Bruised Iraqi army leans on Shi'ite militias, volunteers

Bruised Iraqi army leans on Shi'ite militias, volunteers

BAGHDAD - The Iraqi soldier says he abandoned the army last week in despair. And while he still plans to fight he will not rejoin the unit he deserted in the western city of Ramadi.

Instead, he wants to sign up as a volunteer, alongside tens of thousands of others, to help defend Shi'ite shrines against Sunni insurgents who have swept the country's north and west and who he believes now threaten his sect.

"The officers brought us to the point where a soldier could either die or flee," the 31-year-old said, asking his name be withheld to avoid punishment.

"I'll go fight as a volunteer. I won't go as a soldier. I'm not afraid," he said. "I have my faith."

The deserter's story illustrates a dynamic increasingly shaping a conflict that could tear Iraq apart: With the army's northern divisions hard hit by desertions as key Sunni cities fell in June, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'ite-led government has leaned heavily on Shi'ite militias and volunteers motivated by a sense of religious duty.

In some areas, there are now at least as many Shi'ite gunmen and civilian volunteers as there are regular soldiers, volunteers and a militia spokesman said. Some go to the front, while others man checkpoints, guard bases and carry out raids.

Tens of thousands have been mobilized since Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric issued a call to arms in response to the lightning offensive led by the Islamic State, a hardline Sunni group.

The effort probably helped security forces stave off total collapse. But the risks are high. Many new recruits are of little use on the battlefield. Deployment of Shi'ite militias in civilian areas could sharpen the conflict's sectarian edge.

Hardline militias who fought US troops before they withdrew in 2011 have surged back into prominence since the start of the year, battling first in the western Anbar province and Baghdad's perimeter, and then leveraging the current crisis for fresh legitimacy and broader popularity.

Maliki, blamed by his critics for worsening the conflict, is unlikely to rein them in as he fights to stay in power.

"The end result is it is not an improvement in political stability," said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "And it is certainly not an improvement in building a bridge between Sunnis and Shi'ites."

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