Tuesday, 7 June 2016
The liberation of Fallujah by Iraqi government forces was supposed to free the city’s Sunni Muslims from the barbaric oppression they have suffered at the hands of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil). After two years of living in fear of summary execution, subjected to Isil’s savage interpretation of Sharia law, the city’s 50,000 or so Sunni captives longed to be rid of their Islamist jailers, whose gunmen attempted to kill anyone caught trying to escape.
Rather than celebrating their liberation from Isil, the remaining inhabitants of Fallujah now find themselves caught on the horns of an awful dilemma
But as soon as the campaign to liberate Fallujah got under way, its civilian inhabitants suddenly found themselves confronting another, equally terrifying threat: Iran’s vengeful Shia militias.
The deep-rooted hatred between Iraq’s rival Sunni and Shia communities has afflicted the country since its foundation after the First World War when Sir Percy Cox, the Colonial Office administrator, opted to give the minority Sunnis preference over the majority Shias: a political imbalance that persisted until the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni dictatorship in 2003.
Since then, Iraq’s resurgent Shias have set about settling scores with the Sunnis. Consequently, rather than concentrating their efforts on defeating Isil – which was supposed to be the whole point of the Iraqi government’s offensive on Fallujah – they now stand accused of atrocities against Sunni civilians there.
Reports suggest more than 300 Sunni civilians have been executed by Shia militias after they seized control of a Sunni suburb on the northern edge of Fallujah earlier this week. Video footage shows survivors being treated in hospital after savage beatings from Shia militiamen armed with spades and batons. Some Sunnis claim they were made to drink their own urine when they asked for water.
Rather than celebrating their liberation from Isil, the remaining inhabitants of Fallujah now find themselves caught on the horns of an awful dilemma. Either they risk execution by Isil fighters as they try to escape, or they risk execution by Shia militiamen if they offer to surrender.
Given the historical antagonism between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shias, we should not be surprised that Shia militias are indulging in brutal reprisals against Sunni captives. A similar pattern emerged last year when Shia militias helped to liberate Saddam’s home city of Tikrit in an orgy of violence and looting.
Even so, the Shia militias’ conduct at Fallujah is deeply troubling for the US-led military coalition using air power to support the Iraqi government’s efforts against Isil.
It also demonstrates that, for all the hype surrounding Barack Obama’s deal with Iran over its controversial nuclear programme, Tehran is continuing its attempts to undermine Western efforts to bring some semblance of stability to the Middle East. The Shia militias currently terrorising the Sunni population of Fallujah are trained, equipped, funded and directed by Iran.
Their conduct is certainly profoundly embarrassing for the Obama administration which argued that, after crippling economic sanctions against Iran were lifted in January, the West could look forward to improved relations with Tehran. Instead, the opposite has been the case, as this week’s publication of the US State Department’s annual report on global terrorism clearly demonstrates.
Rather than seeing Iran improve its behaviour in the wake of the nuclear deal, the report starkly concludes that Tehran remains “the foremost state sponsor of terrorism … providing a range of support, including financial, training and equipment to groups around the world.”
Many of these groups are based in Syria and Iraq where, rather than fighting the fanatics of Isil, they are focused on destroying moderate, pro-Western Sunni forces.
Hopes that the estimated $150 billion Tehran will receive from the lifting of sanctions would be used to rebuild the country’s infrastructure after decades of decline appear similarly misplaced. Iran last month announced it was increasing its military budget by a staggering 90 per cent, a move that can only unnerve its Sunni neighbours and further undermine stability in the region.
Nor is Iran’s malign influence confined to the Middle East. Earlier this week intense Iranian lobbying is said to have led to the UN blacklisting the Saudi Arabian-led military coalition in Yemen over accusations it was responsible for killing children. The report completely ignored the fact that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who are backing Houthi rebels against Yemen’s democratically-elected government, regularly use civilians as human shields, deliberately increasing the civilian death toll. That glaring inconsistency was one of the reasons the UN reversed its decision and removed Saudi from the blacklist.
In short, Iran is as bad as Isil when it comes to the mistreatment of civilians, whether in Yemen or the suburbs of Fallujah.
And if the West is really serious about defeating Isil, then it needs to understand it will have to do so without the support of Iran and its brutal Shia proxies.