US officials: Up to 100,000 Iran-backed fighters now in Iraq
By Lucas Tomlinson
Published August 16, 2016
As many as 100,000 Iranian-backed Shiite militia are now fighting on the ground in Iraq, according to U.S. military officials — raising concerns that should the Islamic State be defeated, it may only be replaced by another anti-American force that fuels further sectarian violence in the region.
The ranks have swelled inside a network of Shiite militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces. Since the rise of Sunni-dominated ISIS fighters inside Iraq more than two years ago, the Shiite forces have grown to 100,000 fighters, Col. Chris Garver, a Baghdad-based U.S. military spokesman, confirmed in an email to Fox News. The fighters are mostly Iraqis.
Garver said not all the Shia militias in Iraq are backed by Iran, adding: “The [Iranian-backed] Shia militia are usually identified at around 80,000.”
According to some experts, this still is an alarmingly high number.
“The effect of the Obama administration’s policy has been to replace American boots on the ground with the Iranian’s. As Iran advances, one anti-American actor is being replaced with another,” Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said in a recent phone interview.
Garver said other Popular Mobilization fighters also consist of Sunni tribal fighters from Anbar and Nineveh provinces in Iraq.
Whether the force size is 80,000 or 100,000, the figures are the first-known estimates of the Iranian-backed fighters. The figure first surfaced in a recent Tampa Bay Times article and marks the latest evidence of Tehran’s deepening involvement in the war against ISIS, with the U.S. military also confirming that Russian bombers are now flying into Syria from a base in Iran. The growth also could create greater risk for Americans operating in the country, as at least one Iran-backed group vowed earlier this year to attack U.S. forces supporting the Iraqis.
Even more troubling to the U.S. military are reports that Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian general who commands the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, is now on the ground outside Mosul ahead of an expected operation to retake Iraq’s second-largest city which has been under ISIS control for the past two years.
According to the Long War Journal, a spokesman for the Iranian-backed forces said earlier this month that Soleimani is expected to play a “major role” in the battle for Mosul.
When asked about Shia militias participating in the liberation of Sunni-dominated Mosul, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq said last week, “The government of Iraq is in charge of this war. We’re here to support them. So, who they [want in] the campaign is really their decision.”
A U.S. military official could not confirm Soleimani’s presence in Mosul, but said Soleimani had been seen throughout Iraq and Syria in the past two years coordinating activities.
Garver stressed Tuesday there is no coordination between the U.S. and Iranians. “We are not coordinating with the Iranians in any way, we are not working with them in any way,” he said during a press conference, adding: “However the government of Iraq comes up with the plan, we are supporting [their] plan for the seizure of Mosul.”
Last August, Fox News first reported Soleimani’s visit to Moscow 10 days after the landmark nuclear agreement in July to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and top Russian officials to plan Russia’s upcoming deployment to Syria in late September.
Soleimani is banned from international travel through United Nations Security Council resolutions. He was first designated a terrorist and sanctioned by the U.S. in 2005. In October 2011, the U.S. Treasury Department tied Soleimani to the failed Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States at a popular restaurant in Washington, D.C. Soleimani’s Quds Force is the special forces external wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, responsible for supporting terrorist proxies across the Middle East.
At his confirmation hearing last year, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford was asked how many Americans were killed by Iranian-backed forces under the command of Soleimani.
“The number has been recently quoted as about 500. We weren’t always able to attribute the casualties we had to Iranian activity, although many times we suspected it was Iranian activity even though we didn’t necessarily have the forensics to support that,” Dunford said.
The threat to American troops remains. Last month, firebrand Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — responsible for attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq a decade ago – once again called for his supporters to kill American troops.
“[U.S. forces] are a target for us,” he said on his website.
In March, one Iranian-backed group said it would attack U.S. forces after the Pentagon announced that hundreds of U.S. Marines were supporting Iraqi forces with artillery fire.
“If the U.S. administration doesn’t withdraw its forces immediately, we will deal with them as forces of occupation,” Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) said on its TV channel.
The Iranian-backed group has claimed responsibility for over 6,000 attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq since 2006 and operates under the supervision of Soleimani, according to a report by the Institute for the Study of War.
Meanwhile, there are more indications that Russia and Iran are expanding their military ties. The U.S. military has confirmed that Russian bombers flying from a base in Iran have bombed three areas in Syria.
In addition to the up to 100,000 Iranian-backed forces in Iraq, there are thousands of Iranian-backed forces in Syria as well in support of President Bashar al-Assad. Some of these Iranian-backed forces come from as far as Afghanistan and hundreds have recently died fighting Syrian rebels in the city of Aleppo, according to recent reports.
Lucas Tomlinson is the Pentagon and State Department producer for Fox News Channel. You can follow him on Twitter: @LucasFoxNews
Some Iraqis Still Hate America More Than ISIS
By Gilad Shiloach
Jul 18, 2016 at 11:50 AM ET
A leading Shiite cleric in Iraq said U.S. troops would be targeted by Shiite militias, a threat prompted by last week’s announcement that the Obama administration plans to deploy additional troops to the country to help local forces take on ISIS.
Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army was instrumental in the civil war that erupted in Iraq in 2006-2008, was asked in a letter by a follower to respond to U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announcement that Washington would dispatch 560 more troops to help Iraqi forces retake the northern city of Mosul from ISIS, which has held it since August 2013.
On Sunday, Sadr posted this ominous answer to his official Facebook page: “They are a target for us.” The popular cleric didn’t elaborate further, but his followers have been hugely supportive of this apparent threat, which circulated on social media and in Facebook groups and pages that back him. Dozens on Facebook and Twitter answered with the slogan “No, no to America,” and posted an image of Sadr alongside a burned U.S military tank. Users on a pro-Sadr group page shared the threat, quoting the Quranic verse: “if you return [to sin], We will return [to punishment]. We will shake the land beneath their feet.” Others said: “We are at your service Muqtada,” and posted images allegedly showing American troops being targeted in Iraq.
