Iraq UncoveredView film
RAMITA NAVAI, Correspondent: [voice-over] I’m traveling through Northern Iraq, heading to the district of Al Fathah. Until recently, this was ISIS-held territory.
[on camera] We’ve been driving for a few miles, north of the country. And every now and again, we come across a scene like this. This is the town of Baiji. I should say it was the town of Baiji. Just look at it.
[voice-over] I’m on my way to meet a militia fighting against ISIS. With the world’s attention focused on the battle in Mosul, this is one of the war’s hidden fronts. Few journalists come here.
[on camera] You can see how close we are to ISIS now. On both sides of the road, you can see black smoke billowing out, and that’s from oil wells that ISIS have set on fire.
[voice-over] This unit has advanced deep into ISIS territory. Alongside the Iraqi army, militias like this have played a critical role in driving back ISIS across Iraq. I want to find out how they operate.
[on camera] And how far are they?
1st FIGHTER: [subtitles] 400 meters away.
2nd FIGHTER: [subtitles] Come. Come.
RAMITA NAVAI: They’re pointing over there, and they’re saying that’s the black flag of ISIS. And there it is.
[voice-over] These militiamen are Shia Muslims, like 60 percent of Iraqis. There are over 40 Shia militia groups in Iraq with about 100,000 fighters. Most of them joined in 2014 in response to the rise of ISIS.
[on camera] How many men have you lost here?
MILITIAMAN: [subtitles] We’ve lost 420 men in this area just in the last four months. Mortar, snipers and car bombs─ just continuous fighting.
RAMITA NAVAI: [voice-over] These men are in the Badr Organization, the biggest militia in Iraq. Last year, along with other militias, they were granted official recognition by the Iraqi government. They’re supposed to answer directly to the prime minister, but in practice, they have their own allegiances and chains of command.
The post’s senior officer, who goes by Abu Sajjad, says ISIS attacked a few days earlier.
ABU SAJJAD: [subtitles] The enemy sent three car bombs, which exploded behind this barricade, killing three of our guys and wounding eight.
RAMITA NAVAI: The bodies of ISIS fighters lie between the lines.
Suddenly, the militiamen spot some civilians fleeing ISIS territory. We head into no-man’s land to meet them. The road is pockmarked with craters from IEDs that ISIS fighters plant every night.
[on camera] There are the families right ahead of us, a few dozen people. They’ve been walking all night to get here.
[voice-over] The refugees are Sunni Muslims from the ISIS-held town of Hawija.
[on camera] How are you feeling? How was your journey?
1st WOMAN: [subtitles] It was really hard. It was such a struggle.
2nd WOMAN: [subtitles] It’s a miracle we made it.
RAMITA NAVAI: [voice-over] The guys here say that we may be monitored by ISIS right now. Fighters often shoot across, so we’re leaving.
3rd WOMAN: [subtitles] Life is so tough. We’re living on nothing but bread.
RAMITA NAVAI: The militiamen bring the refugees to their base for screening.
[on camera] How did you escape?
WOMAN: [subtitles] We drove towards the mountains. All we wanted to do was escape. They were following us. If they had caught us, they would have killed us. People were starving. We were prisoners for three years.
RAMITA NAVAI: [voice-over] Today they’ve escaped ISIS, but now they face a new ordeal. The militia separate the men from their families. ISIS follow their own violent version of Sunni Islam, so the Shia militia often see Sunni refugees as ISIS suspects, and in this part of Iraq, most people are Sunnis.
MILITIAMAN: [subtitles] [going through refugees’ papers] Illham. 2004, check this one. Muqdad, 1992─
RAMITA NAVAI: [on camera] What are the chances you’ve got some ISIS fighters in that room?
MILITIAMAN: [subtitles] There’s a 90 percent chance we’ll find ISIS among these families.
RAMITA NAVAI: But it’s such a hard process to really tell if somebody is an ordinary guy or he’s an ISIS fighter. How can you be 100 percent sure?
MILITIAMAN: [subtitles] We have a database of all ISIS members. Displaced families also give us information about who is with ISIS.
