Middle East

Iraq: A proxy battleground in a regional war

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Leagues of the Righteous - an Iranian-backed Shia militia operating in Iraq

Sectarian violence in Iraq is at some of its highest levels for years - and there is evidence the country is becoming a battleground for regional players in a wider struggle for supremacy, as the BBC's Nahed Abouzeid reports from Baghdad.

When I met "Abou Ali" for the first time, it was after a drawn-out process of exchanging messages through a third party to arrange the time and place.

Abou Ali - not his real name - and his comrade never introduced themselves during my first encounter with the Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq. My natural curiosity as a journalist was the sole reason for wanting to meet the group face-to-face.

Unlike the Leagues of the Righteous (LoR, or Asaib Ahl al-Haqq), another Shia militia that is becoming very visible on the political and security scene, Iraqis talk about the Hezbollah Brigades as a "phantom organisation". However the policy of secrecy they have jealously guarded until now seems to be changing.

The Brigades are gradually adopting a more assertive public profile, partly through organising open protests and public events.

For example they recently called a demonstration in central Baghdad to protest against an Iraqi newspaper (Al-Sabah Al-Jadeed) and its editor-in-chief for publishing a cartoon of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"We are the Kataeb Brigades. We scored in Syria accolades," chanted one flag-waving group of supporters as they marched right in front of the security forces. The troops were there only to keep guard around the area.

Two directions

Since the war in Syria spilled across the borders to the east (Iraq) and west (Lebanon), the trading of accusations in Baghdad is becoming shriller.

Shia officials openly accuse Saudi Arabia of financing Sunni extremists in the region, whereas Iraqi Sunnis often accuse the government of Nouri al-Maliki of power-grabbing to help Iran advance its regional agenda.

Image caption Iraq's Hezbollah Brigades are becoming more of a visible presence

This mutual mistrust between Shia majority and large Sunni minority appears to have been vindicated lately by reports that Riyadh's decision to withdraw the so-called "Syria File" (the handling and shaping of Saudi policy on the Syrian conflict) from the intelligence chief Prince Bandar Bin Sultan - seen by some as supportive of jihadist rebel groups - marked a strategic shift.

Such reports reinforced a popular sentiment in Iraq that there are elements in Saudi Arabia who are masterminding what they consider to be a regional war against Shia Islam.

Media leaks of a planned military deal between Baghdad and Tehran worth billions of dollars sparked an outcry amongst Iraq's Sunni opposition and the international community alike.

Although the Maliki government did not confirm such leaks, they never denied them either.

National media organisations that are at odds with the central government turned their attention to the conflict raging in Iraq's western province of Anbar, suggesting that Iranian weapons could potentially be used against the Sunni community at large, not only Sunni militants who had taken control of some areas.

Similar concerns were directly put to Prime Minister Maliki when he visited Washington in November in an attempt to expedite US military shipments to Iraq.

'Plots and conspiracies'

A news website close to Iraq's Shia Islamist Sadrist movement published an article a couple of months ago, talking about an undeclared plan of action between Tehran and Baghdad for a propaganda offensive against Riyadh.

My Hezbollah Brigades contact, Abou Ali, smiled when I told him about the article, and said: "What I am about to show you has nothing to do with that."

Iraq's Hezbollah media presence has until now been subtle and calculated. They seldom publish statements about the political or security situation in the country, and never give interviews. I was allowed to see their latest video before the Brigades published it on their website.

The video, describe by the Brigades as the pinnacle of their own intelligence efforts, names individuals and organisations (including commercial and political entities) some of which lead all the way to the top tier of Saudi leadership (including members of the royal family).

It alleges plotting and conspiring against Iraq and talks about indoctrination and training camps for potential jihadists inside Saudi Arabia, before being despatched to either Iraq or Syria.

Irrespective of whether or not such allegations can be proven, it shows the extent to which deep-rooted sectarian sentiments are taking hold in Iraqi society.

Just before the election campaign kicked off, a high-ranking Shia army officer told me: "I know it's wrong to think this way, but I don't think I can get myself to vote for a Sunni candidate yet… It's a question of trust."

'Threat to coexistence'

The leader of the LoR, Sheikh Qais al-Khazali, told me during his first interview with an international media organisation: "Whether we like it or not we are now part of a war between two axes: Iran-Iraq-Syria on one side and US-Turkey-Saudi Arabia on the other."

Image caption Sheikh al-Khazali: Like it or not, we are part of a war between two axes

Although relatively new compared to the Hezbollah Brigades (some members of which claim to have launched their first insurgency in a 1993 coup attempt against Saddam Hussein), LoR owe their prominence to a deal they struck with the government in 2010.

In exchange for British hostage Peter Moor, thousands of LoR members were admitted into the heart of the Iraqi military.

Most of them now form the elite special force called the Golden Brigade, linked directly to the prime minister's office, and which has become one of the most feared military units in the country.

Extremist radio and satellite TV stations on both sides of the sectarian divide have become tools of this war. A BBC documentary Freedom to Broadcast Hate - in both Arabic and English explored this battle of words in some depth.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shia cleric, denounced such tactics as a threat to peaceful coexistence in Iraq. In a handwritten letter to the BBC, he put the responsibility squarely in the hands of the leaders and authorities to prevent these tools from inflicting further damage.

Sunni spiritual leader Abdel Malik al-Saadi also wrote to the BBC condemning these channels as "instruments of the occupation whose sole aim is to spread their venom through insulting the Prophet's Sahaba (close companions of Muhammad venerated by Sunnis) and Ahl-elbeit (close kin of the Prophet revered by Shia) alike.

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