Sadr has been fiercely anti-American since the U.S.-led military invasion ousted former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 2003. Since then, Sadr and his many followers have battled coalition forces across Iraq and he has continually pressed to have all U.S. and Western influence removed from the country.
Sadr’s followers said “America is the great Satan, no, no to America” and dismissed the announcement as “a new occupation, one time in the excuse of Saddam, and later because of ISIS.” Another said “America is actually ISIS.” An Iraqi user tweeted that “Sadr’s threat to target American forces in Mosul is a wise decision because the Iraqis can liberate their land, Iraq isn’t a colony.”
Alongside the support, several social media users in Arabic also criticized Sadr’s new threat and mocked him. “Are you kidding? Without America you and your corrupt government wouldn’t be able to last a day in Iraq,”one user wrote. Another criticized Sadr “like he doesn’t know that Americans are taking part in the liberation of his country while bombing ISIS day and night,” or that “without America, Sadr would become chicken food.”
كلا كلا امريكا…كلا كلا اسرائيل pic.twitter.com/O1bYGQFPBV
— صوت العراق الناطق (@sawtalaraq) July 18, 2016
No, no to America. No, no to Israel
According to Reuters, other Shiite militias have made similar pledges to attack U.S. soldiers in the past year, but any casualties that have struck the U.S. have come during battles with ISIS fighters in the north.
Tehran Is Launching Attacks on Iranian Dissidents in Iraq
Raymond Tanter | July 10, 2016
On July 4, 2016 (8:35 pm Iraqi time), over 50 missiles were fired against Camp Liberty. Because of the proximity of Tehran’s militias in range of Camp Liberty, it appears as if they were launched by those affiliated with the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Damage assessment reveals that parts of the camp were completely destroyed. As many as 40 residents were injured, and astonishingly no one was killed during this massive attack.
Nevertheless, each time the oppressors of Liberty get away with attacking the camp it increases the likelihood of even more hostile assaults in the future.
Once several opponents of Iran left for safety in Iraq, Tehran sought to destroy them there. Several factors coincide to explain why Tehran is assaulting its dissidents in Iraq—members of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), the main resistance group that rejects clerical rule, and espouses a secular, democratic, and nonnuclear Iran.
The regime is using the upcoming anniversary of the nuclear deal with Iran on July 14, 2016, as a time to crack down on its opponents. Washington has placed the deal with Tehran over the security of those aligned with the United States and have the capacity to place pressure on the regime on behalf of the Iranian people.
In 2014, Washington agreed to a four-month extension of ongoing nuclear talks until Nov. 24. This period was a time of peril for opponents of Iran because they were and are of great value in revealing intelligence about its nuclear cheating.
Contrary to Iran’s disingenuous offers to be transparent in nuclear talks of Jan. 17, 2005 and Mar. 23, 2005, MEK intelligence revealed in late 2005 that Iran may have been engaged in nuclear-related work at an underground site near the city of Qom.
Three Western allies disclosed on Sept. 25, 2009 intelligence about the Qom site during a G-8 economic summit in Pittsburgh, implicitly validating a resistance disclosure of the same site four years earlier. And by January 2012, Iran acknowledged it had begun enrichment at that heavily fortified site, now known as the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant.
A case of retaliation as it relates to nuclear revelations came on September 1, 2013. The organization had in previous years uncovered a number of undeclared nuclear sites and announced them in a series of press conferences, e.g., in Washington during July.
Tehran retaliated to take advantage of ongoing secret nuclear talks with Washington, which let the regime off the hook by saying very little about the assault. Yet in October 2013, the resistance disclosed additional intelligence about suspect weaponization activities by Iran. Another missile attack was waged on Camp Liberty in December 2013, killing four and wounding dozens.
On top of the upcoming nuclear anniversary, there are the deteriorating political-military situation in Iraq and Tehran’s increasing problems with its discontented population. Iran uses such moments as times to crack down on its opponents at home and abroad.
In June of 2009, the regime put down country-wide demonstrations in which dissidents tied to the MEK participated. Iraqi forces acting on behalf of Tehran then attacked MEK members located at that time in Camp Ashraf, Iraq during July of that year. Iraqis killed 13, held 36 as hostages, and only released them in October under intense international pressure.
On April 8, 2011, a day after a major nuclear revelation in Washington by the dissidents, Camp Ashraf came under a major assault by the Iraqi Security Forces, leaving 36 dead, and hundreds wounded, in what was described as “Massacre” by then Senate Foreign Relations chair, John Kerry.
A year after moving to Camp Liberty, on Feb. 9, 2013, rocket and mortar shells fell on the dissidents, killing 9 and wounding over fifty. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees called these attacks, “a despicable act of violence,” describing residents as asylum seekers entitled to international protection.
The Way Forward
Hark back to the nuclear deal with Iran agreed on July 14, 2015. Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) introduced legislation to extend the sanctions law for 10 years. Other members are exploring the possibility of introducing bills that focus on the Iranian regime’s financial infrastructure involved in terrorism, missile development, and human rights abuses.
Democrats and Republicans are unhappy with the lack of change in the behavior of the Iranian regime, are considering tougher measures. A Democratic senator who voted for the Iran deal said it is not America’s responsibility to promote foreign investment in Iran, despite efforts by Secretary of State Kerry to encourage investment there. Delaware Senator Chris Coons said on June 23, 2016, “I don’t think it’s our job to act as the chamber of commerce for Tehran.”
