Iraq’s Hezbollah movement has formed a new militia to silence protesters, said Ahmed Abu Risha, head of the Awakening National Council in the predominantly Sunni Anbar province, where thousands have taken to the streets to demand political reforms and the release of prisoners.
Wathiq al-Batat, head of Iraq’s Hezbollah, announced the creation of the Mukhtar Army on Feb. 4, saying its aim is to defend Shiites and help the government combat terrorism.
The “sectarian” militia was created with government consent, said Abu Risha.
The government has ordered Batat’s arrest, with the Interior Ministry accusing him of being behind the Feb. 17 bombings in Baghdad which killed more than 100 people. He has reportedly fled to neighboring Syria.
“If the government wanted to arrest Batat, it would’ve done so much earlier,” said Abu Risha, adding that the Iraqi army is capable of protecting the country’s Shiites.
Batat denies the ministry’s accusation, telling the Iraqi news website al-Mada Press that he holds “the al-Qaeda-infiltrated ministry” responsible. “The government is stupid for not heeding our warning that al-Qaeda is going to attack,” he added.
Allegations against Batat
Batat’s claim that he is backed by Iran is “baseless,” said an Iranian Revolutionary Guard official.
Batat said his group was behind the Feb. 9 attack on Camp Liberty, which houses the exiled Iranian group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq. Investigations to establish who was responsible are ongoing, said U.N.-Iraq envoy Martin Kobler.
The Mukhtar Army reportedly sent threatening leaflets to Sunni residents in Baghdad last week, demanding that they leave their homes.
Founded in 2008, Hezbollah in Iraq is part of the United Iraqi Alliance, the main Shiite-dominated opposition to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
The coalition, which initially included the movement of populist Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, was created by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq in 2005. The latter’s armed wing, the Badr Organization, fizzled out after many of its members joined the Iraqi army.
The only sizable Shiite militia in Iraq is Sadr’s al-Mahdi Army, though he has said it will be transformed into a humanitarian group. The cleric has described the Anbar protests as “legitimate.”
The creation of the Mukhtar Army may be a reaction to the protests in Iraq’s predominantly Sunni areas, some observers say.
The militia “threatened the protesters if they tried to come in to Baghdad,” Dubai-based analyst Mustafa al-Ani of the Gulf Research Center told Al Arabiya.
Batat tried to seize the “opportunity” to recruit people to his new army amid political tumult during the protests, said al-Ani, who described the Hezbollah militia as an “intelligence cell” with no armed backing in Iraq.
The government earlier this month released 3,000 prisoners, of whom all females were sent to their home provinces, in an attempt to appease demonstrators, said Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani.
However, Kobler and Abu Risha say the prisoners have not yet been released, with the latter citing “routine measures” for the delay.
Since late 2012, the mainly Sunni protesters have called for reforms, including anti-terror laws that they say are used to persecute their community. The arrests of women following the detention of their male relatives under terrorism charges have also caused outrage.
The protests, inspired by the uprising in neighboring Syria, have resulted in the killing of nine demonstrators by the Iraqi army. The government is investigating the incident.