RAMITA NAVAI: [voice-over] So the guys just pulled this man away. They’re telling me now the families here have said that he tried to blackmail them, that when they were fleeing, he said, “If you don’t pay me, if you don’t give me money, I’m going to go and tell ISIS that you’re fleeing, and they’ll kill you.”
MILITIAMAN: [subtitles] What do you want? Where are you going? What are you filming?
RAMITA NAVAI: [on camera] It’s suddenly got quite chaotic here. They’re accusing him of being an ISIS fighter. We weren’t allowed to follow him. We don’t know where they’ve taken him.
[voice-over] One of the militia leaders takes us to a building where they’re holding ISIS suspects. As we approach the building, we keep filming with a phone The militiamen tell us the prisoners were picked up among refugees fleeing ISIS territory. We don’t see the man who was just arrested.
[on camera] There are over 100 in there they say are ISIS fighters, ISIS sympathizers. The conditions are really cramped. The men didn’t look like they’d been beaten. They did look pretty terrified.
[voice-over] Under Iraqi law, ISIS suspects are supposed to be brought quickly before a judge. But the militia fighters say some of these prisoners have been here for three months. I speak to Badr’s local head of intelligence, Sheikh Haidar.
[on camera] Why aren’t they in official prisons? Why haven’t you handed them over to the government?
SHEIKH HAIDAR: [subtitles] We don’t have any intention of hiding this, as they will be handed to the relevant authorities to obtain fair punishment, in a court. If we had any other intention for the prisoners, we would have stopped you from seeing them.
RAMITA NAVAI: [voice-over] To many Iraqis, the militias are heroes, but human rights organizations claim some groups consistently mistreat Sunni civilians.
A number of Sunni politicians are investigating these allegations. I head to Baghdad to meet them. One is a member of parliament from the Sunni province of Anbar, Lekaa al Wardi.
LEKAA AL WARDI: [subtitles] This is a list we’ve compiled of people who were kidnapped in Saqlawiyah.
RAMITA NAVAI: She tells me that in summer 2016 a Shia militia group called the Hezbollah Brigades took away hundreds of Sunni men after driving ISIS out of a town called Saqlawiyah.
[on camera] Lekaa has just given me these three documents, and they list over 600 names of people Lekaa says are still missing .
LEKAA AL WARDI: [subtitles] We asked the prime minister for an investigation into this. But so far, the state has done nothing to investigate the disappearances.
RAMITA NAVAI: How dangerous is it for you, speaking out like this?
LEKAA AL WARDI: [subtitles] Investigating these cases is very dangerous. Whenever we name the militias, we are threatened.
RAMITA NAVAI: [voice-over] On line, I can see the Hezbollah Brigades posted video of the battle for Saqlawiyah. It shows the town’s Sunni residents celebrating liberation from ISIS. But there’s no mention of the over 600 Sunni men and boys I’ve been told are missing.
Saqlawiyah is 45 miles from Baghdad. Hundreds of thousands of Sunnis have been displaced by the fighting in this area. Many of the women from Saqlawiyah have fled to the Amriyat Al Fallujah refugee camp.
1st WOMAN: [subtitles] They separated us from the men and took the men away. We asked them, “Where are our men?” They said they would give them back soon, and now it’s been four months.
RAMITA NAVAI: [on camera] What do you think happened to the men?
2nd WOMAN: [subtitles] I don’t know. We keep asking, and we don’t get any answers. I have 11 people missing from Saqlawiyah, my sons, brothers, husband, brother-in-law and uncle.
1st WOMAN: [subtitles] [weeping] I just want them to tell me if they’re dead or alive! Why did they take them? It’s been four months since I saw my boys! What have we done to deserve this?
RAMITA NAVAI: The women are saying that all these children here are missing their fathers.
[voice-over] An investigation by the local governor found that 643 men are missing and that hundreds more Sunni men were imprisoned. We find a man who says he was held captive hiding in the refugee camp. As with others we meet, we agree to disguise his voice.
FORMER CAPTIVE: [subtitles] At sunset, they took us to a house. We were handcuffed. They hit us with iron bars. They hit us on the head. Some people were killed.
RAMITA NAVAI: Officials say 49 of the imprisoned men died in custody. This local news footage shows other Saqlawiyah prisoners immediately after their release. They also say that they were tortured.
