When ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) suddenly became a major threat last June, by capturing Mosul and much of northwestern Iraq, the Shia dominated government did what they always said they would not do and allowed the Shia militias to reform, or at least be public about the fact that many never completely disbanded. Some of these Shia militia have since been accused of going back to their use of death squads against Sunni civilians. There has been some of that, but not as much as in 2006-8. That round of sectarian murders was only ended by the forcible disbanding of the Shia militias.
This time around the government is so eager to mobilize over 100,000 Shia militiamen that these men are being put on the government payroll (for about $500 a month). Over 10,000 members of the Salam Army (formerly the Mahdi Army) refused to take the pay (but took the weapons and equipment) insisting it was their religious duty to fight. Unlike 2008, there are now several new Shia militias, but the basic idea is the same; to defend Shia from Sunni Islamic terrorist attacks. While some of the militiamen have recent military experience, what makes the militias superior to the Iraqi Army and police is that these Shia gunmen are as fanatic as ISIL and better led than most army and police units.
What the government is hoping for is another collapse of the Sunni Islamic terrorist organizations. The last time that happened, in 2007, there followed a sharp drop in violence (about 70 percent nationwide versus 2006). This was widely accepted as proof that the Sunni Arab terrorist organizations had collapsed in defeat. The main reason for that was that most of the Sunni Arab tribes had turned against the terrorists, and al Qaeda, which was responsible for most of the suicide bomb attacks. Most al Qaeda leaders were dead, captured or spending most of their time trying to avoid that fate. The system of safe houses and skilled technicians (bomb makers, trainers, supervisors) had been disrupted or destroyed. At the same time some U.S. commanders wanted to declare al Qaeda defeated in Iraq Osama Bin Laden came out with another audio recording calling for Iraqis to rally behind al Qaeda and restore the terrorist organization.
After this defeat in Iraq al Qaeda was desperate, and they needed a new strategy. The old one, of making terror attacks on Shia Arabs, with the objective being a civil war the Sunni Arabs would win, had been a failure. The Shia Arabs proved more formidable than expected, and Shia death squads killed thousands of Sunni Arabs, often chosen at random to enhance the terror effect. Al Qaeda showed that it could infuriate the Shia Arabs, but not defend Sunni Arabs against Shia retaliation. At first, growing Sunni Arab tribal resistance to al Qaeda was met with terrorism. Sunni Arab leaders were kidnapped or killed by al Qaeda. That produced a growing number of Sunni Arabs that disliked al Qaeda, but was not organized well enough to resist the terrorists. This went on for over a year, until the U.S. Surge Offensive began in 2007. This put American troops into Sunni Arab communities, preventing al Qaeda from terrorizing the civilians. The Sunni Arabs then organized their own self-defense forces and pointed out the al Qaeda among them. By mid-2007 the al Qaeda organization was taken apart because of this cooperation.
This enabled some American combat units to the battle against Shia warlords. There were two of these, both backed by Iran; the Badr Brigades, and the Mahdi Army. While both were backed by Iranian the two organizations were still Iraqi and keen to see a strong and independent Iraq run by a religious dictatorship, with one of the two Shia warlords pulling strings behind the scenes. The two warlords (Abdul Aziz al Hakim, who commanded the Badr Brigade and Muqtada al Sadr who controlled the Mahdi army) were competing to be the kingmaker. There was one major obstacle and that was the fact that the majority of Iraqis didn't want a religious dictatorship (and still don’t). They could see how badly that worked next store in Iran and don't want another warlord, like Saddam, taking over the government. Hakim and Sadr were seen as Shia Saddam wannbes and both men were unsuccessful in shedding that image.
Muqtada al Sadr had other problems. His Mahdi Army was in disarray with factions going off on their own. Most of these freelancers are led by men out to make a buck but some are taking orders from Iran. And those orders involve making terrorist attacks on U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces. The U.S. came down hard on these factions and shut them down. This led to a few battles as American raids meet with armed resistance. The militias lost although their use of civilians as human shields resulted in dead civilians and accusations of rampaging American soldiers out to kill civilians. That didn't save the warlords, but press releases became their most effective weapon.
The Shia government shut down the remaining Shia militias in April 2008 using Iraqi security forces. After a month of fighting, the Mahdi Army disappeared from the streets of Basra, the largest city in the south. The army and police were everywhere, and people were providing information on where Mahdi Army personnel are hiding out, and the locations of their weapons caches. Up north, in the Sadr City section of east Baghdad, the Mahdi Army fought on a bit longer but the Iraqi army and police had the upper hand and were pushing the Shia militiamen back block by block. Mahdi Army leader Muqtada al Sadr responded by threatening to order his men to go after American troops if the government did not back off. That didn’t work because the Mahdi Army was not particularly skillful and not very united either. Sadr had ordered his troops to stop fighting Iraqi soldiers and police and concentrate on the Americans. The Iraqi security forces did not reciprocate and continued coming after the Mahdi Army.
The dozen or so factions of the Mahdi Army varied in their loyalty to Sadr, or to political solutions. Several of the Mahdi Army factions were basically criminal gangs masquerading as religious zealots. Sadr denied he was a pawn of Iran but as Mahdi Army hideouts were captured more Iranian weapons and equipment showed up as well as religious propaganda from Iran. Iraqi president Maliki has told Sadr that the offensive would halt if the Mahdi Army surrendered all its weapons, stopped attacking, or trying to infiltrate (by joining) the security forces, and handed over members wanted for crimes. At first Sadr refused but eventually relented and fled to Iran for a while. Sadr realized that the Iraqi soldiers and police were capable of grinding the Mahdi Army into nothingness. Another month or so of fighting the Mahdi Army was no more. Sadr eventually returned and pro-Iranian terror groups became more active by 2010. But Sadr turned out to be more bluff and bluster than real threat. Iran still controlled Iraqi Shia terrorist groups.
Both government officials, Iran and militia leaders are mindful of these 2007-8 events and plans are afoot by the government to control the militias. Iran, and some of the militia leaders have other plans. The United States and other Western nations with experience in Iraq are aware of this and are, along with the Sunni Arab states to the south, determined to keep Iran from gaining any more power and influence than they already have.