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Shiite Militia Forces Battling the Islamic State are Suffering from Low Morale

Pro-government fighters describe poor conditions and slow progress as they struggle to regain territory from the well-equipped insurgents.

by John Beck
Aug 7 2014, 6:00pm

Photo by AP/Ahmed al-Husseini

Iraqi volunteer militia forces, who are battling alongside the Iraqi army against hardline Sunni insurgents led by the Islamic State, are suffering from low morale due to poor organization and lack of support, according to militia fighters.

The Islamic State overran a large section of northern Iraq in June, routing the 30,000 troops defending Iraq's second city of Mosul in a matter of hours, and then swore to march on Baghdad.

Spooked lawmakers took their threat seriously and turned to the country's Shiite militias to bolster the severely weakened armed forces, incorporating fighters into coalition units with regular troops. Militia strength was boosted when thousands heeded a call from Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for volunteers to defend the country.

An introduction and field guide to the fighting in Iraq. Read more here.

For now, the tactics may have worked. Islamic State’s progress towards the capital has been halted. However, Iraqi forces have not been able to regain ground despite a number of high profile attempted counter attacks, including heavy assaults on Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit.

A 20-year-old volunteer, who joined a Shiite militia in June and is currently fighting in Samarra as part of a mixed force including army regulars, told VICE News that his group was facing tough opposition from well supplied and equipped insurgents and is struggling to make progress as a result. “We are worried that there is no real improvement on the ground,” he said.

"This is my first time holding a rifle and facing someone who is trying to kill me,”

The volunteer, who asked to be referred to by the pseudonym Abu Malik, said that most of the fighting in the region takes place after sunset.

“It's mostly night battles... there are very heavy clashes then, but it’s quiet in the morning,” he said.

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Even during lulls, however, he said it is not safe to move out in the open. “If someone is wounded, you can’t go out to get him because there are snipers everywhere and you don’t know where they are hiding. We leave the injured and dead until we clear the area,” Abu Malik said. Sometimes, he added, that can take up to a week.

Abu Malik joined up with a number of his friends and received very little training before heading to the front. According to him, some of his friends have already been injured in battle.

“It is the first time for me to be a fighter… this is my first time holding a rifle and facing someone who is trying to kill me,” he said.

"They have padlocked on suicide vests and they want to die, it’s not a rebellion.”

Some northern Iraqis from Mosul previously told VICE News that the Islamic State was not a major part of the insurgency, and that it was instead a popular uprising against Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s rule. However, Abu Malik denied this.

“It’s nothing to do with that, the people on the ground are fighters, they have padlocked on suicide vests and they want to die, it’s not a rebellion,” he said, adding that many of his opponents are foreigners, judging by their beards, clothing, and in some cases, their personal IDs.

He said he is dedicated to the fight, describing it as “a duty” to defend Iraq, explaining that “our main goal is to kick [Islamic State] out… I’ve forgotten about everything, my family, my life so I can try and kill them.”

However, he said that morale in his unit is sometimes low as a result of poor conditions. Even food can be hard to come by. “Sometimes we stay hungry for a long time,” he said, adding that cigarettes are even scarcer.

Even worse, the unit still hasn’t yet been paid, despite the fact that all of the men must buy their own clothing and equipment. As a result, there have been a number of deserters from his unit.

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“To be honest, there are people who escaped the battles,” he said. “We don’t know where they went; we just found a uniform and a rifle. Sometimes I think they are right to do that. With no proper support, they feel like they’re walking into a massacre.”

Militia fighters elsewhere in the country have similar complaints. A sergeant with the Shiite Kata’in Hezbollah militia unit known as Abu Hakim joined up three months ago and is currently posted near Tikrit. He also reported slow progress.

“Our main concern is that there is no big improvement on the whole, or when there is, it is slow,” he told VICE News. He too is still keen to fight, however. “We are protecting our beliefs, and being a fighter, one has only to consider martyrdom or victory.”

But forces in the area are receiving some outside help. Abu Hakim said his unit has been supplied with foreign weapons, including Iranian anti-material rifles. A shipment of Iranian and Chinese-made assault rifles arrived recently too, he said.

According to Abu Hakim, he has seen Iranian military advisors in the former US base Camp Speicher and that Iranian Revolutionary Guards are stationed at high profile targets, including air bases and military bases.

Ministry of the Interior Spokesperson Saad Maan Ibrahim told VICE News that the role played by militia fighters was crucial to the armed forces.

“Sistani’s call was important to give us strength to fight the criminals," he said, adding that Militia are fully incorporated with the rest of the armed forces. “We take them a training camps and distribute the units with other troops. They can’t fight just as groups, everything is integrated under the army umbrella.”

However, Maan acknowledged that Islamic State forces are tough opponents, both stronger and better armed than they once were thanks to equipment seized from retreating Iraqi troops.

“They have tanks and weapons stolen from military division in Mosul,” he said, adding that the group’s tactics have made them difficult to deal with. “ISIS have a method, which is a war of attrition, opening more fronts in more place so our people cannot focus on one position.”

According to Maan, the Iraqi military is now familiar with these methods and should be able to battle Islamic State more effectively in the future.

“We know our jobs and our directions and the goals of our enemies. Before that, we didn’t know who they were and what they wanted,” he said.

Still, Maan said, lawmakers would welcome more support from the US, particularly in the form of air strikes.

“Frankly, until now, we are waiting for American aid, with air support it would take us two or three weeks [to defeat with IS]. We would benefit from air power,” he said.

Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck