Wearing a camouflage uniform with militia patches and a green headband, Nawar Mohammed is the image of an Iraqi Shia fighter except for one detail: he is Sunni.
Mohammed is one of some 250 Sunni residents of Al-Alam who joined Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian-backed Shia militia with a fearsome reputation for kidnappings and killings targeting their community, to battle the Islamic State group after it seized their town. It would once have been all but unthinkable for a member of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority to join a Shia militia, but opposition to I.S., which overran large areas north and west of Baghdad last June, is transcending deep-seated sectarian divisions.
“The whole world is surprised by this—it’s the first time in the history of Asaib that they formed a Sunni unit,” said Mohammed, standing with a Kalashnikov assault rifle hanging at his side. “Asaib trained us, and we became part of Asaib,” he said. “Asaib, Sunni or Shia, there is no difference—these circumstances united Iraq,” Mohammed said. “God willing, there will not be any more sectarianism.”
The formation of the unit, which some call “Asaib al-Alam,” is a positive sign and its fighters seem genuine when praising Asaib Ahl al-Haq.
Having Sunnis fighting for Shia militias brings direct practical benefits to both sides: the Sunnis receive training and support they need to retake their homes, while the militias take a step toward shedding their reputation for sectarian killings.
Despite having only limited training, Asaib al-Alam took part alongside more experienced militiamen and security forces in the fight for Al-Alam, part of a major drive aimed at retaking the nearby city of Tikrit from I.S. “The purpose of forming the local Asaib in Sunni areas is to strike sectarianism,” said Shia militiaman Hussein Abdulabbas.
He also noted that having fighters who come from an area where a battle takes place brings useful local knowledge.
Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi praised the participation of local residents in the fight to retake Tikrit as “a very positive message to the Iraqi people.”
Jassem al-Jbara, the head of the Salaheddin provincial council’s security committee, said he had encouraged the formation of similar local forces in other areas.
In “Al-Alam, its sons are holding it,” Jbara said. “There are no other security forces,” and “there is no ransacking, no destruction, no vandalism,” he said.
Though it was still damaged, Al-Alam is one of the most intact towns retaken from I.S., especially compared to nearby Albu Ajil, which some believe cooperated with I.S. Many houses and buildings have been burnt in that town, though it is unclear who set the fires.
Al-Alam residents say members of the Jubur tribe fought against I.S. before the jihadists took control of the town, resistance that marked out Juburi men as targets. “I didn’t go out—I stayed in the house. The distance to my uncle’s house is 100 meters. I would only go out and come back,” said Mohammed, who stayed in the town for some five months after the takeover. “The people were not safe—not in the street, not safe eating, not safe sleeping—there wasn’t life,” Mohammed said.
He said he was eventually discovered and fired on as he ran away. He then hid in a house occupied solely by women before making his escape, and later joined the unit that became Asaib al-Alam.
Sheikh Khaled al-Jbara looks the part of a Shia militia commander with a black headscarf and Asaib Ahl al-Haq patches on the sleeves of his uniform, but he is a leader in the Jubur tribe and the head of Asaib al-Alam. “They consider us to be like our brothers the Shias,” Sheikh Khaled said of I.S. jihadists.
While members of Asaib al-Alam take that as a compliment, he noted that for I.S., it means they are people “outside of the [Islamic] religion” who must be killed. “Today, over 600 young men from this area made contact with the [Shia] sons of the south,” he said, referring to those who joined Shia groups including Asaib and the Badr Organization. “I consider this process to be treatment for Iraq.”