Down a dusty backstreet in the Baghdad neighbourhood of Karada this month, I met Sheikh Raad Al Kafaji, a former Iraqi army officer specialising in artillery, and a veteran fighter from the days of the Iran-Iraq war.
He is head of the al Kafaji tribe and a commander in the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia, one of the Shia militias at the forefront of the fight against Isis in Iraq.
After the fall of Mosul in July, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani issued a religious edict (fatwa) calling on Iraqi “citizens to defend the country, its people, the honour of its citizens, and its sacred places”.
That is, to come defend their religion in a holy war against Isis, also known as Islamic State.
Sheikh Raad says in the initial days after Sistani’s fatwa, men as old as 60 came to his small offices begging to fight to hold back Isis and Sunni-led insurgents.
According to Iraqi deputy national security adviser, Safa Hussein al-Sheikh, the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia, founded in the months leading up to the 2003 US invasion, is known for being smaller and more organised than the other Shia militias — and is considered highly secretive and adept, even by Iraqi intelligence standards.
“In the past, they had focused more on American targets — sophisticated, lethal, organised attacks that were not penetrated by the American or Iraqi intelligence,” says al-Sheikh.
When I visit, the 58-year-old Sheikh Raad sits wearily in his office wearing battle fatigues and several jewelled garnet and turquoise rings.
With him is his young fourth wife, who surprisingly has her dark hair uncovered, and is heavily made up, dressed in tight trousers and high heels.
She wants to film his conversation on her mobile phone.
The sheikh sees no irony in the fact that his current financial backer, Iran, was his former mortal enemy.
“Saddam imposed that war [the Iran-Iraq war] on the Shia people in Iraq and Iran,” he says. “It was Saddam’s fault. Not the fault of Iran.”
He says Kata’ib Hezbollah has about 4,000 fighters (Iraqi intelligence puts the figure closer to 1,000) that are “experienced from fighting in Amerli, Samara, but also have past experience fighting with Hezbollah in Syria”.
He himself goes back and forth to Syria, largely to protect Shia shrines near Damascus.
Much of it is done around the town of Sayyidah Zaynab — “Lady Zaynab” — a southern Damascus suburb that has a Shia shrine of the same name.
Some of his men, he says, were paid up to â¬560 a day by Iran to fight in Syria, but in Iraq they are getting far less, although he says Iran is arming his men with weapons — AK-47s; 12.7mm heavy machine-gun; and PKCs, a lighter, 7.62mm, machine-gun used in many of the former-Soviet Bloc and Middle Eastern countries.
“Here, we are fighting for justice — for our faith — not for money. And don’t forget there is a big difference between Hezbollah in Iran and Hezbollah in Iraq. Philosophically, we have the same enemy — Daish [Isis] and Israel — but we are fighting here for justice.”
To understand the presence of Shia militias in Iraq today, and the increasing sway of Iran, you have to go back to the legacy of the mass graves.
Shortly after Saddam Hussein, a Sunni who had systematically Shi’itesrepressed the majority Shi’ites for decades by cracking down on their political parties and crushing Shia movements, fell from power in April, 2003, human rights workers and US investigators began exhuming graves where thousands of Shi’ites and ethnic Kurds had suddenly disappeared.
It is unclear how many Shias died during the Saddam years, but the figures range from 400,000-700,000 people.
One grave near Baghdad alone held nearly 15,000 bodies.
It is believed that up to 60,000 Shias disappeared from Baghdad during those years of terror, and ended up in pits.
Years later, when Saddam was finally gone, relatives would stand at the open graves, desperately trying to find something that could link them to their lost.
The day after Saddam fell, with the city of Bagdad in chaos, it was finally possible to put together pieces of the puzzle.
In al-Haakimiya, a notorious Mukhabarat (secret police) prison used during his reign, I and an Iraqi colleague found evidence of brutal torture: Restraints; blindfolds; torture instruments with hardened blood still on them; cells the size of bathtubs where desperate men had scrawled messages to the families they would never see again.
In post-war Iraq, the political tables flipped.
After the US invasion, it was the Shias in power, the Sunnis who were being hunted.
When Haider al Abadi, a moderate Shia, was designated prime minister last August, it was with the promise that his government would be more inclusive, and break the cycle of revenge and vengeance between Iraqi Shias and Sunnis.
But it is still hard to find any Shia family that has not, in some way, been touched by Saddam’s brutality and that does not still bear, in some way, a grudge or at least a quest for justice.
Last January, Nouri al Maliki, the former prime minister, and a Shia dissident under Saddam who held strong nationalistic ideals, launched a bombing campaign in Anbar Province, which is largely Sunni, apparently with the intention of driving out jihadists, aka, Isis.
