With gritty determination, Iraqi Shiites rush to fight ISIS militants

Recruitment centers say they have been overwhelmed since Grand Ayatollah Sistani called on Shiites to defend Iraq and its holy shrines.

Khalid Mohammed/AP
Iraqi Shiite tribal fighters raise their weapons and chant slogans against the Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Levant (ISIS), after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle insurgents, in Baghdad's Sadr City, Iraq, Wednesday, June 18, 2014.

The Shiite recruit with a camouflage cap, black shirt, and dark stubble sits intently, holding a 9mm Glock pistol in his lap. Then, with a lightning move of his hand, he catches a wasp in mid-flight.

Without showing a trace of pain, he lets the wasp sting his palm before throwing it away – a fitting sign, perhaps, of the gritty determination he and his fellow Shiite recruits say they share as they enlist to push back the Sunni jihadists now rampaging across north and central Iraq.

Saad Hassan Abed may be just 28 years old, but he is an experienced fighter, having cut his teeth battling American troops in Sadr City, a poor Shiite enclave of Baghdad. Today, he's heeding the call to arms by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric, to defend the nation and its holy shrines.

“We know we are going to the front, to a war zone, but God created us to live on this ground,” says Mr. Abed, as his group of self-declared “RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] experts” nod in agreement. They're waiting to enter a training base in north Baghdad where they will be joining the Iraqi Army. “If they order us to wear explosive vests and blow ourselves up, we are ready to do it,” he adds.

Sitting next to Abed is Ali Moat Sultan, a father of six young boys, who was at work last Friday when Ayatollah Sistani ordered able-bodied men to fight. On paper, Iraq’s Army and security forces are some 700,000-strong, and American trained. But as Baghdad and sacred Shiite shrines became the declared target of the advancing Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), Ayatollah Sistani called for a broader mobilization to bolster the thousands that had already volunteered.

Mr. Sultan didn't hesitate. “I dropped everything,” he says. And the wife he left behind? “She’s a heroine.”

Iraq’s majority Shiites have flocked to recruitment centers to join Shiite militias or the Iraqi Army, which last week failed to prevent the major city of Mosul from falling into the hands of ISIS fighters. The militants have taken several others cities since then.

The centers were overwhelmed with a “huge number” of volunteers, says Majid al-Sudani, a former Saddam-era general and deputy head of the Falcons of the Iraqi State, a mostly Shiite political grouping that supports Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. His group claims that even before Ayatollah Sistani's call, 30,000 had volunteered.

The increasingly sectarian clash in the country, he says, could have deeper consequences than any other Iraq conflict in decades, including the devastating Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, of which Mr. Sudani is a veteran.

“This war is more dangerous, because all the neighbors agreed to be against Iraq,” says Sudani, citing real or tacit support for ISIS from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and others.

As long as that foreign support continues, “Iraq will not be quiet, and all the Arab homelands will not be quiet,” he says. Yet Iraq’s enemies “crashed up against this big rock, called Nouri al-Maliki.”

Mr. Maliki’s portrait hangs in the Falcons' office next to dozens of black-and-white photographs of Iraqi fighters as well as religious and tribal leaders dating back a century. The building is just off Firdous Square – the now-neglected and crumbling traffic circle where a statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down in April 2003, marking the fall of Baghdad to invading US forces.

Boarding the buses

Earlier, Seyed Mehdi al-Batat, the head of the Falcons of the Iraqi State, is overseeing the departure of several buses of recruits to the base in north Baghdad. He wears the group's signature black uniform and carries four mobile phones in his left hand.

“Where there are terrorists, we will fight,” he says. “We are looking for martyrdom … all sectors of Iraqi society jumped up to prevent the collapse of the state.”

As the buses prepare to go, Iraqi flags fluttering from the windows, Mr. Batat steps into a black Mercedes to lead the convoy. Aboard the bus are the “RPG experts.”

They say Iran has been helpful training Iraqis to fight on behalf of Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria. And Iran has been helpful training pro-government forces during the present crisis.

But any more is too much, these recruits say.

“We don’t want Iranian interference, because if Iran is here it will really be sectarian – Iran is the god of sectarianism,” states Abed, the wasp catcher, as his comrades agree. “If Iran comes here, we will stop fighting ISIS and will fight them.”

The Americans fare little better with these recruits, who say they want US drone strikes against ISIS and intelligence, and nothing more.

“If [the Americans] are helpful, they are welcome. But if they want to return [with troops and bases] like before, they will be burned,” says Abed.

** Please follow Scott Peterson on Twitter at @peterson__scott **

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