Nonetheless, the transition to local engagement will likely be harder to achieve for Iraqis than for US soldiers to achieve: since the atrophying of the Iraqi army, Shi’a paramilitaries that accompany remaining units are drawn in many cases from communities that have been hit hard by ISI suicide bombers: places such as Hilla, Sadr City, and Diwaniyah.
Now imagine the difficulty of restraining US soldiers who were not only under fire themselves, but knew that on any given day, their families were also under attack from a group that openly espouses genocide.
One is tempted to think of young American GI’s in the jungles and paddy fields of Vietnam, not knowing who was friend or foe, but it is worse than that: the communities of Hashd al Shabi members have been under deliberate sectarian attack for years, and unfortunately, there are many instances of Shi’a paramilitaries hitting back: the infamous “death squads” of the Iraqi civil war.
This is not some uniquely Iraqi brutality: inter communal revenge attacks were a hallmark of violence in Northern Ireland, and as IRA bombings hit the UK, some British MPs called for the hanging of all IRA terrorists, an idea which (thankfully) never gained traction. More recently, Yazidi militias in Iraq have been accused of murdering civilians in revenge attacks following ISIL’s attempt to wipe out their community, but this has received little press coverage compared to Shi’a paramilitary abuses.
And yet in Tikrit recently, Shi’a paramilitaries escorted Sunnis back to their homes, in Ameriyat al Fallujah and Dhuluiyah, Shi’a paramilitaries spontaneously cooperated with local tribesmen against ISIL and in Baiji, Sunni tribesmen fight alongside Iraqi forces to defend the town and refinery.
It is easy to be cynical about these developments, but supported by the national level anti-sectarian proclamations of key politicians such as Haidar al Abadi, Ammar al Hakim, and even Moqtada al Sadr, these developments could yet form the basis of a new Iraqi “awakening.” In Iraq today, the Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi, a Sunni, stands side by side with radical Shi’as such as Moqtada al Sadr to proclaim national unity. But this is not the dominant press narrative.
A problem now is that rather than doubling up efforts through Abadi's government, the Coalition is providing support piecemeal, while pressuring Iraq to revive the now destroyed Sahwa, something that is politically unpopular. Recent declassified documents, implicating several Sunni politicians who may have been more "on the fence" with ISIL than previously realized, suggest Iraq is right to be cautious.We have lost the respect of Iraqis in almost every sense, and should focus more on Iraqi solutions, since Sunni and Shi'a Iraqis are now displaying a genuine will to cooperate against ISIL.