Nearly a year after the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, Iranian dissidents in Iraq are more vulnerable than ever to Tehran-sponsored assaults by its militias in Iraq. To prevent them from intensifying attacks on Camp Liberty, Washington could use its diplomatic leverage with Baghdad to protect Iranian oppositionists and expedite their resettlement out of Iraq to Albania. On June 29, 2016, Senator John McCain introduced a bill (S.3114), which calls for the safety and security of Camp Liberty residents as well as their safe and the expeditious resettlement to Albania. Absent political pushback against Iranian militias from the executive branch, such congressional initiatives are a welcome path forward.
The Iranian Fingerprints on Iraq’s Fallujah Plan
Disunity from abroad, tensions at home allowed Tehran to pressure Baghdad into a dramatic departure from the American war strategy.
By Paul D. Shinkman | Senior National Security Writer
June 2, 2016, at 5:00 a.m.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s decision to engage the Islamic State group in Fallujah is about more than defeating the terrorist network. It’s about more than establishing safety in Baghdad, and it’s even about more than securing his own political future.
His abrupt departure from America’s script for the war against the Islamic State group, which prioritizes above all else the liberation of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, shows the strength of the other major international influence in Iraq, and its sway on Baghdad.
Iran has reportedly been pressuring Abadi for weeks, if not months, to prioritize Fallujah. But now domestic tensions in Baghdad and disunity among the world powers that have involved themselves in the conflict have cleared the way for the Islamic republic to have more potency than the U.S., Russia, Turkey or any other world power involved in the conflict.
“Tehran has more influence on Abadi’s focus, whether on Fallujah or anywhere else, than Moscow, Washington and Ankara combined,” says a former U.S. combat commander with extensive experience working with Iraq’s senior leaders. “The political disarray in Baghdad, the strangely wandering American political strategy, and the opaque rationale for what American forces we will commit to what tasks in the worst form of gradual escalation, combine to leave decisions open to a host of inputs from military and civilian policy makers from Baghdad to Tehran, before even considering the enemy’s vote.”
The U.S. has spent the week since Abadi announced his new battlefield priorities downplaying the sudden shift, despite reports that the Iraqis provided only scant notice of the campaign to their American military counterparts. Reports have also emerged that U.S. officials privately don’t agree and are concerned about what opening a new front might mean for the overall success of the war if Iraqi forces get bogged down in a protracted battle.
It became immediately clear this week the fight would not mirror previous liberations of some Iraqi towns where disenfranchised Islamic State group presence almost immediately fled. As Pentagon officials point out, Fallujah serves as the extremist network’s last haven in Iraq’s massive Anbar province, and they won’t withdraw easily.
Iraqi forces began capturing villages on the outskirts of Fallujah soon after the fighting began on Monday but have since been met with fierce resistance from the extremist group’s fighters.
“They intend to put up a fight for it, and we definitely have seen intense fighting for those two days,” Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said Tuesday.
After acknowledging before the effort began that Fallujah offers no tactical benefit in recapturing Mosul, U.S. officials have since publicly backed the new campaign and minimized inconsistencies with the larger strategy. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said last week “we are obviously supportive of this operation” and that the U.S. was very much aware of Iraq’s intentions to shift toward Fallujah, despite claims to the contrary from defense officials who spoke to U.S. News.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, insisted the Iraqi military could continue preparing for the Mosul operation and simultaneously pursue a detour in Fallujah. Army Col. Steve Warren, speaking from the coalition’s headquarters in Baghdad’s Green Zone on Friday, confirmed that the need to retake Fallujah is driven by “political calculus for the civilian leadership of Iraq” and said success there would ease political pressure on Baghdad before refocusing on Mosul.
That pressure, however, is intense. Shiite protesters loyal to powerful cleric and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr have stormed the central Green Zone where the Iraqi government and most foreign embassies are based. Outraged by a lack of reform, protesters in April capped months of popular street demonstrations by occupying and ultimately ransacking the parliament building amid fears the government could collapse.
“We often tend to underestimate the degree of threats to Abadi, particularly from other Shiites,” says Stephen Biddle, formerly an adviser to Gens. Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations. “For most governments like Iraq, internal threats loom larger than external threats, and you can’t just ignore them and treat them as electoral noise. Because that’s how you get killed in a coup d’etat.”
Underscoring concerns that the political instability could hamper the fight against the extremists, the Islamic State group in recent weeks has staged a series of car bombs and suicide attacks in Shiite neighborhoods that marked the group’s return to the terror tactics of its roots, as al-Qaida in Iraq, and exacerbated sectarian tensions.
The long-stalled Mosul operation optimistically appears months away, so targeting Fallujah provides a temporary quick-fix for Abadi politically, using the urgency of the campaign to prove to Iraqis he’s acting to keep them safe. Successfully liberating Fallujah, which is predominantly Sunni, could also earn Abadi some good faith among that constituency nationwide.
But some say that, tactically, his attention is likely misplaced. Fallujah, about 40 miles west of Baghdad, is indeed an Islamic State group haven and source of much of its bomb-making capabilities. However, most of the recent attacks on Baghdad have originated from the north, not the west as would be the case if they came from Fallujah, according to the Institute for the Study of War, which regularly analyzes battle rhythms in Iraq.
Other forces are also at play behind the decision, including influences from Tehran that would like the Shiite majority in Iraq’s government to protect Baghdad from what it sees as the threat posed by the proximity of Sunni extremists, like the Islamic State group, while also solidifying its hold on power.
“Iran does not see a government of Iraq that has a Sunni presence in it,” says Scott Mann, who retired as a lieutenant colonel after 18 years as a U.S. Army Special Forces officer with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. “This is a way to further divide those ethnicities, between Persians and Arabs, and between Sunni and Shiite, and create a more polarized environment around that conflict.
“They know it, and they’re going to seize any opportunity they can to do that. And ISIS is going to do exactly the opposite. They’re going to create those situations, because they know how Iran is going to play it.”
The overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim city of Fallujah has long been associated with combat in Iraq. It served as a headquarters for al-Qaida in Iraq during the last war and witnessed some of the most gruesome fighting, as U.S. forces in two separate campaigns in 2004 engaged in bloody, door-to-door combat to clear the town of the extremist presence.