1st RELEASED PRISONER: [subtitles] They came to insult us, not to liberate us!
RAMITA NAVAI: Survivors say that some of the men who tortured them wore the badge of the Hezbollah Brigades.
2nd RELEASED PRISONER: [subtitles] We thought they were going to shoot us. We saw the killing and torture. They beat us with rifle butts. We were so desperate, we told them to kill us.
RAMITA NAVAI: [on camera] Has this changed the way you feel about your country?
2nd RELEASED PRISONER: [subtitles] The militias came and took everything. We’re just peaceful farmers. Now we don’t have anything. We’ve become victims, and the government does nothing.
RAMITA NAVAI: [voice-over] The Hezbollah Brigades fought U.S. troops during the American occupation and are on the State Department list of terrorist groups. No one from that militia would talk to me
[on camera] Walking through this camp, dozens of people keep coming up to us, telling us they have loved ones missing. On top of that, people are still going missing. Only a few days ago, a handful of families tried to go back to Saqlawiyah, and some of the men were taken by militias.
[voice-over] The Iraqi government has opened an investigation into the disappearances in Saqlawiyah but hasn’t released any findings. I want to find out more about Saqlawiyah and other cases I’ve heard about. So I contact the prime minister, who’s been trying to gain greater control of the militias.
I also contact seven other senior officials in the government and military. They either decline to be interviewed or don’t get back to me.
However, one of Iraq’s most prominent politicians, a Shia but a vocal critic of the militias, agrees to talk to me.
AYAD ALLAWI, Vice President, Iraq: They became too strong, politically, at least for now, than the army and the police,
RAMITA NAVAI: Ayad Allawi is one of three vice presidents but opposes the government on many issues.
[on camera] There’s a government investigation into the disappearances at Saqlawiyah, but nobody I spoke to─
AYAD ALLAWI: Yeah, there will be no answer.
RAMITA NAVAI: So the government is not really interested.
AYAD ALLAWI: No, no. It’s dead. It’s dead. It’s dead like other inquiries. Nothing. Nothing. Any explosions, killings, intimidation, people disappearing in prison, no inquiry whatsoever. Nobody was taken to courts. Nothing is happening.
RAMITA NAVAI: And why? Is it because militias have more power?
AYAD ALLAWI: Yeah, they don’t want, because powerful people are involved and there is a cover-up, and they don’t want the realities to be divulged. That’s why we feel and I feel and many people also, by the way, in the government feel that they are powerless to do anything.
RAMITA NAVAI: [voice-over] Iraq’s government is divided, and the vice president told me there’s no concerted effort to control the militias.
I want to know more about how these groups are operating on the ground, so I head to a Shia militia stronghold, the province of Diyala.
[on camera] Access to Diyala is tightly controlled. The province is pretty much run by the militias. There are checkpoints everywhere. So the only way to get in and find out what’s really happening is to go in under cover.
[voice-over] Parts of Diyala used to be under ISIS control, but they were driven out in 2015 by a coalition of Shia militias led by the Badr Organization. I’ve been told life hasn’t returned to normal.
Last year, two Iraqi journalists investigating the militias here were murdered. The journalists were killed outside Muqdadiyah, the town I want to reach.
[subtitles] Is this a militia checkpoint?
DRIVER: [subtitles] Yes, we must go quickly.
RAMITA NAVAI: [voice-over] Muqdadiyah is the heart of Shia militia power in Diyala province.
[on camera] Even in villages, there are checkpoints. This is the second one that we’ve come to in this village. I’ve got to put the phone down now.
[voice-over] I’ve arranged to secretly meet a disillusioned Shia militiaman willing to take me into Muqdadiyah. He’s a member of the Badr Organization.
[on camera] We’ve stopped on the side of the road. He said that we need to get into his car. You can see it in front. It’s unmarked. He says it’s known to all the militiamen in this area, and that’s the only safe way that we can get through checkpoints here.
[voice-over] He takes me into the center of Muqdadiyah. I can still see the signs of the battle against ISIS. In this town, Shias and Sunnis live side by side. The militia insider says some of his fellow militiamen have been taking revenge on the Sunni population for ISIS attacks.
[on camera] So on my left here is a Sunni mosque, but you can see it’s been completely destroyed.
