Although the abductions and killings are often retaliation for Islamic State atrocities against Shias, they frequently have a more mercenary purpose. After abducting a young man, the militias extort his family. Many families report paying hefty ransoms "only to discover that their loved one had been killed." Even the retaliatory attacks often sweep up Sunnis not connected to the Islamic State but who simply happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
One story illustrates the hopeless situation of many Iraqis. A man whose family fled the Islamic State and are afraid to return frequently visits Fallujah to check on his house and property. "Only I can go, he says, "because I am old. My sons cannot go. It would be too dangerous for them. They could be killed by Shia militias on the road between Baghdad and Fallujah, as they treat anyone going to or coming from Fallujah as a terrorist and often kill people on that road. And the IS gangs in Fallujah would consider my sons as government collaborators because they left Fallujah and are living in Baghdad."
The Shia militias are formidable, the largest containing tens of thousands of fighters, their power growing as the Iraqi army collapsed. They can operate like regular armed forces but with impunity.
According to Amnesty, "The existence of these sectarian, unregulated and unaccountable militias is both a cause and a result of the country’s growing insecurity and instability. They preclude any possibility of establishing effective and accountable security and armed forces able and willing to protect all sectors of the population." Amnesty insists that the Iraqi government must get them under control, but one wonders if that is any longer possible.
Iraq is in a state of collapse. Shias, Sunnis, Kurds and the Islamic State are now involved in a godawful civil war over the spoils. The American coalition's notion that it can do any good here may be nothing more than hubris run wild, turning a Middle Eastern war into an international one with no possible idea of where it will all end. And that prompts the question, Where does our participation end, and what can we possibly hope to achieve out of this mess?