Complicating the campaign, the Iraqi government has had to rely on overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim militia forces, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, in part due to the the U.S.-led coalition’s limitations on providing ground forces, which leaves Baghdad with few other options for the sheer numbers of fighters it needs. These forces are supposed to remain outside the city, where they help prevent extremists’ lines of escape or reinforcement.
Pictures emerged last week of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Qassem Soleimani’s meeting with leaders from the local Shiite militias, one of the first times he had appeared in public media since his visit to Aleppo, Syria – another central focus of Iran’s fight against enemy forces in the region. That the shadowy Quds Force commander would publicize his whereabouts further emphasizes the degree to which Iran now prioritizes Fallujah.
Iranian proxy forces, like some of the militias, are a critical component to any chance of success in defeating the Islamic State group. They have contributed to most of the fighting to secure the area around Fallujah, particularly to the north, clearing the way for Baghdad’s announcement late Monday that its U.S.-trained counterterrorism commandos had begun the arduous work of actually entering the city to clear it of the Islamic State group presence. This use of various kinds of military forces has produced a winning combination in the past, like for the liberation of Ramadi. But now it faces its most serious challenge as the few hundred Islamic State group fighters in Fallujah dig in and and use the estimated 50,000 local residents held there as human shields.
The U.S. military argues none of the conventional forces used for the Fallujah campaign would be needed in Mosul. Most experts agree, but that doesn’t mean the sudden detour won’t affect America’s fundamental plans for the battlespace.
“Operations like this chew through resources,” says Patrick Martin, research analyst for Iraq with the Institute for the Study of War. “It’s just going to delay everything.”
He cites reports that the U.S.-trained Counter Terrorism Service – considered the most effective Iraqi fighting force on the ground – has grown exhausted by the continuous demand for troops to lead the way in clearing Islamic State group positions.
And fundamental questions about the future of Fallujah remain, Martin says, particularly following widespread concerns that the Shiite militias wish to exact revenge on Sunni populations for their perceived complicity toward the Islamic State group – a key reason why the U.S. refuses to provide air support to ground operations involving the militias. Shiite militias also have reportedly prevented Sunnis from returning to homes they helped liberate.
“We shouldn’t kid ourselves,” Martin says. “This is what pushes the Mosul operation into delaying it indefinitely, because there are still other questions that haven’t been answered yet.”
All sides agree that liberating Fallujah is simply a matter of time. The effect, though, of an Iranian sponsored victory may only further complicate the total war against the Islamic State group.
The heavy presence of Shiite militia encircling Fallujah provide prime fodder for the extremist network to convince their fellow Sunni Muslims that the Iraqi government is beholden to Iran and has no intention of including them among the ruling classes.
“All they have to say is, ‘Look who’s coming. This is your government that is allowing this to happen, backed by the American Air Force. Only we can help you.’ And they do this brilliantly,” says Mann, the former special forces lieutenant colonel.
“In the short term, will it be effective? Probably. It will force ISIS to go to ground. It may kill some and displace some of them,” Mann says. “In my assessment, this is nothing more than mowing the grass.”
At this point, it isn’t clear how much say the U.S. will have in that.
Saudi ambassador’s comments on Popular Mobilization Units stir ire of Iraqis
The Saudi ambassador to Baghdad, Thamer Sabhan, who was appointed to this position by Saudi Arabia on June 2, 2015, has become the most infamous ambassador in Baghdad. Iraqis have been talking extensively about him in the past few weeks because of his statements about the Popular Mobilization Units. The State of Law Coalition considered these statements to be “a threat to civil peace,” while another Sunni bloc, the Alliance of Iraqi Forces, described Sabhan’s remarks as “very natural.”
On Jan. 23, Sabhan appeared in his first television interview with Al-Sumariya since he took office on Dec. 31, 2015. However, his statements sparked a wave of condemnation on both the popular and political levels in Iraq, prompting some political blocs to demand his expulsion from the country.
Sabhan said during the interview, “The refusal by the Kurds and [the Sunni province of] Anbar to let the Popular Mobilization Units come to their regions shows that these units are not accepted by Iraqi society.”
He also addressed a question to the Iraqi government, saying, “Would you accept the presence of forces that are as [much] armed as the Popular Mobilization Units in Shiite areas? And why are the Popular Mobilization Units the only ones being armed?”
The Saudi ambassador accused Iran of “blatantly interfering in the Iraqi internal affairs and of forming armed militias,” while stressing the need to “reach a radical solution to [eliminate] the environment that contributed to the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) and terrorism.”
He added, “The groups behind the attacks in Muqdadiyah are no different than IS, which begs the question: Where do the Popular Mobilization Units stand with regard to the Muqdadiyah incidents?”
Regarding the call of Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa for the dissolution of the Popular Mobilization Units, Sabhan asserted that “whoever listens to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s Friday sermons and Muqtada al-Sadr’s statements can feel the threat that Shiite religious authorities pose.”
The Iraqi division on the reopening of the Saudi Embassy in Baghdad — after Saudi Arabia had cut its diplomatic ties with Iraq following the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 — had been present for a while. Before the Saudi ambassador took office, some political parties had certain reservations, while others welcomed him.
However, the ambassador’s statements provided new material for the internal political conflict, which called for an intervention by the Iraqi Foreign Ministry. The ministry’s official spokesman, Ahmad Jamal, said in a press release on the ministry’s website Jan. 24 that the Saudi ambassador to Baghdad had been summoned the day following his statements.
“Ambassador Sabhan criticized the Popular Mobilization Units that are fighting terrorism and defending the country’s sovereignty, while operating under the umbrella of the [Iraqi] state and under the leadership of the commander in chief of the armed forces. The Popular Mobilization Units also have a parliamentary representation that makes them part of the [Iraqi] political system. In addition, [Sabhan] expressed his opinion to the media about the political position of some of the Iraqis. This is not his role as an ambassador to say such things, and this is an unacceptable violation of diplomatic norms,” the press release read.