MILITIA INSIDER: [subtitles] People don’t dare look at this mosque. They don’t want to be accused of anything.
RAMITA NAVAI: He takes me to another Sunni mosque.
[on camera] I’m looking through the gates now and it’s just a mound of rubble.
[voice-over] In all, he shows me six destroyed Sunni mosques. The militiaman claims a local imam even handed out lighters to his unit to burn Sunni homes.
MILITIA INSIDER: [subtitles] I asked him why he was handing out lighters. He said,“If you don’t burn houses, it’s not a real jihad.”
RAMITA NAVAI: The Iraqi government announced an investigation into the situation in Diyala more than a year ago, but it hasn’t made any of its findings public. The fighter says that although there are federal police in Diyala, they can’t take on the militias.
MILITIA INSIDER: [subtitles] This is a place of gangs, militias and murderers. I can’t accept the horrible things the militias have done.
RAMITA NAVAI: He says he knows of Badr militiamen who have kidnapped and killed Sunni civilians with impunity. Different militia groups have carved up the town and have also been accused of abusing Sunni civilians. They’ve even started fighting for territory between themselves.
[on camera] We’ve just had to turn around because the militiaman said that that area is too dangerous to enter.
[voice-over] He’s worried we’re attracting attention. He takes us back out of town and leaves us.
I want to investigate the militiaman’s claims. Outside Muqdadiyah, I meet a Sunni man who says militiamen recently kidnapped him and tortured him for a week.
SUNNI MAN: [subtitles] They kicked me and beat with a stick and with electrical cables.,
RAMITA NAVAI: He couldn’t tell what militia they were from, and says he was only picked up because he’s a Sunni.
SUNNI MAN: [subtitles] Every other word, he would say,“You’re a Sunni. You’re a Sunni. You’re a Sunni.”
RAMITA NAVAI: When the kidnappers moved him to a different location, he claims the police turned a blind eye.
SUNNI MAN: [subtitles] We went through five checkpoints. They would say, “He is wanted. He is a terrorist. We have arrested him.” All I could think of was that I was about to be killed.
RAMITA NAVAI: He tells me he knows 22 people who’ve been kidnapped and that 17 are dead despite their families paying a ransom. The numbers are impossible to verify, but human rights groups have documented widespread kidnapping and killing by militias in Diyala.
SUNNI MAN: [subtitles] Even if they were paid a ransom, they wouldn’t keep them alive. Some of them are found thrown on garbage dumps, or in the river.
RAMITA NAVAI: I hear of a place near to Muqdadiyah where kidnappers have supposedly disposed of their victims.
[on camera] So our guide, he says we can’t stop, can’t get out of the car because there are militias all around us and they’re constantly patrolling. It’s too dangerous to get out.
We’ve just stopped. They say it’s safe for us to check this bit out. We’ll be hidden by the grass that’s growing on the side.
[voice-over] Off camera, local people tell me the bodies are often thrown over this bridge. This is cellphone footage given to us by a fisherman. He says he discovered this body three months ago.
I track down the dead man’s uncle, who’s living in hiding. He asks us not to reveal the family’s name, as he says it would put them all in danger. Witnesses told him what happened.
UNCLE: [subtitles] The cars had no license plates and their windows were tinted. This type of car belongs to the government.
RAMITA NAVAI: He tells me kidnappers are holding another of his relatives. He doesn’t know which militia group they belong to. The family have decided not to pay a ransom.
UNCLE: [subtitles] They kidnap Sunnis. They kill them and take their money as revenge.
RAMITA NAVAI: I ask a senior police official in Diyala about the allegations. He’s a Shia who says he’s appalled by what’s happening to his Sunni neighbors. He says the federal police don’t stop the militias because their ranks are full of active Badr members who won’t go after their fellow fighters.
POLICE OFFICIAL: [subtitles] In my area, the police are controlled by a low-ranking policeman. There’s a higher-ranking officer, but he’s powerless. The junior policeman controls everything because he’s with the Badr Organization. He has the power to transfer a police officer if he’s not happy with him. So everyone does what the Badr policeman wants.
RAMITA NAVAI: [on camera] So what have you seen as a policeman in Diyala?
