Exclusive: On the frontline with Shiite militias in Iraq
In December 2017, the Iraqi government announced with great fanfare the "official end of the war against the Islamic State group". The announcement marked the end of three years of fierce fighting. Among those battling the jihadists on the frontline were thousands of Shiite fighters. They agreed to speak to our reporters on the ground for this exclusive report.
It’s December 2017 and we’re in the Nineveh desert, in northern Iraq. In a few hours’ time, the Iraqi prime minister will announce the end of the war against the Islamic State (IS) group. But it’s here, 500 kilometres from Baghdad, in the desert along the Syrian border and in freezing temperatures, that the final battle against the jihadists is taking place.
The combat is being waged by Shiite fighters from all swathes of Iraqi civil society. These men responded to the fatwa against the IS group launched in 2014 by their highest religious authority in Najaf. They call themselves the Popular Mobilisation forces, a web of militias and paramilitary groups loyal to Iran and modelled on Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.
‘We are the saviours of Iraq’
We experience the final hours of the Battle of the Desert with these men - more specifically an advanced unit of the elite Imam Abbas battalion - before heading to Baghdad, then to Najaf, further south.
The holy Shiite shrine at Najaf serves as a base for the Shiite militias. After three weeks in Iraq, we catch a glimpse of the darkest and most dangerous side of these armed groups by meeting, under tight security, former members of the MahdiArmy, which stood up to US forces after the 2003 invasion. With its 150,000-strong members, the Popular Mobilisation forces are determined to influence the future of the region. "We are the saviours of Iraq and the third most powerful force after the Revolutionary Guards in Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon," one of its fighters told us. "No one can do anything against our movement, because it is created by the will of God. He chose us to fight the enemies of Islam."