The Iraqi Foreign Ministry issued another statement on the same day, after Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari met with his Saudi counterpart, Adel al-Jubeir, during which the latter said, “These statements — in reference to Sabhan’s — do not reflect the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s official position toward Iraq.”
The Saudi ambassador’s statements also stirred mixed reactions from Iraq’s political parties: The Union of National Forces, led by former parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, criticized the Iraqi Foreign Ministry’s response to Sabhan’s statements and described it as “inconsistent.”
Meanwhile, Khalid al-Asadi, member of parliament for the State of Law Coalition headed by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, expressed his discontent with Sabhan’s statements and told Al-Monitor, “Sabhan violated the diplomatic norms and his functions that he should not overstep; he interfered in Iraqi affairs and spoke about the Popular Mobilization Units, which are fighting terrorist organizations that major countries failed to fight despite all their money and armies.”
He added, “Iraq is going through difficult circumstances that require everyone’s support, instead of attempting to divide [the state’s] ranks and undermine its victories against terrorism. This is why we cannot accept Sabhan’s statements, nor do we accept those who repeat them, because they do not serve the interest of either country; next time we will not remain silent, and we will do more than just hand him a written objection.”
After the wave of denunciations against his statements, Sabhan said on Jan. 25 that his comments were altered, and he did not mean to interfere in the internal affairs of any state. Saudi Arabia does not accept any armed group outside the legitimacy of the state, whether it was Sunni or Shiite.
He had said during the same interview with Al-Sumariya TV, “I felt anger coming from all the Sunni politicians that I met in Iraq against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They told me, ‘You left us to face our fate all by ourselves.’”
Sabhan wondered “why there is so much anger on the part of Sunnis against us, while Saudi Arabia is getting involved in Iraq’s internal affairs, knowing that the kingdom does not support a party at the expense of another and always stands by governments, not people or sects. The custodian of the Two Holy Mosques told me in a meeting to look at Iraq and Iraqis with one eye, one heart and one mind, as Iraq needs the help of its brethren. But at the same time the solution should be an internal Iraqi one only.”
Likaa Wardi, a member of parliament for the Union of Nationalist Forces, told Al-Monitor, “Each [political] bloc read the statements made by the Saudi ambassador according to their own policies. Some objected [to] them as the statements contradicted their policies, while others believed they were ordinary statements according to their reading of the situation in Iraq.”
She added, “Iraq and Saudi Arabia need their officials to make statements that serve as a new starting point for [building good] relations between them; they want to avoid any political crisis, and we — as the Union of Nationalist Forces — welcome a positive relationship between Iraq and Saudi Arabia.”
During the opening of the conference for the Union of Islamic Parliaments in Baghdad Jan. 24, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi alluded to Sabhan’s statements, saying, “We welcome all guests in Iraq, and everyone should respect Iraq’s sovereignty and no one should incite to murder.”
In an interview with Al-Monitor, member of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Iraqi parliament Samira al-Moussawi said, “The Saudi ambassador to Baghdad is not qualified to head a diplomatic delegation as he works in the security field, and his statements showed a clear interference in Iraqi affairs.”
She added, “I expected the Iraqi Foreign Ministry to ask its Saudi counterpart to dismiss the ambassador it had recently appointed to Baghdad and replace him with a more diplomatic official who has a [clear] reading of the Iraqi situation. However, the ministry simply summoned [Sabhan] and handed him a written objection.”
Not only was the political class divided over Sabhan’s statements, but the Iraqi street was also divided, as some were even dismissive of his presence in Iraq. A campaign was launched by anonymous activists on social media demanding the expulsion of Sabhan from Baghdad after his controversial statement, in which he also said, “The Kurds and the residents of Anbar province do not accept the Popular Mobilization Units and rejected their entry to their provinces.”
Meanwhile, Mushreq Abbas, head of the Iraqi Media House, told Al-Monitor, “The Iraqi disagreement is not over the ambassador; it is a deep-rooted conflict about foreign relations and the management of the country’s affairs. Any conflict over a certain principle paves the way for any other disagreement, and we have not seen an Iraqi agreement over any issue for the past 10 years.”
He said, “Iraq has a problem with foreign relations, as it lacks an internal agreement on unifying the visions toward certain positions. When Iraqis [finally] find a mechanism to define the situation internally, then everyone will stand against any external [position] that violates the one they had agreed upon.”
The Union for Nationalist Forces exploited the media attack against Sabhan and its member of parliament, Wardi, saying Jan. 25 to those who criticize him, “We are surprised by the attack against the Saudi ambassador; where were you when provocative statements from Iranian officials were being made against Iraq?”
The conflict between those who support the opening of the Saudi Embassy in Baghdad and those who object it is expected to last, which will create a new political conflict in Iraq that could develop into disputes affecting the internal files over which an agreement has yet to be reached.
Over the course of its armed struggle with the self-proclaimed Islamic State, Iraq has devolved into a state captured by militias and foreign powers. The instability caused by a revived insurgency that took over Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul in June 2014 has facilitated the emergence of new armed actors and deepened the influence of older ones. The level of security engagement Baghdad receives from the West, including cooperation with the 60-nation coalition against the Islamic State, has not strengthened Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s position. His government remains fragile and fragmented, unable to consolidate power and exercise authority over militias that have become necessary in its fight against the Islamic State. In addition, the prime minister is constrained by the inertia of the political system and the vested interests of powerful actors from his own Shiite sect that are averse to reform. Today, his position grows more uncertain as an intra-Shiite Arab power struggle threatens to upend his tenure.
