Orange tracer bullets illuminated the inky blue of the night sky as Jassem and his fellow mujahideen played their part in what they saw as a centuries-old battle of good versus evil, Sunni versus Shiite. Hunkered down behind a bank of sand, barely a dune, hundreds of high-caliber rounds ripped through the air just inches above their heads. The phone's tiny speakers failed to do justice to the automatic gunfire, heavy and relentless.
"Look," Jassem implored, wide-eyed. He turned and smiled before returning his eyes to the screen.
A gray-haired former factory worker from Iraq's deeply devout Shiite south, Jassem is one of the tens of thousands of Iraqis who rallied to the Hahid Shabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces, in summer 2014.
As ISIS overran vast swathes of the country and appeared poised to take the capital, Baghdad, the leader of Iraq's highest Shiite religious authority, Ayatollah Sistani, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, compelling all the faithful to protect their homeland from ISIS.
The militias were joined by Sunnis, Yazidis, Christians and other minorities, but in far fewer numbers. As ISIS was pushed back from Tikrit and then from Sunni strongholds in Fallujah, Ramadi and finally Mosul, it was Shiite fighters--prominently backed by Iran--who led the way. Many Shiites now view the victory not only as a force of will but as an act of God.
Jassem's brigade, Liwa Ali al-Akhbar, is affiliated with the Shrine of Imam Hussein in the southern city Karbala and considers Sistani its spiritual guide. By law, all the militias that make up the Hashid Shaabi are under the authority of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, but the reality is far more complex. When they formed in 2014, the brigades coalesced around varied power structures: religious institutions, political parties, ethnic groups or old or defunct fighting groups. While they were fighting ISIS, the militias had a common goal; now that ISIS is defeated, militia fighters have differing visions of the future of Iraq.
For Jassem, who was a Iraqi special forces fighter under Saddam Hussein and later a factory worker, the competing aspirations of the various militias did not represent a problem. He saw no contradiction between following both Abadi and Sistani: "We have no orders. This is the prime minister's discretion, and he knows what we should do in the future. In addition to Ayatollah Sistani's vision."
For Jassem's commander, Ali Hamdani, the fight against ISIS remained integral to any discussion of a new Iraq. Speaking to Newsweek at the end of 2017, Hamdani was buoyed by a string of victories--including, in July 2017, the fall of Mosul--but believed the fight against the Sunni insurgent group was ongoing. In his deep baritone, Hamdani warned that tamping out the embers from the fire ISIS lit in Iraq would at least take two more years.
That was why it was integral, Hamdani said, to keep the Hashid Shaabi fighters in liberated Sunni areas of Iraq--where they were, at best, viewed warily and, at worst, considered an occupying force. "In all areas of Iraq, we have sacrificed. Those areas liberated by the Hashid Shaabi are where they should remain, to maintain security," said Hamdani.
With that sacrifice came hard-won experience. After three years of war against a fearsome opponent, the Hashid were battle-hardened. For four months, Hamdani led his forces against elite ISIS fighters in the Makhoul mountains. "They were unable to capture even one foot of territory in those mountains." In the full four-year campaign against ISIS, the Liwa Ali Akhbar lost 285 fighters--lionized by the community as martyrs--and 1,400 were wounded.
Hanging over the liberation of Mosul and other areas seized from ISIS was the role of Iran, which openly backed the Hashid Shaabi militias (as well as Abadi) and whose top general, Qasem Soleimani, was pictured Shiite battalions in the early days of the conflict. President Donald Trump was outspoken in his criticism of Tehran's role in the Middle East, while both Saudi Arabia and Israel cautiously monitored Iran's growing military and political presence in Iraq.
Iraq's Kurds also criticized Iran. Before the battle to defeat ISIS was over, the coalition against the militants--the Hashid, government soldiers, the international community and the Kurdish Peshmerga--imploded, with Iraqi forces driving the Kurds from Kirkuk, a contested city seized by Kurdish forces early in the war. Iraqi Kurdistan's regional government accused Iran, and Soleimani in particular, of orchestrating the attacks.
The Hashid denied that Soleimani was anywhere near the battlefield, although he was in Iraqi Kurdistan, apparently in the city of Sulaymaniyah, according to the Hashid Shaabi. After Kirkuk, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said it was time for the Hashid Shaabi's Iranian advisers to "go home." Baghdad responded by warning the U.S. against meddling in its affairs, and by early 2018, with Abadi facing an election in May, the role of the Shiite militias and their Iranian backers in Iraqi politics was as prominent as ever.
One of Abadi's key challengers in the upcoming elections is Hashid Shabi commander Hadi al-Amiri, who rose to prominence through the Badr Organization, an Iraqi paramilitary group backed by Iran. Abadi has countered by enlisting the support of Sistani and the powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who became the figurehead for the Shiite insurgency against the U.S. in the mid- to late 2000s by raising the Mahdi Army. Along with Sistani, Al-Sadr has become Iraq's kingmaker.
