A history of bad blood between Iraq’s Shiite militias, US troops
Published: March 27, 2015
WASHINGTON — A long, bloody history of conflict, double-crosses and American blood lies behind the U.S. military’s refusal to cooperate with Iraq’s Shiite militias — even if both sides now face a common enemy in the Islamic State.
Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of the U.S. Central Command, bluntly laid out the reasons why the military was loathe to launch airstrikes to help the stalled Iraqi government offensive against Islamic State fighters in Tikrit until Iranian-backed Shiite militias pulled back from the frontlines.
“Once those conditions were met, which included Shiite militias not being involved, then we were able to proceed,” Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. “[After] three tours in Iraq commanding [U.S.] troops who were brutalized by some of these Shiite militias, I will not, and I hope we never will, coordinate or cooperate with Shiite militias.”
Until the U.S. launched airstrikes late Wednesday, critics had accused the Obama administration of sitting on the sidelines, allowing the Iranians and their Shiite militia clients to exploit the campaign against Tikrit to expand their influence in Iraq, where nearly 4,500 American servicemembers died.
Others, including former Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus, had warned that as long as militias made up the bulk of the pro-government forces besieging Tikrit, a Sunni city, the U.S. ran the risk of being seen by Sunnis as the “Shiite air force.”
Aside from the political risks, cooperation with the Shiite militias would be a bitter pill for Americans who fought many of those same militiamen only a few years ago. Some of those militia leaders rose in stature in the Shiite-dominated Iraq that the U.S. left behind when the last American troops left in December 2011.
[After] three tours in Iraq commanding [U.S.] troops who were brutalized by some of these Shiite militias, I will not, and I hope we never will, coordinate or cooperate with Shiite militias.
— Gen. Llyod Austin
For Americans who never served in Iraq, the image of the war promoted in such Hollywood productions as “American Sniper” has focused on the fight against Sunni insurgents from al-Qaida in Iraq, the forerunner of the Islamic State.
But much of the fighting, especially in the Baghdad area, was waged against Iranian-backed Shiite groups, some which are now part of the “popular mobilization units.” Since the Iraqi army collapsed last summer, the government has sent those militiamen to the front lines against the Islamic State, not only in Tikrit but in the old battlefields of Diyala, Salaheddin and Babil provinces where they once fought the Americans.
Those Shiite groups include the “Peace Brigades,” the rebranded Mahdi army of Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers battled U.S. troops in Sadr City, Najaf, Basra and elsewhere, as well as two other groups — Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, which were largely seen as proxies for Iran.
During the war, Kataib Hezbollah and the League were often described by the U.S. military as the “Special Groups” — shadowy militants responsible for rocket attacks on the Green Zone, kidnappings and ambushes in mostly Shiite areas of Baghdad and elsewhere.
The “Special Groups’” signature weapon was the notorious EFP, or explosively formed penetrator, a lethal IED that could fire an explosive charge through all but the most heavily armored vehicles. In the last years of the war, EFPs were believed to have accounted for as many as 80 percent of the U.S. casualties.
The EFPs were so well-made that U.S. intelligence was convinced they were manufactured in Iran and smuggled into Iraq by a network controlled by the League.
The League claimed more than 6,000 attacks against U.S. troops, including EFP and rocket attacks. After the U.S. routed al-Qaida in Iraq in 2008, the U.S. military identified the League as the biggest single threat to American forces in the final three years of the war.
Those Special Groups were also was believed responsible for the Jan. 20, 2007, raid on the Joint Security Station in Karbala, which left five American soldiers dead and three wounded. The raid was among the boldest and most sophisticated attacks against American troops during the war.
It was carried out by up to a dozen Shiite militants, dressed in American uniforms and carrying American weapons, who drove to the station in vehicles similar to those used by U.S. civilian convoys. They bluffed their way through Iraqi checkpoints and stormed a building used by the Americans, killing one U.S. soldier and capturing four others before fleeing with their prisoners.
Three of the Americans were found shot to death near the compound. A fourth was found alive but died soon afterward of his wounds.
Two months after the raid, American troops captured the leader of League, Qais al-Khazali. He was released in 2010 under an Iraqi-negotiated deal in exchange for a British computer contractor who had been kidnapped by Shiite militants.
Al-Khazali ended up rehabilitated and elevated to hero status by the government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who needed political support from his fellow Shiites as the Americans were preparing to leave the country. Al-Khazali’s followers are among Shiite militias now fighting the Islamic State.
He wasn’t the only Special Groups leader to escape punishment thanks to Iraq’s murky sectarian politics.
Ali Mussa Daqduq, a Lebanese citizen who was sent by Hezbollah and the Iranians to train Shiite militias, was also captured by the U.S. in March 2007 and accused of a role in the Karbala raid.
With al-Khazali having escaped punishment, the U.S. was determined to see Daqduq held accountable for the five American deaths in Karbala. As with al-Khazali, however, the Iraqi government didn’t want to take the political risk of punishing a popular figure.
To add to the problem, Daqduq became the center of an internal political battle in Washington. The Obama administration wanted to extradite him to the U.S. to stand trial. Republicans in Congress demanded that he be sent to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. But the White House wanted to close the Guantanamo prison and refused.