Iraq’s Hodgepodge Government
In early November, Abadi’s efforts to implement a reform agenda that intended to tackle a corrupt and dysfunctional political system were decisively defeated in a unanimous vote in Parliament. From then on, his reform initiatives, which were announced in the summer of 2015 in response to mass demonstrations in Baghdad and southern Iraq, will require Parliament’s approval. This limits any unilateral power the prime minister has to shape Iraq going forward. Opposition to his proposed reforms exposed his vulnerability, which is now visible not only to the public but also to his political rivals. Indeed, despite waging a war focused on reclaiming lost territory on Iraq’s periphery, Baghdad is now preoccupied with a dangerous power struggle within the political establishment that Iran had worked for years to cultivate.
For Abadi, it is not the military threat posed by the Islamic State, per se, that looms over his premiership. Instead, the real threat to his leadership, and perhaps to U.S. interests to maintain an allied government in Baghdad, is an intra-Shiite contest for political authority. This competition is occurring within a fragmented government led by a prime minister who depends for his political survival on the very same forces threatening that survival. Indeed, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose autocratic and sectarian leadership the West blames for Iraq’s ills, has leveraged his prior relationships with pro-Iran Shiite militias and managed to make a potential comeback to threaten his successor. Abadi also faces challenges to his authority from other Shiite figures aligned with Iran, who, at best, effectively limit his power, and, at worst, could attempt to unseat him.
This intra-Shiite power struggle is rooted in Shiite militias’ ascent toward becoming the state’s primary security force. Their remobilization into a force comprising over 50 entities has occurred in the context of a revived Sunni insurgency, the unraveling of the state’s formal security institutions and the transition of power from Maliki to Abadi. While the mix of these factors has informed the current crisis in Baghdad, the main culprit is the ill-conceived framework that has characterized Iraq’s post-Saddam political system.
Strong nonstate forces alone do not explain the weak central government in Baghdad, which is plagued by its very political arrangement: consociational democracy. The logic of consociational political systems—or comprehensive power-sharing governments—is grounded in conflict prevention. Within deeply divided societies, particularly those with significant ethnic and religious diversity, such arrangements aim to solidify consensus-driven politics to avoid relapse toward civil war. In Iraq, no party represented in Parliament is excluded from the governing coalition or the executive government. By giving all components of society a share and stake in the state, it becomes more costly for any party to opt out of the political process.
Unfortunately, this power-sharing system, which the U.S. backs and helped install, has proven to be of little value toward stability, unity or democratic development in Iraq. By any standard, the complex arrangement has, rather than representing a functional governing coalition, created a hodgepodge government. Because the parties lack uniformity, the system has been too incoherent and indecisive to confront Iraq’s daunting state-building and nation-building challenges. Its decision-making process was based on a broad consensus model, whereby resolutions were diluted to the lowest common denominator, requiring agreement among all major factions in order for an initiative to proceed. Indeed, the more individual actors added to a collective body, the more diverse and incoherent its interests and constituencies become.
Rather than guaranteeing consensus or facilitating a progressive dialogue in Parliament, the inclusion of all major political factions into the executive government has institutionalized the fault lines of political contestation. Thus far, national elections in post-Saddam Iraq have done little to bring a legitimate central government that acts on behalf of the electorate. Instead, they have elevated and strengthened localized centers of power, which, despite being part of the government, often undermine the prime minister and keep him weak and dependent. This creates strong incentives for any prime minister to attempt to consolidate power or risk losing the capacity to govern autonomously, held hostage by other powerful actors within the coalition. The weak central government in Baghdad is plagued by its very political arrangement: consociational democracy.In effect, the structure of the political system the U.S. helped to put in place has fueled an unstable cycle of contentious politics in Iraq, prone to crises that increase the potential for armed conflict. The transition of power from Maliki to Abadi was bound to be unstable, especially during a time of civil war. Unfortunately, the U.S. incorrectly assumed that authority in Iraq was vested in the office of the prime minister, not with the personalities and the patronage networks the holder of that office, as well as rival political actors, wield.
Abadi’s Weak Hand
Since forming his government in September 2014, Abadi has struggled to shape and advance his initiatives and policies, either regarding military strategy against the Islamic State or political and economic reforms. Unlike when Maliki occupied the premiership, Abadi’s role as prime minister is relatively weak, constrained by his position within his own party and the parliamentary coalition, both of which are led by his predecessor. Abadi’s inability to push through the so-called national guard initiative—a major Sunni demand that aims to establish locally recruited and legal armed forces at the provincial level—convinced the Sunni political class early on that he was a paralyzed premier without the power to deliver on their demands.
However, mass demonstrations emerged last summer on the streets of Baghdad and southern Iraq, with participants protesting rampant corruption and the lack of basic services, notably power shortages during a devastating heat wave. Recognizing Iraqis’ growing dissatisfaction and frustration, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered religious figure within Shiite Islam, signaled the need for the new government to implement reforms to fight corruption. But instead of carefully adapting his efforts and recognizing his political vulnerability, Abadi unwisely chose to utilize his newfound clout to undermine his rivals. In August 2015, he announced that he would abolish Iraq’s three vice presidencies, thereby cutting off a critical source of patronage power and immunity for the current holders of the office.
In order to save face and avoid being perceived as opposed to fighting corruption by undermining Sistani’s position, Iraq’s political class expressed public support for Abadi’s agenda. However, in private, they were concerned, and many wondered who it was backing Abadi to give him the confidence and bravado to ignore his constraints and cut against the grain of Iraqi politics. After all, his reform package came as a surprise, since he announced it without consulting a single coalition partner. But over time, the answer became clear: Abadi was not acting on behalf of a foreign power, but taking advantage of the situation to empower himself vis-a-vis his rivals. That led his rivals, who are typically divided among themselves, to unify against the prime minister’s misplaced confidence.
