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Iraq PM thanks top Shiite cleric for role in anti-IS war

2 min

Baghdad (AFP)

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi Friday thanked Iraq's top Shiite cleric for his role in the war against jihadists, crediting him with saving the country and setting the stage for victory.

Three days after Mosul fell to the Islamic State group in 2014, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on Iraqis to volunteer to fight the jihadists, a step that helped to halt their sweeping offensive.

But the call also leaves a complicated legacy, leading to a resurgence of Shiite militias that have carried out abuses and the establishment of new paramilitary groups, both of which could be a source of future instability.

Abadi issued a statement expressing his "deep thanks and gratitude" to Sistani for "his great and continuing support to the heroic fighters."

The cleric's 2014 call for volunteers "saved Iraq and paved the way for victory" over IS, Abadi said

Abadi's message comes as the battle to retake second city Mosul nears its conclusion -- a redemption for forces that performed poorly there three years before.

Sistani made the call via a representative speaking at Friday prayers on June 13, 2014, days after multiple Iraqi divisions collapsed in the face of the IS assault in the north.

"Citizens who are able to bear arms and fight terrorists, defending their country and their people and their holy places, should volunteer and join the security forces to achieve this holy purpose," he said.

It sparked a flood of volunteers who were organised under what became known as the Hashed al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation forces -- an umbrella group for pro-government paramilitaries that is officially under the command of the country's premier.

But pre-existing Shiite militias that took part in the brutal Sunni-Shiite sectarian bloodshed that plagued Iraq in past years were also placed under the Hashed al-Shaabi banner and have played a major role in operations against IS.

These groups provided a pool of capable fighters that Baghdad could rely on to combat IS.

But they have also carried out abuses including kidnappings and summary executions in Sunni Arab areas that ultimately undermine Iraq's efforts to counter the jihadists.

The Hashed al-Shaabi's role after the war against IS ends is a key question, and the forces could be a source of instability.

Rivalries could lead to violence between units, and Hashed fighters have already clashed with Iraqi Kurdish forces in the country's north.

The Hashed may also have a political impact, with some commanders potentially seeking to translate military success into political capital in the 2018 parliamentary elections.

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