In early June, two Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias under the nominal control of the Iraqi government stormed into an Iraqi military airbase north of Baghdad. Driving armoured vehicles and wielding rocket launchers, they took over a building on the base.
The Iraqi commander at the base, near the town of Balad, asked the militiamen to leave. But the men ignored him as well as orders from the central government in Baghdad, according to two army officers in the Salahuddin Operation Command, the regional military headquarters.
The June standoff grounded four Iraqi F-16 fighter jets and pushed more than a dozen U.S. contractors – there to help local pilots bomb Islamic State militants – to flee, according to the army officers and an Iraqi military intelligence source.
It also underscored one of the biggest challenges ahead for Iraq.
Baghdad is currently battling to prise hardline Sunni group Islamic State from the northern city of Mosul. In that struggle, government troops are fighting alongside the country’s Shi’ite militias, as well as Kurdish and U.S. forces.
But the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi knows that even if it defeats Islamic State it needs to bring the Shi’ite militias under greater control. Iraqi and Western officials alike say episodes like the one in Balad raise serious questions about Abadi’s ability to do that.
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