The Islamic State organisation (IS), a jihadist group that controls parts of Syria and Iraq, is infamous for releasing gory images of the atrocities its fighters commit. But now, a newly-formed Shiite militia fighting IS in Iraq has committed a similar act by recording a video where its combatants pose with severed heads.

WARNING: The following images are graphic and may upset viewers.

A shocking video

This video shows a group of Shiite militiamen holding up two severed heads, which they describe as belonging to IS fighters. Mugging for the camera, the men chant: “We are coming for you! We’ll behead you and make mountains with your skulls!” The men’s clothing, armbands and flag show that they belong to the “Islamic Movement of Iraq”, a little-known militia that was recently formed, and which documents its activities on a Facebook page. The video’s caption indicates it was filmed when the city of Amerli was taken back from IS earlier this month. It was captured by Iraqi soldiers, Kurd peshmerga fighters and Shiite militias, who were aided by US air strikes.

According to the group’s Facebook page, its leader is Alhaj Abou Jabar Alasadi, a man unknown on Iraq’s political scene. Strangely enough, on his own Facebook page, he recently posted a photo of himself posing with Iraq’s former prime minister, Nuri al Maliki, just two weeks after the Shiite politician stepped down. He had been accused of being too sectarian.

An Iranian specialist in Iraqi affairs in Baghdad told FRANCE 24:

“So far, this video is just one example, implicating one small, extremist group, so I don’t think it will have an impact on cooperation between different groups fighting IS in Iraq [Iraqis, Kurds, and Americans]. However, if the video begins to circulate a lot, I do think Shiite clerics will denounce this barbaric act. After all, Shiite militias here in Iraq try to present themselves as defenders of the rights of all, including Sunnis, Yazidis, and Christians… unlike IS fighters, whose tactics they denounce as barbaric.”

FRANCE 24 journalist and terrorism expert Wassim Nasr has a slightly different take: "Though this may be the first video of Shiite combatants showing off severed heads of IS fighters, Shiite fighters have shown they are capable of brutal acts on several occasions during the recent fighting, including torturing their enemies. Some of the most violent militias who fought against Americans in the last Iraq war are now reforming. Their tactics are not very different than those of IS."

New militias, with backing from Iran

This group is but one of many new Shiite militias that have been popping up in Iraq over the past weeks. The Iraqi army, which remains quite weak, does not appear to have control over them; in fact, most of these groups don’t hide the fact that they get funding from Iran, notably its Revolutionary Guards.

According to the same Iranian specialist in Iraqi affairs quoted above, who recently met some of these newly-formed militias’ leaders in Baghdad, these groups function more like freelancers than well-established Shiite militias:

There have been Iraqi Shiite militias for three decades now. Big groups like Badr or Kataeb Ahle Hagh are known to be funded by Iran, but never openly talk about this. Then, there are Iraqi Shiites who in the past years went to fight in Syria – again in Iran-funded militias – but who returned to Iraq three months ago when IS started taking over the country’s north. They, too, are well-organised, and don’t broadcast their ties with Iran. But these latest groups that have appeared the past weeks, which are smaller – 100 to 200 fighters each at most – are very open about their allegiance to Iran. It was very bizarre to hear a leader of one of these groups tell me point-blank that they were followers of Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran. It appears that they’ve formed on their own, and then gone looking for money and weapons from Iran to fight IS. Most groups have a spiritual leader who acts as their liaison with Iranian authorities.