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The guys who hold the key to stability in Baghdad

BAGHDAD, Iraq — As Iraq appears set for the country's first peaceful transition of power in over 10 years, a wildcard remains: the powerful Shia militias policing the capital's streets and fighting on the front lines, holding back Sunni militants with their sights set on Baghdad.

After eight years of increasingly divisive and sectarian rule, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki announced last week that he is stepping down, paving the way for Haider Al-Abadi, the man nominated as his successor, to form a more inclusive government in hopes of forging a political solution to Iraq's current crisis.

Iraq's Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad August 16, 2014.
Hadi Mizban | Pool | Reuters
Iraq's Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad August 16, 2014.

For now, Iraq's most powerful militia leaders say they're throwing their support behind Al-Abadi, insisting that they'll leave politics to the politicians. But for many the assurances ring hollow amid reports that the Shia militias, initially called upon to bolster Iraq's security forces, are acting with greater and greater autonomy, in some instances directly defying orders from Baghdad central command.

"We support Abadi and all the honest people of Iraq," explained a top commander of the Asaib Al-Haq militia, considered one of the largest and most powerful. "Our goal is to protect Iraq from any outside threats and protect all of Iraq's communities."

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The Asaib Al-Haq leader spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not have permission from his superiors to talk to the press.

"We do not hide that Maliki was betrayed," he said, hinting that his loyalty may not be as firmly aligned with Iraq's prime minister-elect as with the outgoing leader. Then, dismissing the Baghdad jockeying, he added, "This is all just politics."

Following the summer collapse of three divisions of the Iraqi military after a swift Sunni militant advance led by the Al-Qaeda inspired group now calling itself the Islamic State, Iraq's top Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, issued a call to arms. Militias like Asaib Al-Haq responded.

While most militia fighters were deployed to front line positions on the outskirts of Tikrit, armed civilian forces also fanned out across the Iraqi capital. Within days militiamen became a common sight at police checkpoints, while their vehicles, often white pickup trucks without plate numbers, began regularly patrolling neighborhoods.

As the country's security crisis led to a political standoff in Baghdad that now appears to have eased, both militias and the military have increased their presence on Baghdad's streets, further straining the already heavily militarized capital.

Despite his promise of support for Iraq's prime minister-elect, the militia leader maintains, his forces remain indebted to a degree to Maliki for the arms and authority he handed the fighters in the early days of the current crisis.

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Kataib Hezbollah is another Iraqi militia, arguably as powerful as Asaib Al-Haq. Saiid Hashem, its leader, sat on an ornate sofa in a cool sitting room on a hot Baghdad day, calmly explaining that his men are not fighting for one particular leader or a sectarian cause.

"We are fighting for our country, we are fighting in the name of Iraq," said Hashem, who also goes by the nom de guerre Abu Warith. He conceded that the same does not go for all the armed civilian groups operating on Baghdad's streets these days. Some, he said, are unpredictable, acting independently with little to no command and control. But, he says, his men, a group declared a terrorist organization by the United States, have the country's best interests at heart.

Hashem says for now he has no plans to run afoul of a military he says supplies his men with uniforms, weapons and logistical gear. "We have to tolerate the orders from the Iraqi army because we have the same aim," he explained, "and we are working to destroy the same target."

Nonetheless, as Iraq's political and security crises have deepened there are increasing reports of militias like Asaib Al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah acting with more and more autonomy, in some cases directly defying orders from the Iraqi army.

"We are worried," conceded a longtime security advisor to Maliki who spoke on condition of anonymity. Even as the militias provided invaluable support for the country's security forces, he said, Maliki's inner circle was always concerned for the future, worried that the militias may grow more powerful than the country's own military.

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Baghdad security sources report members of Asaib Al-Haq have begun issuing themselves ranks and delivering orders to Iraqi military personnel. Outside of Tikrit, sources report tensions between militias and the military became so great that the forces had to be transported in and out of battle separately to avoid altercations regarding hierarchy.

An Asaib Al-Haq foot soldier, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, admitted that his unit often acts independently of Baghdad central command.

"Sometimes, when the terrorists attack," he said, speaking by phone from his post outside the capital, "we don't have time to wait for orders from the military."

With Maliki's formal withdrawal of his candidacy, Al-Abadi has continued submitting nominations for his cabinet, which the constitution requires him to form within 30 days of his own nomination.

Sheikh Raad, the leader of a smaller militia, the Knights of Anger, commands forces both in Baghdad and on the front lines of Tikrit. Seated beneath an Iraqi flag and a Kalashnikov, he pointed to a pin on his lapel of the revered Shia figure Imam Hussein. Below it, the Iraqi flag is sewn into his military fatigues.

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Initially he said the two symbols are equally important — but later he conceded that, for him, religion trumps nationalism.

"The flags, like the leaders, they come and go," Raad said with a smile, "but the Imam, he never changes."

Susannah's reporting from Baghdad is part of a GlobalPost partnership with PRI's The World.

—By Susannah George, GlobalPost