Instead of generating authority from his political position, Abadi largely borrowed his legitimacy from Najaf, Iraq’s Shiite religious establishment. Iraq is, more or less, a soft theocracy: Although political decision-making may not be concentrated in the hands of clerics, there are direct and indirect consequences of attaining or exercising power without their tacit support. Maliki was forced to leave office not only because he had lost Najaf’s support, but because his missteps were so grave that they prompted the clerical leadership to intervene politically to prevent him from securing a third term. Similarly, it was only Sistani’s public blessing that gave Abadi the political clout necessary to announce an ambitious reform package that directly clashed with the interests of his rivals. But Sistani’s endorsement, though powerful, cannot by itself empower Abadi to overcome the inertia inherent to the system, an inertia rooted in the deep-seated interests of Iraq’s political class.
The prime minster’s dilemma is defined by his practical weakness and political vulnerability. He neither has the credibility to make concessions nor the capability to carry out his will. Indeed, despite being head of government, Abadi is far from holding a monopoly over executive authority. Whenever he has tried to exercise authority out of line with the interests of his Shiite backers, his initiatives were not implemented. That is because Abadi did not come to power out of any legitimacy he had previously accumulated. He had no real constituency on the ground, did not lead any party or coalition, and most importantly missed the strategic opportunities required to broker necessary alliances with other political leaders.
As was the case when Maliki came to power in 2006, Abadi was awarded the premiership as a compromise choice among Shiite powerbrokers. He was chosen not because of any eagerness to see him become the new prime minister, but simply to replace the previous one. But unlike Abadi, Maliki had the presence of the U.S. military to serve as a safety net and pave his way toward consolidating and centralizing power at the expense of his rivals.
In 2008, knowing well that the American military would bail him out, Maliki took unilateral action—against U.S. advice—to militarily confront the firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Jaysh al-Mahdi militia. The Washington establishment subsequently hailed Maliki’s bold actions to tackle his own sect’s militias, painting him as an Iraqi nationalist. But this attribution mistook the structural incentives shaped by Maliki’s political environment for a personal sense of duty. The military offensive against the most feared and powerful Shiite militia was never about nationalism. It was about survival and consolidating authority against other centers of power. Maliki wasn’t building a nation; he was building a regime.
Unequipped with Maliki’s U.S. security blanket, Abadi has attempted to consolidate power through reform. In other words, he has masked his goal to consolidate power behind the idealist cosmetics of fighting corruption, in so doing generating a degree of political and international support from the West. Abadi’s purge of many Iraqi security officials in late 2014 was not as much about “fighting corruption” and “nepotism,” as he suggested at the time, as it was about building a regime loyal to him rather than to Maliki. Indeed, despite the fact that both individuals come from the same Shiite Islamist party, the new premier was never going to let his predecessor’s security architecture remain intact. To do so would jeopardize his political survival.
Shiite Militias and Cyclic Strategy
As the government battles the Islamic State, another threat has emerged in Iraq: Shiite militarization. The re-emergence of Shiite militias is a product of the Iraqi armed forces’ dismal performance against Sunni insurgents in 2013 and early 2014. That experience, combined with the effectiveness of Shiite militias—most notably Hezbollah—fighting in Syria’s civil war on behalf of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, led Maliki to believe that countering Sunni militants in Iraq would similarly require employing Shiite militias. Today, a symbiotic relationship has formed between the irregular combatants, whereby the existence of Sunni insurgents perpetuates the need for Shiite militias and vice versa.
When the U.S. military had completed its withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011, Iran-backed Shiite militias began turning toward politics to maintain their organizational survival. But as the civil war in Syria evolved into a sectarian and regional proxy war, its convergence with Iraq’s insurgency grew, thereby creating a venue for Shiite militias to enhance their membership, renew their militarized cause and fill their coffers. Indeed, even before Mosul fell to the Islamic State in June 2014, Iraq’s Shiite militias had already fought in Syria against Sunni insurgents.
However, once Mosul fell amid mass desertion by multiple divisions of Iraq’s army, a radically new strategic environment emerged for militia formation in Iraq. Indeed, despite the Iraqi armed forces’ overall poor performance in battling insurgents, it was their unraveling that created an institutional void in the state security apparatus. With the need for heightened security, Sistani issued an unprecedented fatwa calling for Iraqis to volunteer and defend the state. Tens of thousands of Shiite Iraqis would soon be recruited, enhancing the power of well-established Iran-backed militias such as the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, but also leading to the emergence of new ones.
Unlike the Islamic State, which is deemed an outright enemy of the state, Iraq’s Shiite militias have never fit neatly into any category. In their current iteration, they are an extension of the Iraqi state. From their formal representation in Parliament to their direct relations with foreign governments, the new institutional demand for security has functionally integrated Shiite militias into the Iraqi security apparatus, to the point that U.S. military assistance empowers them as well. Indeed, Mohammed al-Ghabban, a senior member of the Badr Organization, Iraq’s most powerful militia, is also the minister of the interior.
In general, militias form within weak states facing insurgent threats. But as the state builds its capacity to reassert its sovereignty and monopoly over force, the question emerges of how to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate these unofficial forces into an official framework. During the counterinsurgency years under the U.S. military occupation, Shiite militias were integrated into Iraq’s armed forces. Once integrated, however, they failed to transcend their own informal networks, corruption and sectarianism, which in turn infested the country’s security apparatus.
The re-emergence of militias is remaking the character and arrangement of Iraq’s security institutions and beyond. Political leaders and parties are leveraging the mobilization of militias in an attempt to translate hard power into electoral outcomes in hopes of shifting the political landscape in their favor. This structural incentive could lead to armed electoral politics, which is not unprecedented in post-Saddam Iraq, notably by the armed counterparts of Shiite political parties in 2005-2007. In addition, when the Islamic State is eventually neutralized in Iraq, militias could establish their own political entities to ensure their survival.