POLICE OFFICIAL: [subtitles] Often we see militia cars drive through the city with kidnapped people inside.
RAMITA NAVAI: So you’re saying the police are involved in the kidnapping and killing in Diyala.
POLICE OFFICIAL: [subtitles] Yes. There are policemen involved.
RAMITA NAVAI: We’ve got to leave because it’s coming up to sunset and the area’s not even safe for locals here.
[voice-over] As I leave Diyala, my guides show me abandoned buildings and untended farms.
[on camera] Our guide is pointing out farms on the left side here. He’s saying they were run by Sunni families, and they’ve all fled. They’re completely abandoned now.
[voice-over] A number of residents give me cellphone footage they claim shows Shia militias burning Sunni farms, and I hear many similar stories about farms being burned or bulldozed.
I try again to speak to the prime minister and other government officials about the many allegations in Diyala. They won’t talk. But a senior adviser to the government, Ihsan al-Shimari, agrees to go on camera.
[on camera] So why hasn’t the government been able to do anything about the sectarian violence and these Shia armed groups.
Prof. IHSAN AL-SHIMARI, Baghdad University: [subtitles] This is a difficult question. The government is trying its best to stop these abuses. However, it cannot control the behavior of every individual. It cannot be denied there are abuses here and there. And this is normal because we are talking about a war, a war where one cannot control fighters’ feelings.
I believe these abuses are individual acts. It is not the policy of these militia groups.
RAMITA NAVAI: [voice-over] Over the past two years, thousands of Sunnis have fled their homes in Diyala. On the northern border of the province, I find a makeshift refugee camp full of families. Two years after their province was liberated from ISIS, they say they’re too frightened to return home.
Sheikh Suliman Aliawi and his wife, Amal, tell me they’ve been warned never to return to their home village of Sinsil. They say that in January 2015, a Shia militia ─ they don’t know which one ─ gathered all men under 70 for security vetting, including five of their sons.
Amal went to the house where they’d been taken. This is cell phone footage of what she saw. Their five sons had been killed, as well as over 50 other men.
AMAL: [subtitles] They shot them in the head and left them lying there. [weeps]
SHEIKH SULIMAN ALIAWI: [subtitles] Leave her. Leave her. Speak to me. She was there at the scene. She saw all the dead, and she is still in shock.
AMAL: [subtitles] These are the photos of the people they killed. This is Mubarak. Mubarak is the father of this child. And this is his brother, Ismail.
RAMITA NAVAI: They say their sons had nothing to do with ISIS.
SHEIKH SULIMAN ALIAWI: [subtitles] If we returned, all the people in this camp would be killed by the militias. It’s a sectarian issue. They want to get rid of us all.
RAMITA NAVAI, Correspondent: The government announced an inquiry into what happened, but more than two years on, no findings have been released. The Badr militia denies it was involved but says the men were all ISIS members.
[on camera] It’s really striking that while the West is fighting the war against ISIS, most people we’ve spoken to here have told us they’re much more scared of the militias.
[voice-over] I want to speak to someone senior in the Badr Organization, so I travel to the northern city of Erbil. Haitham al Mayahi is the political adviser to the head of Badr. He says they don’t condone abuse of Sunnis, but harsh treatment of ISIS suspects is justified.
HAITHAM AL MAYAHI, Spokesman, Badr Organization: To kill an ISIS member or to torture an ISIS member is─ this is abuse to you? To me, it’s not. This is the right way because he’s a murderer. He has to be tortured and killed. We are a country who are facing car bombing every day, suicidal every day. If this happens to you, would you wait for a trial?
RAMITA NAVAI: [on camera] I’ve spoken to a Badr Organization member who told me he knows colleagues of his who kidnap and kill.
HAITHAM AL MAYAHI: If you are very sure about that, that there are people who are kidnapping and killing and they are related to Badr, I assure you we can go together now. We’ll take those people to justice because I am very sure we not allow any mistakes in Badr.
RAMITA NAVAI: I have even spoken to a Shia member of the federal police in Diyala, and he says that Badr Organization members have infiltrated the federal police in Diyala. And he says that many times, he has seen Badr organization members kidnap in front of his eyes. He’s witnessed it. He’s seen men bound and gagged in the back of cars.
