Militiamen in Iraq do not only carry weapons, they also wield religious, moral and economic power over their social environment. They play the role of neighborhood governors in times of peace and murderers in times of war.
Mohammed, a member of a well-known Shiite militia in Iraq, insisted on being called “Sheikh Mohammed,” by which the residents of his area in Baya, south of Baghdad, know him. Speaking to Al-Monitor, he said he does not normally carry weapons without receiving orders from within his circles. What happened in the Baya neighborhood was a response to the bombing of a cafe, in which one of the neighborhood’s residents was involved.
While he spoke, the young sheikh tried to express a high degree of religious conservatism: “We are not involved in killing, as our religion prohibits us. We simply fend off certain negative influences and try to protect the residents of the area.”
Mohammed denied committing any crime that would be punishable by law. What he does is a mere self-defense, even if it comes in the form of an assassination. The residents of the neighborhood, however, depict the “sheikh” in a different light. According to one female worker, he is seen as practically the governor of the neighborhood.
When someone wants to sell his house to escape threats, Mohammed specifies the price and buys the house himself as a final settlement. No one dares to offer a higher bid.
In the Sunni Amiriya neighborhood, the scene is no different. The “sheikh” there is not only the religious guide and preacher but also the governor of the neighborhood. He does not hesitate to enforce the law by militant means if need be.