Little-known armed groups — possibly linked to pro-Iran Kataib Hezbollah — have in recent months targeted “vice” in Baghdad by attacking shops selling alcohol while simultaneously becoming more involved in religious youth groups that some claim may pose a danger for Iraq’s future.
The burning of the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s Baghdad offices in late October, as well as recent attacks on media outlets and on US-led international coalition logistics convoys and facilities, have been either attributed to or claimed by these groups.
One of the new-formed group is calling itself Rab’a Allah, and it has been fast-evolving alongside 3 other main groups affiliated with it, according to observers.
Observers say that some religious youth groups apparently connected with them should be watched closely. Many of the leaders of the newly founded organization the Sharia Youth Gathering (SYG) are actually former members of the Imam Hussein Scouts, affiliated also with Kataib Hezbollah.
A YouTube video posted Nov. 4 of the live broadcast on the al-Etejah channel of the inaugural ceremony for the SYG showed a tuk-tuk, motorcycle and car being given away in honor of the new group. The broadcaster seems to be linked to Kataib Hezbollah.
Tuk-tuks are often used in the Iraqi capital to avoid heavy traffic in some areas or simply as cheaper transportation than taxis. Their drivers took on something akin to “hero” status for many during the protests last year when they were used to ferry injured protesters to medical points. The Iraqi economy has performed poorly in recent times, and even government salaries are often delayed, making it difficult for the poor to survive. For young men, the chance to win such coveted objects that can provide some sort of independence — at least from the vagaries of unreliable public transportation in the Iraqi capital — can act as a major incentive to participate in such a group.
Though Iraq is a Muslim-majority country, a stroll down the main road leading from Baghdad’s popular central district of Karrada to the now-iconic Tahrir Square includes many signs advertising Johnny Walker whiskey next to hotels and travel agencies.
Iraq was one of the most openly secular Arab countries until the early 1990s when former President Saddam Hussein tried to get more support from Islamic groups, including by shutting down the selling of alcohol at popular places such as Baghdad’s riverfront Abu Nawas Street. After the US invasion in 2003, alcohol reappeared for only a short time, as shop owners and others were targeted by extremist groups, including al-Qaeda, for their “un-Islamic behavior” and “corrupting influence.”
Following the surge and weakening of extremist groups, however, Western media outlets began in 2008 to publish articles hailing the “return of nightlife,” “return of dancing and nightclubs” and “the return of alcohol” to the Iraqi capital, and they continue to do so. Though greater freedoms are usually hailed by many progressive Iraqi youths and intellectuals, not all Iraqis are as enthusiastic about this rise in availability and use of alcohol by the population. Increased use of alcohol also tends to contribute to a rise in certain crimes, including domestic violence. Women, especially, have repeatedly spoken to this journalist about related concerns in her six years of frequent reporting from the country.
During the massive, monthslong anti-government protests that began in October 2019, many of the shops in streets near the focal point of Tahrir Square were shut down. But liquor stores on Abu Nawas along the Tigris River seemed to be doing a roaring trade, and tuk-tuks would often stop outside of them. The fact that supporters of various religious figures and members of armed groups affiliated with them were in tents and makeshift structures a bit farther down the road did not seem to impact their business, though photographing the shops was frowned upon.
Though much of Iraqi society is religious, it is clearly not just the Christian minority that regularly consumes alcohol in Iraq. During a 2018 reporting trip to the town of Shirqat in Salahuddin province, locals proudly pointed out to this journalist where bootleg liquor was sold, almost as if to prove that they were “not extremists.” Many Iraqis that can afford it also go to Erbil in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq for weekends or holidays and consume alcohol more openly there.
A major concern regarding greater involvement in Iraq by religious groups is that of possible undue Iranian influence. Kataib Hezbollah and other Shiite-led armed groups, including many that are officially part of the Popular Mobilization Units and thus receive government salaries, have long been criticized for allegedly taking their orders from Iran. Many question their loyalty to Iraq, which fought a war against Iran in the 1980s. Iran was also, however, where many Iraqi Shiites found refuge under oppression suffered at the hands of Hussein.
Many of these groups are very open about being part of what they call the “Islamic Resistance” and of having fought across the border in Syria alongside other Iran-linked factions against local Syrian opposition groups and the Islamic State.
Simmering Iran-US tensions in Iraq peaked in January when a US drone strike at the Baghdad airport killed both Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani and Kataib Hezbollah Cmdr. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Calls for foreign troops to leave the country and months of frequent mortar and rocket attacks on Iraqi bases hosting coalition troops followed, as did a drawdown of the US military with the handover of several facilities to their Iraqi counterparts.
The various Shiite armed groups that seem to have appeared out of nowhere may be simply a way to enable a plausible denial of involvement in violent actions — or ones that significant parts of the population would be against — by armed factions that, given their official status and government salaries, cannot be seen to be engaging in illegal acts.
Kataib Hezbollah officials had not responded to a request for comments by the time of publication.
Meanwhile, societal influence through targeting and training youths over a longer period seems to be part of an approach that has produced significant results in Lebanon and Iran. This may occur more and more within religious communities with their own armed factions in Iraq in the coming years as well.