Crimes of a sectarian nature carried out by Iran-backed militias fighting in Iraq are making it difficult for the Iraqi forces to establish security and order in areas liberated from the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL), officials say.
Far from helping the Iraqi forces to maintain stability, they told Diyaruna, violations committed by these militias, which include murder, torture and kidnapping, have provided fuel for ISIL's recruitment efforts.
This is because ISIL tries to use revenge as a tool with which to entice Sunni youth into its ranks, they said.
Destabilising liberated cities
According to Iraqi MP Hamid al-Mutlaq, who serves on the parliamentary security and defence committee, the crimes committed by Iran-backed militias primarily seek to shift the demographics in Iraq along sectarian lines.
Iran-backed militias are using the fight against ISIL as a smokescreen as they commit various crimes that destabilise liberated cities in Iraq, he told Diyaruna.
These crimes include a recent spate of kidnappings at unauthorised checkpoints in Diyala, Babil, Baghdad and Salaheddine set up by armed militia fighters wearing Iraqi army uniforms.
"These militias have committed many crimes against the Iraqi people on a sectarian basis," said Iraqi MP Ahmad al-Salmani, who is a member of the Alliance of Forces for Anbar.
If they are not brought under control by the Iraqi government and coalition forces, he warned, there will be many more.
Iran-backed militias in Iraq are holding more than 6,000 civilians, he said in a recent press conference.
They kidnapped 1,600 Iraqis in the Razaza area more than a year ago, whose fate is still unknown, he said.
They are holding more than 700 Iraqis taken from Fallujah's Saqlawiyah neighbourhood, about 70 in al-Karma, about 3,000 in Samarra and more than 1,000 in northern Babil, among others, he added.
"The crimes are many, and those killed at the hands of these militias are many, so that the fate of their bodies is unknown," he said.
Accusations of sectarian crimes
In a 2016 report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Iran-backed militias of sectarian crimes in several parts of Iraq, involvement in kidnapping and disappearances of villagers, and torching and stealing private property in the towns they entered.
Killings and torture were systematic for some factions, the report said.
The international rights group said it had evidence that these militias had engaged in "indiscriminate executions" targeting dozens of Sunnis in Iraq.
These actions, carried out with impunity, weaken the campaign against ISIL, HRW said, while the Iraqi government has called for the "control and accounting of" the militias in a "just and appropriate" manner.
Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Saad Maan told Diyaruna the government issued an order to confiscate the weapons of these militias and to arrest members of unauthorised armed groups.
"Carrying arms must be in the battlefields against ISIL, not among the homes of citizens," he said, noting that the militias are harming the work and reputation of the security forces.
The militias of Kataib Hizbullah, al-Nujaba movement, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Badr Organisation, all of which are directly linked to Iran, have committed the majority of the sectarian killings and kidnappings, Mohammed Abdullah of the Alliance of Iraqi Forces told Diyaruna.
"Their attacks recently reached cities and villages in the outskirts of Baghdad and Diyala province, which resulted in civilian casualties," he said.
These groups operate under cover of the war on terrorism to carry out crimes against civilians, he said, pointing the finger at Iran as it backs these militias.
Many fear Iran-backed militias
A large number of Iraqis displaced by the fighting say that fear of these militias has prevented them from returning to their homes, said Sheikh Hamid al-Akidi, a tribal leader from Salaheddine.
"ISIL terrorists have become distinctive and known, but the militias come in military clothes and in broad daylight to kill and kidnap for the purpose of extortion or revenge," he told Diyaruna.
These militias have become a threat equal to that of terrorism, he added.
"We hope the government will address their situation as they do today with ISIL," al-Akidi said.
For the third consecutive year, Iran-backed militias have prevented the residents of Jarf al-Sakhr, Baiji, al-Muqdadiyah and al-Mukhisa villages from returning to their homes, said Iraqi MP Liqaa Mahdi Wardi.
These militias have been using private houses as headquarters and barracks, after looting and stealing their contents, she told Diyaruna.
"About 300,000 civilians live in tents and are not allowed to return because of attacks, reprisal operations, or because militias refuse their return," she said, stressing that all efforts to bring them back have so far failed.
Sheikh Mohammed al-Alwani of the council of tribes fighting ISIL in Anbar, accused Hizbullah militias, al-Nujaba and Badr of carrying out an Iranian agenda that seeks to destablise Iraq.
"Their presence will not allow Iraq to settle," he said.