But human rights groups were concerned that the bombs were not just landing on the insurgents — but on civilian targets and neighbourhoods, in particular hospitals and residential areas.
They saw the Anbar campaign as another widening of the endless sectarian conflict.
As the bombing went on, it also became apparent that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) were simply not up to handling the job of pushing back Isis. This opened the door to the Shia militias.
“What happened then is that some smaller Shia groups proposed they would join the fight,” says al-Sheikh, the deputy national security adviser, at his office in Baghdad.
“That was their first operation. There were initially probably only a couple of hundred Shia militiamen fighting then, until the fall of Mosul. Then it went in a different direction.”
When Mosul fell on June 10, a wave of terror rippled through Baghdad’s population.
Rumours and truths flew through the crowded markets and streets: Isis fighters were a mere 20km from the city; Isis were killing Shia and raping Shia women; Isis had come to destroy all Shia Muslims.
Then came what the Baghdad morgue director called a “spike” in the number of Sunni disappearances and murders in the capital: clear reprisals for the Isis killings.
One June morning, he showed me and other reporters photographs of the work of the Shia militias: Sunni men tortured, beaten, murdered, their bodies thrown into fields, bloated and purple.
“It’s starting again,” he said, referring to the bloodiest period of the civil war, in 2006.
He also meant that the Shia militias were back in control, filling in the military vacuum the ISF had left. Now the Shias were back — but this time as protectors of the people, with the government heavily relying on them.
“They call themselves jihadists, not militias,” says al-Sheikh.
“They learned their skills from fighting American occupiers before they left.” (The Shia militias are believed to be responsible for a large proportion of the US combat deaths during the occupation.)
It also brings another element to Iraq — the increasing reliance and influence of Iran, the Shia regional giant.
Ever since the Iranian revolution in 1979, governments inside and outside the Arab world have feared Shia fundamentalism.
Today in Baghdad, the men who rose up to fight against Isis in the wake of them overrunning Mosul are overwhelmingly Shia. And they clearly have a religious as well as a military agenda.
Their money comes largely from Tehran, as do their weapons and best trainers.
The memory of a bitter war fought between Iraq and Iran from 1980-1988 in which nearly 1m men died seems very far off in their memory.
Part of this resurgence of the Shia militias is the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s potent call to arms in July, following Mosul’s defeat.
The rush of Shia men of all ages — some even in their 60s who had fought in the Iran-Iraq — willing to take on Isis was staggering.
Five months on, with the US-led campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Isis under way, the Shia militias are the backbone of the Iraqi military operation.
As well as their US experience, their training also comes from the recent battlefields of Syria.
Many were sent to help protect the Shia shrines from the Syrian Sunni rebels.
Iraqis insist there is nothing to fear from Iran’s heady presence in Iraq.
They also say, in many ways, their allegiance lies with Iran.
“Who arrived here to save us three days after Mosul fell?” asks Dr Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a member of parliament and a former national security adviser (and best known as the man who led Saddam to the gallows and requested the guards loosen his handcuffs).
“Not the Americans. They only sent abysmal air strikes three months later when their citizens [the journalists James Foley, and later Steven Sotloff and Peter "Abdul-Rahman" Kassig] were beheaded. The speed of the Iranian response to Baghdad and Erbil was the next day.”
The Iranians sent 88 Russian-made Sukkhoi ground attack jets within weeks.
They also sent their best fighters to train and advise — members of the elite Republican Guard. They sent pilots, weapons, and uniforms.
They also sent their military mastermind, Qasem Soleimani, leader of the Quds Force, whom many military leaders regard as an excellent, and highly strategic commander.
As to why Iraq would trust Iran with their bitter legacy and so many dead, al-Rubaie shrugs: “We are faced with an existential threat — Isis. You use any means in this case. You use any means.”
The question is, what will happen to Iran when Isis is eventually destroyed? (which al-Rubaie reckons might be three to five years militarily, but seven to 10 years ideologically).
Will the Iranians be willing, after this kind of investment, to pack it all in and go home?
Probably not, says al-Rubaie, but he says it’s time the West softened its “allergic” stance on Iran.
Whatever their role in the future, for the moment, the militias are not going anywhere. They are crucial to ending the war against Isis.
One Western security adviser in Baghdad says that the Shias are “essential” to bolstering the flagging Iraqi Army.
“The truth is,” says Safa Hussein al-Sheikh, the deputy national security adviser, “They prove to be more effective fighters than the security forces in many situations. They have experience from fighting the Americans, and from recently fighting in Syria.
He pauses. “Fighting the Americans made them really experienced, really strong fighters.”
Assyrian International News Agency