Iraq’s government recalled Tuesday its Ambassador to Egypt in protest against recent Al-Azhar comments accusing the Shi’a Popular Mobilization Forces of committing violations against Sunni Muslims.
On 11 March, foremost Sunni religious institution Al-Azhar condemned what it referred to as the “slaughter and violations” committed by the “Popular Mobilization Militias” against Sunni Iraqi citizens in the Iraqi city of Tikrit.
“The [Iraqi] Foreign Ministry handed the Egyptian ambassador an objection letter to the accusations of Al-Azhar’s Sheikh,” the ministry said in a statement.
The ministry asked the Egyptian government to clarify its position regarding such statements, which it says “harms the relations between the two countries”.
“The ministry asserts that the heroes of the Popular Mobilization Militias answered the call to liberate the homeland from unreligious gangs,” the ministry added.
The same stand was echoed by Iraqi Vice President Nouri Al-Maliki.
“We were shocked by Al-Azhar’s statement, which accuses the Popular Mobilization [Forces], which fight alongside [Iraqi] security forces to defend Iraq, its sovereignty, and its peoples,” Al-Maliki said.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry has refused to comment on the incident.
The Shi’a paramilitary forces have been a main pillar of the Iraqi government’s military operations to repel forces of “Islamic State” (IS). They have been endorsed by the Iraqi government to assist official security forces in the counter-insurgency.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report Wednesday accusing the Shi’a militants and Iraqi security of forces of looting property of Sunni civilians “who had fled fighting, burned their homes and businesses, and destroyed at least two entire villages”.
These actions, the watchdog said, “violated laws of war”.
“Iraq can’t win the fight against ISIS’s atrocities with attacks on civilians that violate the laws of war and fly in the face of human decency,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
HRW also demanded that “countries providing military assistance to Iraq, including the United States and Iran, should require the government to show that it is taking effective steps to end the very serious crimes by militias”.
The Popular Mobilization Forces came onto the scene after the city of Mosul fell into the hands of IS militants in August 2014. The forces were mobilised after the country’s much-respected Shi’a preacher, Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, issued a religious decree (fatwa) calling for Jihad against the Sunni militants.