Outside an Islamic State-held village near Sinjar, Iraq, the fading dark of the pre-dawn morning throbbed with the grating sound of bulldozers pushing up mounds of earth. These barriers of dirt and rocks are meant to prevent suicide bombers from driving cars into the Iraqi army and Shia militia forces slowly moving into ISIS territory. At one point, the boom of an improvised explosive device (IED) sent a plume of smoke curling from a group of small houses bunched together just a short distance away.
"Booby trap," one of the militiamen I was traveling with explained. "They like to leave us presents when we come to visit."
This was just a couple of weeks ago, and I was embedded with the Hashd al-Shaabi—or Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs)—a group of mostly Shia militias that, since last year, has officially been under the umbrella of the Iraqi armed forces. A coalition led by the United States is training and equipping the Iraqis and providing air support for some major operations, among them the ongoing offensive to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State. The Hashd al-Shaabi agreed to host me for a few days, during which I accompanied them as they worked to liberate territory near the Syrian border. Along the way, I got a taste of just how deeply the country remains enmeshed in a dark cycle of retaliatory violence—and how much work will be left even if ISIS is totally destroyed.
Not long after arriving, I tweeted what I thought was an innocent note about the trip and my hosts. When I returned to my feed later that day, I found a dumpster fire rapidly spreading in my mentions.
Isn't Hashd al-Irhabi the same entity that was accused of mass killing, kidnapping and rape by every HR org?
They're destroying innocent homes and bombing children.
You're embedded with terrorists.
Check out this preview of the VICE on HBO segment about the fight to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State, and watch the full episode Friday, June 2, at 7:30 or 11 PM eastern on HBO.
One of these critics pointed me to a piece that had just been published by Der Speigel and ABC News, which seemed to have triggered the outrage. A Kurdish-Iraqi photographer named Ali Arkady had been embedded with the Emergency Response Division (E.R.D), part of the Iraqi ministry of interior where Shiites and Sunnis seemingly worked in unison. But during his stay, the unit allowed him to photograph and take videos of brutal interrogations of suspected ISIS members captured during the course of fighting in and around Mosul. He claimed to witness summary executions, and said he believed some of the people being interrogated were civilians with no ties to the Islamic State who were being coerced into making false confessions.
Though the Hashd al-Shaabi were not central to that story, its fighters are members of the Iraqi armed forces now, and reports of sectarian war crimes committed by the PMUs have proliferated throughout the conflict.
I began struggling to reconcile these kinds of allegations with the fact that the Hashd al-Shaabi unit I stayed with treated me with respect and protected me in the field. I asked myself if the men who had treated a Lebanese-American journalist so well could themselves be party to monstrous (alleged) sectarian war crimes. I fretted that perhaps I had lost my journalistic objectivity and become blind to their faults.
These are not new concerns, of course. I've interviewed many people who have done terrible things and nonetheless treated me well. And these are questions every journalist should ask when covering people they get along with: Why are these people being nice to me, and what else are they up to?
What I landed on was the sometimes overwhelming problem of retaliatory sectarian violence—and how the press needs to cover violence as thoroughly as possible to help stop it. Though the Hashd al-Shaabi seem to attract much of the condemnation for acts of this nature (which should be condemned no matter who commits them) they are not the only non-ISIS faction to be accused of gross misconduct. While working in Iraq, I've also heard stories of the Peshmerga—the fighting force of the Kurdish regional government—committing their own outrages in areas under their control.
"This is war. The biggest issue is the lack of control over fighters," explained Renad Mansour, an expert on Iraq at Chatham House, a think tank based in London. "I don't think there's a systematic policy [on the part of the Hashd al-Shaabi] to target based on sect. I think, in fact, most of the top leaders…are, in their discourse, trying to limit those type of sectarian undertones that used to be very common in Iraq from militia leaders."
I asked a couple of my contacts with the Hashd al-Shaabi about anti-ISIS atrocities. One of them knew Captain Omar Nazar, the Iraqi commander heavily featured in Arkady's photos and video footage.
"In any war, there will be some violence, but the problem with this guy [Arkady] is that he made it seem like the whole Iraqi army are raping and torturing people," one fighter told me. (I reached out to Arkady for comment, but his assistant said he is unavailable for interviews.)
When I asked if the Hashd al-Shaabi ever hurt civilians in their quest to eliminate IS from areas they control, Ammar al-Musawi, a PMU spokesman, described their method of identifying collaborators.
"Every time we liberate an area and there are civilians there, we already have intelligence and our sources give us names of people involved with ISIS," he said. "We check each civilian's ID card and if he's clean, we take him to the displacement camps. If he's a criminal or involved with ISIS activity, we send him to the Iraqi court."
"But it's a war, and sometimes mistakes are made," Ammar continued. "Nobody is an angel in war. People who treat civilians in the wrong way should face the court and be punished, because they're not supposed to be doing those things."
All of this served to recommit me to accurately documenting the violence I encounter in my work, even if it's committed by people who have protected me and shown me kindness. The truth isn't always what I want it to be, but it's my job to tell as close to it as I can get—just like it was Arkady's job, for which he should be commended—and add as much context as I can through my own writing.
The best way to eliminate retaliatory sectarian violence is to describe it as completely as possible—and work towards a unified Iraqi government that includes all the country's sects equally in a post-conflict state. Vengeance isn't a strategy, even if it sometimes looks like one.
"Daesh has carried out so many kidnappings and beheadings based on sect," Abu Munther Al-Husainy, a Hashd al-Shaabi Special Forces leader, told me during my trip, referring to the Islamic State by its Arabic nickname. "When they capture women, they rape them and sometimes when the woman is pregnant, they cut the baby out of her stomach. You've heard all these stories; I don't need to tell you. These things will make people not just want to defend themselves, but sometimes get revenge."
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Watch VICE on HBO Friday, June 2, at 7:30 and 11 PM to learn more about the struggle to liberate Iraq.