Such political and international concerns do not trouble Hamdani, who rejected the narrative that the Hashid were either Iranian proxies or in the pocket of Iran. He evoked the Iran-Iraq War, fought between 1980 and 1988, as evidence of why Iranian and Iraqis could never fight alongside each other. "There are no Iranian fighters with us, and I say this truthfully. We fought against Iran over 20 years ago, for eight years," he said, standing and retrieving a picture from the shelf in his small office of militia fighters gathered on the battlefield. "Do you see any Iranians in this picture?" Hamdani asked.
In the Sunni Triangle
The central Iraqi city of Tikrit was one of the first to be liberated from ISIS, in April 2015. Where the streets once echoed with the sounds of war--the explosion of a mortar round, the high-frequency thud of automatic gunfire--children now run and play.
As the sun bathed Tikrit in a deep golden glow just before falling beyond the horizon, a wedding procession wended its way through the town. White cars wrapped in pink ribbons, like birthday presents, honked their horns as they passed the bombed-out husk of a half-finished mosque and a dilapidated apartment building slumped to one side, its lower floors smashed into splinters of concrete.
For Iraq's Sunnis, any gratitude over liberation from ISIS has come alongside concern about a revival of the bitter sectarian conflict that tore through Iraq following the U.S. invasion in 2003.
At the height of the fight-back against ISIS, before Iraqi forces had regained control of most of Iraq's Sunni majority cities, the sectarianism that plagued the country for decades played itself out once more.
Atrocities were reported in Anbar province, in the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi and elsewhere. Hundreds of Sunni men disappeared from Fallujah in the aftermath of the fighting when the city was liberated in June 2016. Shiite militiamen posed for grisly pictures with the desecrated bodies of ISIS fighters. In later operations to liberate ISIS's Iraqi capital of Mosul, the U.S.-backed operation ensured the haashid were kept in the rear guard, liberating towns and installations away from the densely populated city.
Barely a mile into Tikrit, Ahmed Alkareem, the president of the provincial council, governs local affairs from behind two reinforced concrete walls. An accountant by training and a member of a prominent local Sunni tribe, Alkareem was elected to his post in 2013 just before the rise of ISIS, before militants were able to convince the people of Iraq's beleaguered Sunni Triangle that they offered a better future than Baghdad. It is something Alkareem thinks could well happen again.
While life has returned to Tikrit, funding from the international community and a handful of NGOs has not completely repaired the damage done to the city's general hospital. In the town of Bayji, 45 miles to the north, homes still lie in ruins, and its inhabitants still live as refugees four years after the town was liberated.
Alkareem explained that Salahdin province had been neglected by the government in Baghdad, relative to Anbar province, which was liberated later. He accepted that Anbar, where ISIS had more time to do more damage and where the battle to expunge the militants was more costly, was in need of assistance, but added that this did not mean Salahdin was not also in need. "Those things are true of us as well," the president said.
Alkareem felt that the window for the government to keep the minority Sunnis on side was slowly closing and had little faith their concerns would be met before it was too late. "At first, a lot of people were feeling sympathetic to ISIS because they thought it was a revolution against the government," he said. "However, unfortunately, the federal government isn't taking advantage of this change in the people's way of thinking. They are not reaping the benefits."
Alkareem explained that if local Sunnis felt their rights continued to be trampled upon, and salaries and unemployment were not improved, then history could repeat itself.
Alongside getting Saladin's oil refinery, its fertilizer factory and other manufacturing plants in the area back up to speed, problems caused by local militias have become chief among Alkareem's concerns. The roads in and out of Tikrit are lined with the benevolent faces of Ayatollah Sistani and Muqtada Al-Sadr; its checkpoints are manned by fighters from Al-Sadr's Sarraya al-Salam brigade.
The problems of a long-term paramilitary presence on the ground in Sunni Iraq has become a reality in Saladin province. Alkareem explained that the Hashid he dealt with were now more interested in material gain and power than in enforcing security. "The existence of such groups carrying weapons in our area is not a good thing. They are interfering with the residents as well as the government. A lot of the government dealings, they are interfering with. Their role is becoming more materialistic than it is security."
Alkareem explained that the majority of the what he termed "interference" predominantly involved Shiite militiamen and Sunni residents. As far as he is concerned, in the Sunni heartlands that fueled and supported the ISIS advance, the hashid must be removed unless history is to repeat itself.
"The federal government, for their part, needs to strengthen the security forces," he said. "We don't want people from the south coming and guarding our places. We can do that on our own."
The provincial president was elected to his post in 2013. His government was forced to flee Tirkit as it was overrun by ISIS, taking up residence in neighboring Samarra, one of the northernmost points in Iraq, to withstand the militants' advance. For months the city was subject to relentless attacks. Nevertheless, at the end of the struggle, as southern Iraq celebrated, Alkareem advised caution to the unfettered optimism he heard from his countrymen. "I don't see a very bright future," he said.