Although the Islamic State group has been defeated militarily in Iraq, members of the militia group still find areas to hide. Some parts of the Sunni population give them shelter. They also find cover in the mountains around Hawija. From their hiding places, they set up attacks: Suddenly popping up at improvised checkpoints in the winding roads that lead through the hills, they arrest or kill those passing, or take hostages and blackmail the government for possible prisoner exchanges. They also place IEDs and send suicide attackers into cities in the region.
Iraqi federal police have outposts in the region, but their patrols only operate during the day. At night, they retreat to their bases, when the caliphate of terror becomes a guerrilla terror group.
The Islamic State group’s favorite targets are members of the Shia militia al-Hashd al-Shaabi. Also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, are Shia-dominated militia was created in 2014 following a fatwa issued by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric. Victory over the Islamic State group in Iraq would be inconceivable without al-Hashd al-Shaabi, which filled the gap left by the Iraqi Army. But they are also an Iran-supported force operating in a traditional Sunni area in Iraq. And members of the Shia-dominated militia have been accused of massacring Iraqi Sunnis.
Today, al-Hashd al-Shaabi is fighting sleeper cells and defending against Islamic State group attacks. Unlike the Iraqi federal police in the region, they can react quickly because they don’t have to follow a strict chain of command.
Based in Berlin, freelance photojournalist Sebastian Backhaus covers humanitarian crises and wars throughout the Middle East. These photographs were taken while Backhaus was embedded with the al-Hashd al-Shaabi during their search for hidden Islamic State group members.