HAITHAM AL MAYAHI: I’m not quite sure what you’re talking about because I visit Diyala many times, and when we are there, people actually welcome us with warm feeling.
RAMITA NAVAI: [voice-over] While I’m in Erbil, I hear of more allegations, not about Badr but once again about the Hezbollah Brigades, also known as Kata’ib Hezbollah.
[on camera] We’re going to meet a Sunni MP from Anbar who’s been investigating the case of hundreds of Sunni men who’ve disappeared at a checkpoint manned by Kata’ib Hezbollah. Now, he’s one of only a few people who’s been speaking out openly against the militias. And for that, he’s been receiving regular death threats.
[voice-over] Ahmed Salmani is one of Iraq’s best known Sunni politicians. He monitors videos that militiamen share on social media. He says this video shows Hezbollah Brigades militiamen at the Razaza checkpoint in Anbar province.
[on camera] Oh, God!
[voice-over] It shows a man in militia uniform cutting off the ear of a prisoner.
MILITIAMAN: [in video, subtitles] This is his ear.
RAMITA NAVAI: [on camera] That was horrific. That was the Razaza checkpoint. This is where the men are going missing.
AHMAD SALMANI: [subtitles] Witnesses have confirmed that this is the Razaza checkpoint. ISIS and the militias are two sides of the same coin.
RAMITA NAVAI: [voice-over] Relatives have given Ahmed Salmani the names of over 2000 men they say disappeared from Razaza checkpoint. He says militia insiders have told him the abducted men are in a network of prisons run by the Hezbollah Brigades around the town of Jurf al Sakhar.
AHMAD SALMANI: [subtitles] These militia prisons are outside Iraqi government control. It’s terrifying.
RAMITA NAVAI: Does the government know this is happening?
AHMAD SALMANI: [subtitles] I spoke to the defense minister myself. He said the militias are now more powerful than the government, and there’s nothing we can do.
RAMITA NAVAI: [voice-over] The defense minister has since left his position. He doesn’t reply to my request to talk to him. I ask Vice President Allawi about the militia prisons.
[on camera] Does the government know about the secret prisons run by the Shia militias?
AYAD ALLAWI, Vice President, Iraq: Definitely. But they don’t want to confront these secret prisons because they held and controlled by strong militias.
RAMITA NAVAI: Like Jurf al Sakhar prison?
AYAD ALLAWI: For example.
RAMITA NAVAI: Over 2,000 men and boys who were taken at Razaza checkpoint?
AYAD ALLAWI: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. So nobody knows why they are remaining in prison. The issue here, which really is frightening, there is no attention being paid by the government to tackle this problem of the arrests, intimidation and tortures of the─ of people.
RAMITA NAVAI: [voice-over] The government has not said anything publicly about the disappearances from Razaza checkpoint or the prisons. But according to human rights groups, only 65 of the men have been seen again. They were held at a prison run by the Hezbollah Brigades in Jurf al Sakhar.
[on camera] One of the men released from Jurf al Sakhar prison has finally agreed to talk to us, but only on condition of anonymity. When he was released, the militia’s parting words to him were that if he spoke about his experience, they’d hunt him down and kill him.
FORMER PRISONER: [subtitles] They stripped us to our underwear and said,“We will kill you.” So we prepared ourselves for death.
RAMITA NAVAI: [voice-over] Instead of execution, he says the torture started.
FORMER PRISONER: [subtitles] They would beat us with iron bars and electric cables. We would be beaten from 4:00 PM until 3:00 AM. There was sign in the prison saying, “Your confession is your life. Your silence is your death.”
When they beat someone brutally, he would reach the point of death. Then he would confess rather than die. Fifty-two people died of torture while I was imprisoned there.
RAMITA NAVAI: I meet another man who says he was held in the same prison. He tells me the Shia militias are creating a new generation of enemies.
[on camera] Are you worried that Sunnis may turn to violence to fight back?
2nd FORMER PRISONER: [subtitles] For sure, this going to happen. After ISIS, there will be a civil war because blood has been spilled.
RAMITA NAVAI: Vice President Allawi agrees that militia abuses could drive Sunnis closer to ISIS, or Daesh, as it’s called in Arabic.
