MOSUL, IRAQ, - For Iraqi police officer
Jassem and his brothers, the battle against
Islamic State is personal. The militants
captured and beheaded their father, a
Shi'ite militiaman, in 2014; before that,
the family lost another son fighting the
"We were able to identify my dad's body
by the tattoo on his arm. The head wasn't
found. They had also drilled holes in his
hands and cut fingers off," 31-year-old
Jassem told Reuters on the front line in
Mosul as Iraqi forces battle with Islamic
State in the city.
After the murder, Jassem's youngest
brother signed up with the army and another
joined a Shi'ite paramilitary group. With a
further brother already with the
Counter-Terrorism Service, that meant their
mother had all four of her surviving sons at
"Mum wasn't happy," said Jassem, not
giving his full name because he works in
intelligence. But his brothers still
answered the call to arms. "They said Iraq
was falling apart, and they wanted to
protect it," he said.
The family from southern Iraq - far from
Mosul which lies near the country's northern
border - is just one of many where entire
sets of brothers have taken up arms against
Islamic State out of revenge, duty or just
to earn money.
The U.S.-backed Iraqi forces are now set
to drive the group from its stronghold of
Mosul, taken in 2014 when the jihadists
seized large areas of Iraq and Syria,
proclaiming a caliphate.
But the fight has further militarised
Iraqi society, pushing young men into the
armed forces and, increasingly, sectarian
and tribal militias. This has raised fears
of new outbreaks of violence once the
caliphate has crumbled.
Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric issued a fatwa
in 2014, calling on all men able to carry
arms to fight Islamic State, which is known
in Arabic by its opponents as Daesh.
On another Mosul front line,
Counter-Terrorism Service commando Hamza
Kadhem said that before Islamic State
arrived, he was the only one of five
brothers to have picked up a gun. "The
others all joined after the fatwa," he said.
They joined the Hashid Shaabi, or Popular
Mobilisation Forces, a state-run umbrella
that includes Shi'ite militias. Two are
deployed west of Mosul, and another two near
the Syrian border, where Shi'ite fighters
have played a crucial role in cutting off
Islamic State supply lines.
Before the call-up, they had worked as
farmers in the southern Kut region, more
than 500 km (300 miles) away.
As well as Shi'ites from the south, young
men from around Mosul - where Sunni Muslims
are in the majority - are also keen to
They are now flooding to join Sunni
tribal militias also under the Hashid,
security officials and militia leaders say.
Many residents told Reuters in recent weeks
they want to join, or know relatives and
friends who are trying to do so.
"Many men are volunteering in the Hashid
groups. They either want to fight terrorism
or to get wages," one security officer in
the area said, declining to be named because
he was not authorised to speak publicly.
"It's easier than joining state armed
forces. You just put your name down."
He said the number of those seeking to
join could be in the thousands, on top of
the several thousand that local community
leaders estimate are already in the Sunni
This would not pose security problems
because the Hashid ultimately answer to the
government and have limited powers, the
Provincial government officials, however,
say the rising number of recruits to
paramilitary forces and the formation of new
militias is dangerous because it raises the
risk of factional clashes.
"These Hashid groups are subservient to
the people who lead them, not to the state,"
said Abdul Rahman al-Wagga, a council member
for Nineveh, of which Mosul is the capital.
"So if a Hashid leader wants to impose
himself in a certain region, and another
sheikh or clan doesn't like it, they might
attack," he told Reuters by phone. "I think
after Daesh, these groups will not be reined
in ... Their agendas are party, political or
regional, and won't serve Nineveh, or Iraq."
Ramzy Mardini, a fellow at the Atlantic
Council think tank, said turning to armed
forces, particularly militias, was
inevitable in an atmosphere where local
communities fear for their own safety.
"Not only has the war further militarised
Iraqi society, but there appears to be no
pressure from the top or willingness from
below to disarm, demobilise, and reintegrate
the militias that now occupy the diverse and
former insurgent landscape," he said.
As Iraqi government forces have moved
deeper into Mosul city, the areas around it
have increasingly come under the control of
the expanding Hashid, who fly their flags at
checkpoints and have set up offices in
Hashid officials say they are there to
ensure Islamic State does not return, and
that their local knowledge can make them
more effective than federal police.
"Iraq's security is our responsibility,"
read a slogan painted on a building outside
Mosul that is occupied by the new office of
a Hashid group, and was formerly used by an
Islamic State fighter and his family.
Most ordinary Iraqis, like the families
of Jassem and Kadhem, do not want their sons
to have to fight. But the young men see
little choice after suffering at the hands
of militants, and with few other ways to
earn a living.
Former policeman Yassin Saleh, 47, sat in
his wheelchair on a roadside outside Mosul
last month after fleeing violence. "Two of
my boys, who are 20 and 21, want to
volunteer for the Hashid," he said. "But I
need them around to help me."
Saleh lost both his legs to a car bomb
planted by al Qaeda militants in 2008. Two
months later, the fighters kidnapped and
killed his eldest son.
"There will always be revenge. If people
have killed someone's dad or brother, they
won't just let it go," he said. "But I can't
lose another son."