The Saudi delegation walked out of an Arab League meeting after Iraq’s Foreign Minister defended the Shia militias (collectively known as the Popular Mobilisation Units, PMUs) and Hizballah on 11 March. Islamic State (IS) has sought to exploit these rising sectarian tensions, and particularly Sunni mistrust of the PMUs, by stepping up attacks against Shia targets in Iraq. Indeed, the group killed more than 60 people in a truck bombing in the Shia-majority city of Hilla, Babil Province (about 120 kms south of Baghdad) on 6 March. While Hilla is part of the South, we do not believe that the incident signifies the start of a concerted IS campaign to target the key Shia strongholds. Hilla is closer to Baghdad than cities such as Najaf – and hence easier to strike – and the bombing occurred at a checkpoint, which reflects IS’s limited capability to penetrate well-protected Shia areas.
Attacks in the South will remain infrequent and IS will instead focus on striking Shia targets in Baghdad and Diyala Province where it has a stronger presence and where the mixed population provides a greater opportunity to aggravate sectarian tensions. Indeed, the attack in February on a Shia funeral in Muqdadiya, Diyala triggered violent reprisals by Shia militiamen against local Sunnis, who burnt down houses and killed more than a dozen people. IS hopes that such acts of Shia retaliation will boost support for the group among Sunnis, who increasingly see the jihadists as the only force that can protect their interests. The group also hopes that PMU atrocities will put pressure on Prime Minister al-Abadi to restrict the militias’ role in efforts to regain IS-controlled areas.