Instead, the administration decided to hand him over to the Iraqis and formally ask them for his extradition. The Iraqis refused the request and put him on trial. But the courts threw out the charges.
After months of high-level wrangling and U.S. pressure, in July 2012 — five months after the last American troops left Iraq — the Iraqi central criminal court ordered his release, signaling that as far as Baghdad was concerned, the case was closed. Daqduq was free.
Robert H. Reid reported from Iraq as a journalist from 2003 until 2009.
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AMY GOODMAN: U.S.-led coalition warplanes have begun bombing the Iraqi city of Tikrit in an attempt to seize control of the city from the self-described Islamic State. The assault on Tikrit began three weeks ago when Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed Shiite militia launched a ground offensive. The U.S. airstrikes now squarely put Washington and Tehran on the same side in the fight, though the Obama administration insists it’s not coordinating military operations with Iran. The Pentagon stressed that the airstrikes are aimed to help Iraqi forces defeat the Islamic State, but by all accounts it has been Iranian-backed militias leading the ground attack in Tikrit, the hometown of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, had been on the ground advising the militias in Tikrit as recently as Sunday.
Meanwhile, in other Iraq news, a new report has found the Iraq War has killed about one million people. The Nobel Prize-winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and other groups examined the toll from the so-called war on terror in three countries—Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The investigators found the war has, directly or indirectly, killed around one million people in Iraq, 220,000 in Afghanistan and 80,000 in Pakistan, a total of about 1.3 million.
We’re joined now by two guests who worked on the report. Hans von Sponeck is with us, former U.N. assistant secretary-general and U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, who in 2000 resigned his post in protest of the U.S.-led sanctions regime. He’s the author of A Different Kind of War: The UN Sanctions Regime in Iraq. Von Sponeck is currently teaching at the University of Marburg in Germany, joining us by Democracy Now! video stream. And Dr. Robert Gould is with us from San Francisco, the president of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility. He wrote the foreword for the new international edition of the report, called “Body Count: Casualty Figures after 10 Years of the ‘War on Terror.’”
Dr. Robert Gould, the figures laid out in this report say 1.3 million people have died in Iraq, in Afghanistan and in [Pakistan]. And it says that this could possibly be not an overestimate; it says it’s the minimum numbers. It could possibly be as high as two million. Can you talk about the significance of what these figures mean?
DR. ROBERT GOULD: Well, these are, as you relate, incredible figures in terms of the total counts, and they compare markedly with those estimates that have come out of organizations such as Iraq Body Count in the past, which use very—what are known as passive methods of detecting casualties in war, because they rely on official reports and morgues and things like that to arrive at their estimates. But obviously those type of methods really lack the ability to determine the full cost of war, given that, particularly in the type of warfare we witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, many of these deaths are really silent, in the sense that people are killed by death squads, they’re killed by bombing raids, that are really off the records, and we don’t get to really understand the full impact of the war. That’s why a number of the people who are incorporated within the new issue of “Body Count,” in terms of looking at the totality of the reports, there’s a very important examination of what we—of more active methods of sampling. And these are methods that have been used in diverse places such as Sudan, the Congo, for their various horrible war situations, as well. So, what this report really does is bring to us, in its North American release, a really fuller accounting of what the human costs of that war have been, which, you know, just listening to the headlines on the news this morning that you’ve related, we could still see the impacts of the destabilization that we, our government and allies, have created in Iraq and elsewhere.
Iraqi Shia militia pull out from offensive to liberate Tikrit
By Indo Asian News Service | IANS – Thu, Mar 26, 2015
Saraya al-Salam, or Peace Brigades, loyal to Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, said in a statement that they will not participate in liberating the Iraqi cities and towns held by the Islamic State (IS) militant group with the presence of US-led coalition airstrikes, considering that the militias are capable of liberating the land and that the US presence is to “confiscate the victories” of Iraqis, Xinhua reported.
“The Saraya al-Salam announces withdrawal from any operation to free the cities of Iraq with the presence of US shameless intervention,” it said.
Another Shia militia Ahl al-Haq Movement said it will not participate in a battle with the presence of international coalition saying the Iraqi security forces and Hashid al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation, are capable of liberating the Iraqi IS-held cities.
“We will not participate in any battle conducted by the United States, whether their presence was by air or by land. We reject to get involved into any battle in which the international coalition will be there,” a statement by the group quoted its spokesperson Na’im al-Abboudi as saying.
A few more Shia groups such as Hezbullah Brigades and National Defence Brigades also rejected participation in battles to free Tikrit after the announcing of conducting US-led airstrikes in Tikrit.
Late on Wednesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that the Iraqi forces started the final phase to liberate Tikrit and the rest of the northern parts of Salahudin province with the assistance of the international coalition air support.
The battles to free Tikrit from IS militants have been stalled for about two weeks as the militants have planted thousands of bombs and booby-trapped dozens of buildings and cars.
Since March 2, some 30,000 Iraqi troops and thousands of allied Shia and Sunni militias have been involved in Iraq’s biggest offensive to recapture the northern part of Salahudin province, including Tikrit and other key towns and villages, from IS militants.
Large parts of the province have been under IS control since June 2014, after bloody clashes broke out between Iraqi security forces and the group.
The IS took control of the country’s northern city of Mosul and later seized swathes of territories in Nineveh and other predominantly Sunni provinces.
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