Terrorism & Insurgency

JTIC Brief: Destabilising influence? The challenges posed by Iraq's Shia militias

06 November 2015
Iraqi security forces and Hashd al-Shaabi militiamen search Baiji oil refinery in Salah ad-Din province on 22 October 2015 following clashes with Islamic State militants. Source: PA

Key Points

  • A rocket attack by a Shia militia near the Iraqi capital Baghdad on 29 October targeted members of an Iranian militant group.
  • The attack underlined the growing influence and power of the multiple Shia militias that have either been founded or strengthened since mid-2014.
  • Although a necessary partner in the campaign against the Islamic State, US support for these militias is complicated by their links to Iran and history of fighting the US military.

Twenty-three members of Iranian anti-government militant group Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), which has been based in Iraq since the 1980s, were reportedly killed on 29 October when at least 15 rockets were fired into Camp Hurriya (or Camp Liberty, the former United States military base) outside Iraq's Baghdad International Airport. A further 30 members of the group were reported wounded, while two Iraqi soldiers were killed and 18 wounded in the barrage at the camp, where around 2,200 MEK cadres and their dependents are currently cantoned.

The attack was claimed the following day by Jaish al-Mukhtar, a Shia Muslim militia that claims it is backed by Iran and which has carried out previous attacks targeting MEK. "We warned the members of this terrorist organisation [MEK] to leave Iraq as soon as possible... If they don't do so, there will be more similar attacks," the group's leader, Wathiq al-Battat, told Iran's Fars News Agency on 30 October.

The aftermath of the rocket attack at Camp Hurriya near the Iraqi capital Baghdad on 29 October 2015. (PA)The aftermath of the rocket attack at Camp Hurriya near the Iraqi capital Baghdad on 29 October 2015. (PA)

Since demobilising in 2003 following the US-led invasion of Iraq, MEK has been the subject of periodic such attacks, particularly since being relocated to Camp Hurriya in 2012, and the latest attack has prompted renewed criticism of the slow progress being made by the US-backed United Nations resettlement programme, which has left the group's fighters and their families in limbo for more than a decade.

This criticism has recently been sharpened by concerns regarding the increasingly assertive role being played in Iraq by Iranian-backed Shia militias.

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