineveh and northern Iraq’s disputed territories.

“Some factions, such as the Iran-backed 30th (“Shabak”) and 50th (“Babylon”) brigades, have played an instrumental role in either making key towns in the area increasingly inhospitable to minority returnees, or limiting their movement to or from those areas,” the report states.

Four Iraqis, including two PMF leaders, were sanctioned by the US Treasury Department in July last year accused of corruption and human rights abuses against “persecuted religious communities struggling to recover from the horrors inflicted on them” by ISIS.

They included Rayan al-Kildani, leader of the Christian-majority 50th Babylon Brigade, and Waad Qado, head of the Shabak 30th Brigade.

USCIRF urged the US government to sanction more PMF leaders involved in “severe violations of religious freedom in Iraq” by freezing their assets and barring their entry into the US.

Displaced families in the disputed areas of Nineveh province have protested the continued presence of PMFs in their hometowns and called for the return of Iraqi Army or Peshmerga units to maintain security instead.

Thousands of Iraqi Christians and Yezidis from Nineveh remain displaced, many of them living in camps in the Kurdistan Region.

“Sources in Iraq told USCIRF in 2019 that only an estimated 30-50 percent of the population of Chaldeans, Assyrians, and other Christians have likely returned to their communities of origin since the fall of ISIS in late 2017, mostly from refuge in Erbil and other parts of KRG territory,” the report said.

The same goes for Yezidis who survived the ISIS genocide in Sinjar, known to Kurds as Shingal.

“Their historic homeland of Sinjar remained mostly inhospitable for returnees, as PMF checkpoints made the road between there and Duhok nearly impassable at times,” the USCIRF report states.

Although Shingal was retaken from ISIS in 2015, the region remains hotly disputed between rival forces. Displaced families are wary of returning amid the insecurity, presence of armed militias, lack of infrastructure, and recent Turkish airstrikes.

“To make matters worse, Turkish airstrikes have repeatedly targeted positions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its allies in and near Sinjar since 2017, including the most recent such incidents in November 2019 and January 2020,” the report adds.

Of the 550,000 Yezidis in Iraq prior to the ISIS war, at least a third have emigrated abroad and 360,000 remain displaced in camps in the Kurdistan Region, according to statistics from the KRG’s Yezidi Rescue  Office.

The USCIRF report called on the US government to pressure Iraqi officials to control those PMFs known to engage in sectarian violence, which prevent the “return and rehabilitation” of the displaced people, and which target Iraqi protesters for Iranian interests.

Several attempts have been made to fully integrate the PMFs into Iraq’s formal security apparatus, to professionalize the armed forces, reduce Iranian influence, and reduce the likelihood of a proxy war between Iran and the US spilling over into Iraqi territory.

Last year, under pressure to curb the independence of Iran-affiliated armed groups, Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi issued a decree ordering the full integration of the PMFs into the ISF.

It was met with delays and resistance. Source