[on camera] We’re hearing that the Sunnis now are talking of a new insurgency. Does this trouble you?
AYAD ALLAWI, Vice President, Iraq: It’s possible. It’s possible. It’s possible we will see even a worse Daesh in the future. More serious replacements will appear, and more dangerous and more cunning and more destructive. And this will not only limit itself to this part of the world, it will travel and spread over into the whole globe.
RAMITA NAVAI: [voice-over] The role of the Shia militias has become a major concern in the ongoing battle for Mosul, a mainly Sunni city. The U.S. has urged the Iraqi government to keep the Shia militias out of the city, fearing sectarian violence. For now, militia leaders say their forces will remain in the nearby countryside.
I’m heading towards Mosul to find out more.
[on camera] Are you filming? So we’re just on the road to Mosul and everyone’s been stopped here. And you heard that big bang. We think it’s an IED that’s just been exploded. There was a guy with a knife digging in. we think he was trying to clear another one.
[voice-over] We’re two miles from the front line. This neighborhood is not safe. The next day, at this very location, three ISIS suicide bombers killed and injured dozens of civilians.
A Badr militia unit has agreed to meet us not far from Mosul. They’ve been given the job of taking ISIS-held towns and countryside west of the city.
It’s 7:00 AM. The unit is about to advance to a town which the militias have just recaptured. Commander Saadi Kadoom is watching the morning news, which is about ISIS atrocities.
MAN IN NEWS FOOTAGE: [subtitles] I have lost two people. One of them was executed in front of me by ISIS bastards. ISIS.
Cmdr. SAADI KADOOM: You have to be angry when you see that. They destroyed everything, destroyed the lives, the humans, the people.
2nd MAN IN NEWS FOOTAGE: [subtitles] We lost three people!
Cmdr. SAADI KHODER KADOOM: We just need you to take the truth with you to the world to see because many people in the world, they are thinking that we are bad We just want the country to be safe. We want to make a good future. Not for us, maybe we will all die, but for the children that come behind us.
RAMITA NAVAI: Although many Badr units have been accused of mistreating Sunnis, Commander Kadoom says he and his men are fighting ISIS, not Iraq’s Sunni civilians.
Cmdr. SAADI KHODER KADOOM: I want to help my country, you know, help my people. We don’t have difference between Sunni or Shia. We are like one body. We have one blood.
RAMITA NAVAI: The Iraqi army is stretched thin around Mosul. They’re relying on the militias to secure some of the towns won back from ISIS.
This is a Sunni village. Most of the residents are no longer here. I’m told they’ve been rounded up for security screening.
[on camera] The guys are now moving on from this town and they’re now going to the next town, which is what they do every few days, they advance and they take territory from ISIS. And what they leave behind is lots of graffiti. And now there’s a Shia flag flying from the Sunni mosque here.
DRIVER: [subtitles] When we get close to Mosul, we start to hear this from ISIS.
RAMITA NAVAI: The guys are actually listening to ISIS radio. They love to listen to it because it gives them motivation. It drives them.
DRIVER: [subtitles] They’re weak now. They’re finished. They’re calling people to fight, saying,“Sunnis, you’re our brothers.”
RAMITA NAVAI: [voice-over] The unit reaches the town of Tal Abtah. ISIS has built tunnels under the streets here. The militia’s still clearing them. Suddenly, we’re told to stop filming.
DRIVER: [subtitles] Those fighters don’t want to be filmed.
RAMITA NAVAI: [on camera] Why do we have to put the camera down?
DRIVER: [subtitles] It’s the Hezbollah Brigades. They don’t want journalists here.
RAMITA NAVAI: [voice-over] This neighborhood is controlled by the Hezbollah Brigades, the militia accused of the Razaza and Saqlawiyah disappearances. The men we’re with are nervous.
[on camera] What happens when you go in their territory?
DRIVER: [subtitles] It’s not allowed. They keep their operations secret. They work quietly.
RAMITA NAVAI: [voice-over] Eventually, Commander Kadoom and his Badr fighters reach their destination. [gunfire]
[on camera] What was that shooting?
Cmdr. SAADI KADOOM: Here it’s good. But maybe go to there, it’s not safe.
