SADAAN, Iraq — The imam stepped through the broken village holding an assault rifle and wearing combat fatigues. All that stood out from the militiamen around him was the black turban that marked him as a holy man of Shiite Islam. He was at ease with the fighters as they stood amid the wreckage of a battle that drove ISIS from this patch of territory on the edge of Anbar in western Iraq. "This is my duty," he said.
Murad al-Sharifi had completed years of religious study with plans to become a community imam when Iraq's top Shiite cleric issued a call to arms in June. The fatwa from 84-year-old Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani helped to raise a volunteer force some 100,000 strong — and these militia have played a critical role in the fight against ISIS, which pushes an extremist version of Sunni Islam. But the growing strength of the militia has also brought fears that they will respond to ISIS's atrocities with abuses of their own as Iraq enters a new stage in its history of sectarian strife.
At the center of the struggle are imams like Sharifi that many of the militia groups have dispatched to the front. They say their role is to stoke the religious passions that inspired the volunteers to join the fight — while also working to keep them in line. Sharifi said that in addition to fighting, leading prayers and counseling soldiers, he tries to keep their fervor from boiling over into sectarian attacks. He promotes the message that the minority Sunni Arab population — in a country increasingly dominated by its Shiite majority — are victims of ISIS too. Yet his very presence on the front was a testament to the war's religious charge.
ISIS targets the imams with snipers, Sharifi said, and he knew of several who had died. But he was undeterred by dangers that were a far cry from the mosque-bound job he once had in mind. "As an imam," he said, "you have to be in front."
The militia officially work under the umbrella of the Iraqi government — and they have become its main fighting force, vastly outnumbering the military's soldiers in key offensives across the country. In the largest battle against ISIS to date, in the city of Tikrit, the militia accounted for more than three-quarters of the troops, according to the U.S. military's top general. They are backed by Iranian weapons, training and military advisors. "All we have to count on is God and Iran," one fighter joked.
The outsized role of the militia — and the presence of the Iranians — initially led the U.S. to sit out the Tikrit offensive. But the U.S. military commenced airstrikes there last week, and the Iraqi government declared victory in the city on Tuesday.
Fighters on the ground are matter-of-fact about what gives them the strength to fight ISIS: their faith. They say their religious passion is needed to combat an enemy driven by its own — and the militia now dominate the fight while the Iraqi military, which fled in the face of ISIS' summer advance, struggles to regain its footing. "This is an ideological war," said a fighter with Sharifi's militia, the Badr Brigades, which played a key role in Tikrit. "That's why the Iraqi army is weak, because they don't have an ideology. We are the ones who fight with an ideology."
Another fighter, an engineer who responded to Sistani's call this summer, said he was motivated by both patriotism and faith. "I am a fighter for the country," he said. "But it's because of [Sistani's call] that I became encouraged to fight. There is no difference. I am defending my religion and I am defending the country."
Imams working on the front viewed their involvement as a logical step. Since militia fighters were waging a religious war, the imams said, they needed to make sure it was carried out properly. "The main inspiration for the fighting is religious motivation. So we have to make sure that all of our members behave according to our ideology," said Khaled Assadi, an imam with Asai'b uhl al-Haq, which like the Badr Brigades is among the largest of the dozens of militia groups. "We are basically the safety net, because we are explaining to the fighters how they must deal with everyone."
The militia have faced accusations of abuse from the start — a recent Human Rights Watch report said militia fighters have carried out forced evictions, kidnappings and summary executions in Sunni areas, calling them possible war crimes. Assadi claimed the problems had been exaggerated. There were instances of fighters committing human-rights violations, he said, "and we are dealing with every case immediately."
Assadi worked as an imam with Asai'b uhl al-Haq — which receives extensive backing from Iran — when the group fought U.S. troops during the Iraq War. But he kept more to the background then, he said. "Our role [as imams] has changed because the danger has changed and the operations have become bigger," he said. "Now our role is greater and more important. Now we have to be in the frontline in everything."
Aws al-Khafaji, who heads the militia group Abu Fadhil al-Abbas, said the work of the imams was a sign of the militia's growing stature in Iraq. "When we were fighting the Americans we were kind of like gangs," he said. "Now we changed roles. Now we are the organized operation and ISIS is the gang. We are under the spotlight."
The imams also help the war effort, Khafaji said: "The soldier will be more encouraged to fight when he sees that his imam is in front of him in battle."
For the fighters on the front — many of whom were amateur volunteers — it seemed enough sometimes just to see a comforting face.
On a recent afternoon at a base set back from a front in Anbar, three imams were greeted with hugs and cheers when they arrived at a dirt barricade in a Toyota pickup.
The fighters — from the militia group al-Tayar al-Resaly — then sat for an impromptu sermon. "You are not only defending Shiites, you are defending all of Iraq," said one of the imams, while another added: "With our prayers we will make ISIS afraid."
The third, Ra'ed Jabbar, 42, stood quietly to the side, the black military boots he wore for the occasion gleaming in the sun. "I prefer when it's one-on-one with the fighters, so there's some intimacy," he said.
Jabbar normally worked at a mosque in a poor neighborhood of Baghdad, where he ran a summer school, coaxing kids with bikes and soccer balls. He was still getting used to being surrounded by soldiers — and the fact that he would leave behind five daughters if he died.
He said he drew courage from history: the Prophet Muhammad was both a warrior and a spiritual leader, as were key figures in the early days of Shiite Islam, such as Husayn ibn Ali, whose death by beheading in the battle of Karbala, in 680 CE, was a defining moment in the faith. "He wasn't afraid, so how could I be afraid?" Jabbar said.