As Sunni militants in Iraq advance capturing one town after another, the Shias now appear to have decided to face them with their full collective might if the long lines of Shia fighters marching through Baghdad are of any indication. They constitute the Mahdi Army, the paramilitary force that once led a Shia rebellion against US troops. This time they are raising arms against ISIS, the Al-Qaeda splinter group that has driven Iraq’s security forces from parts of the country’s north and west.
Some groups wore masks and one group had yellow and green suicide vests, which they said were live, strapped to their chests. As their numbers grew they swelled into a seemingly unending procession of fighters with rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, backed by mortar crews and gun and rocket trucks. Amidst chanting “One, two, three, Mahdi!” they implored their leader, the cleric Moktda al-Sadr, to send them to battle. “ISIS is not as strong as a finger against us,” said one fighter known as Said Mustafa, who commanded a truck packed with C4 explosive. “If Moktda gives the order, we will finish ISIS in two days.”
Large sections of Baghdad and southern Iraq’s Shite heartland have been swept up in a mass popular mobilization, energized by the fatwa of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who has urged able-bodied Iraqis to take up arms against the Sunni extremists. The Shite and mixed neighbourhoods now brim with militias who march under arms, staff checkpoints and hold rallies to sign up more and more fighter for the upcoming battles.
Fighting has raged in northern and western Iraq and Sunni insurgents have succeeded in capturing a strategic border crossing with Syria and control a stretch of highway to Jordan. Qaim, Rawah, Anah and Rutba have already been captured and the consequent scenario bodes ominously with respect to the peace and security of Iraq in particular and the entire Middle East region. With Shias flexing their muscle, the on-going insurgency is becoming a sectarian war between the two prominent Muslim sects.
At this critical juncture, the UN Security Council must immediately stop the continuing fratricidal war in Iraq and deploy peacekeepers to assist the Iraqi central government in providing food, medicine and shelter to the thousands of refugees. Both Shias and Sunnis should be brought to the table with a goal of establishing some sort of dialogue. Most importantly, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malliki must step down. His government has favoured Shias at the expense of Sunnis and has been the major reason for the unrest which has culminated in the horrible insurgency in Iraq today.