RAMITA NAVAI: [voice-over] Kadoom and his men are securing Tal Abtah’s hospital. They’ve been given the names of Sunnis who might be ISIS collaborators.
Cmdr. SAADI KADOOM: [subtitles] This is a list of doctors who worked for them. They were acting like it was a country, ISIS country, like it no longer belonged to Iraq. It was their state.
MILITIAMAN: [subtitles] These posters are on every wall─ the punishment for drinking alcohol, for stealing, adultery, homosexuality. This is a picture of cutting the hand off someone.
RAMITA NAVAI: [on camera] They’re now taking me to an ISIS tunnel, and ISIS have built all this network of tunnels in this area. And this is how they operated and this is how they fought these guys. They’d pop out of these tunnels.
God, it’s big! It’s a sophisticated tunnel.
[voice-over] Towards the end of my trip, I meet fighters from another group. The Seyed Shuhada Brigades are powerful, with a representative in parliament. They’re a breakaway group from the Hezbollah Brigades, and like several other militias, their main patron is Iran. Their leader is Abu Alaa Al Waeli
[on camera] Could you have fought this war against ISIS without Iran’s help?
ABU ALAA AL WAELI: [subtitles] Iraq wouldn’t have reached this stage without the support of Iran and their military advisers on the ground.
RAMITA NAVAI: And what support has your group received directly from Iran?
ABU ALAA AL WAELI: [subtitles] Weapons, advisers, military plans, even financial support.
RAMITA NAVAI: [voice-over] He says his militia also has men in neighboring Syria fighting for President Assad, who is backed by Iran.
ABU ALAA AL WAELI: [subtitles] I’m a commander in Syria. I have fighters inside Syria. We’ve been fighting in Syria for five years.
RAMITA NAVAI: [voice-over] I was born in Iran and have reported on the Middle East for more than a decade. I know how rare it is for militia leaders to openly acknowledge Iran’s influence.
Later, I find some local Sunni residents who’ve fled the fighting. They seem eager to praise the militias for driving out ISIS.
REFUGEE: [subtitles] I want to thank the militias for welcoming us and respecting us. I just want to say that to the media.
RAMITA NAVAI: But when I speak off camera to a militiaman in Persian, he tells me the militia have detained many Sunni men from the town and are holding them in nearby prisons.
[subtitles] Where are these prisons?
REFUGEE: [subtitles] Everywhere.
RAMITA NAVAI: [subtitles] Why don’t they hand the prisoners to the state?
REFUGEE: [subtitles] Because the state releases them.
RAMITA NAVAI: [subtitles] Do you think these people are scared of the militias?
REFUGEE: [subtitles] They’re very scared.
RAMITA NAVAI: [voice-over] He also says it’s common to find Iranian fighters among militias like this. He says there are four in his unit.
[subtitles] Why do they come?
REFUGEE: [subtitles] Every day the, militia pays them $15. Then it’s $75 for the second line of defense and $100 for the front line.
RAMITA NAVAI: [voice-over] On the edge of Mosul, I come across a familiar scene.
FIGHTER: [subtitles] Get back!
RAMITA NAVAI: Sunni men are being separated from their families.
FIGHTER: [subtitles] Get back!
RAMITA NAVAI: [on camera] Some of them have been taken aside as ISIS suspects, and they’re lined up against the wall or they’re on the floor. But we’ve just been told, we’ve stepped away because they haven’t been checked for suicide vests or for weapons. And the whole atmosphere here is tense.
[voice-over] The defeat of ISIS in this neighborhood hasn’t made life any easier for the people left behind.
WOMAN AT FOOD TRUCK: [subtitles] Please give it to me! May God reward you.
RAMITA NAVAI: There are gangs of kids like this, and you can see they’re cold and they’re really hungry. The conditions here are bad. It’s freezing. They’re desperate.
[voice-over] On my journey through Iraq, I’ve seen ISIS losing ground, but it’s come at a cost. Mistrust between Sunnis and Shias seems greater than ever. The challenge for Iraq now will be preventing this from starting yet another war.
[The thousands of Sunni men who disappeared at the Razaza checkpoint are still missing. So are the 643 men and boys from Saqlawiyah.]