While these scenarios would destabilize Iraqi politics, the relationship between Sunni insurgency and Shiite militarization, both of which diminish state sovereignty, is particularly dangerous. The former aims to chip away at the state from the outside, but the growth of the latter is rotting it from within. In this dual, mutually reinforcing process, Abadi will likely continue losing authority over the security sector and remain a weak partner for the United States.
Today, there are well over 50 militias in Iraq under an umbrella organization—Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization—that, in theory, is supposed to report to the prime minister. But in practice, the real authority does not appear to be with Abadi, but rather with the leaders of that organization, who are closely aligned with Iran. In fact, the military campaign against the Islamic State in Tikrit that took place in March commenced without the involvement, or even the knowledge, of either the minister of defense or the prime minister.
Despite the fact that it controls roughly a third of Iraq’s territory, the Islamic State is not the major threat to Abadi’s regime. Rather, it is those closest to his political base. If concentric circles were used to depict the various threats that Iraq’s leader faces, the innermost would be his own party, while subsequent ones would include a diverse array of Shiite powerbrokers. The Islamic State would be the outermost circle—for Abadi, a distant threat. However, he is keen to defeat the Islamic State under his supervision and at the hands of armed forces under his control because it would buy him political prestige and power.
Contestation Under Abadi
Since Maliki was forced to relinquish the premiership in 2014, power and authority have become diffused across Iraq. Various players, both internal and external, are now exercising unchecked control over the use of force. This could potentially create conditions leading to a wider, armed contestation among the country’s political factions. The growing inability to monopolize the legitimate use of violence is the primary criteria for a failed state. Thus, Abadi’s state is much less of an autonomous regime than Maliki’s was, and is more accurately characterized as an arena of contestation among various forces.
Even beyond the many actors exercising power over the use of force, the elements of authority and legitimacy among the political classes of Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis are becoming fragmented. Not too many years ago, a simplified schemata of political authority in Iraq would more or less have included two Kurds: Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani; four Sunnis: Tariq al-Hashimi, Osama al-Nujaifi, Saleh al-Mutlaq and Rafi al-Issawi; and three Shiites: Ammar al-Hakim, Nouri al-Maliki and Muqtada al-Sadr. Today, there are far more players emerging within each ethno-sectarian community, complicating any U.S. engagement strategy in Iraq. A mixture of failing older political forces and rising new ones has devolved and redistributed power, fueling intra-sectarian contestation in the reconfiguration of political order.
The U.S. decision to reboot its security relationship with Iraq had multiple objectives: to help strengthen an allied government that was growing more fragile, to cultivate influence in Iraq at the expense of Iran, and to give Iraq the resources to counter the Islamic State. However, this diplomatic and military assistance has occurred as the Iraqi government faces an authority crisis. This means that Washington cannot effectively utilize coercive diplomacy and pressure toward Baghdad, making it unable to control either where its arms end up or the objective for which they are used.
It is uncertain if a consolidated government can emerge in Baghdad, either under Abadi or any future leadership. The Iraqi state is unraveling, having lost its monopoly over force and its grip on centralized authority. However, Washington continues to misdiagnose the Islamic State as the source rather than symptom of Iraq’s deeper ills. This fixation on defeating the militant organization has led to shortsighted policies with dangerous consequences. Today, U.S. policymakers are threatening to bypass Iraq’s government and directly arm the Kurds and Sunni Arabs. Although this is driven by frustration with the politics in Baghdad, it is a policy that lacks strategic consideration and foresight. If pursued, its backers must accept the risk that arming these groups could exacerbate the fragmentation of Iraq, undermine the government’s authority and further strengthen the logic sustaining militias.
Ramzy Mardini is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He can be followed on Twitter at @RamzyMardini.
Iraqi Shiite militia promotes training camp named after Qods Force general
BY BILL ROGGIO AND CALEB WEISS | September 19, 2015 | firstname.lastname@example.org |
Saraya al Khorasani, an Iranian-backed Shiite militia that operates alongside the Iraqi military, released a short video advertising one of its training camps. The location of the facility is unknown, however, the beginning of the video includes an aerial shot in Iraq’s western province of Anbar.
The training camp is called the “Sheikh Hajj Hamid Taqavi training center.” It is named after Hamid Taqavi, an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps – Qods Force general who was killed by an Islamic State sniper late last year. Taqavi served as a military adviser to Saraya al Khorasani when he was killed.
Taqavi was lauded by the Shiite militia after his death. Ali al Yasiri, the group’s leader, described Taqavi as “an expert at guerrilla war” and said that “People looked at him as magical,” Reuters reported. The militia also put up billboards praising Taqavi throughout Baghdad and published videos online to commemorate the Iranian general.
The latest video released by the group also includes appearancea by al Yasiri, as well as Hamid al Jaza’iri, who has been identified as the “deputy secretary general” of Saraya al Khorasani and the commander of its “18th Brigade.” In one shot, Yasiri and Jaza’iri are shown walking with an unidentified figure. The producers of the video attempt to distort his face to prevent him from being identified, however he can be seen for a split-second.
Saraya al Khorasani was one of several Iranian-backed Shiite militias that were involved in the operation that captured the central Iraqi city of Tikrit from the Islamic State earlier this year.
The Iraqi government has relied on Iranian-supported militias to oppose the Islamic State. In addition to Tikrit, these militias, many of which are led by US-listed Specially Designated Global Terrorists, have helped eject the Islamic State from Amerli, Jurf al Sakhar, and smaller towns and villages in Diyala and Salahaddin province. The Shiite militias are currently involved in the fighting in Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar province, and Baiji in Salahaddin.
The Shiite militias fall under the command of the Popular Mobilization Committee, or Popular Mobilization Forces, which was created after the Islamic State took control of vast areas of northern and central Iraq in June 2014. The Popular Mobilization Committee is directed by Muhandis, who is closely tied to Iran and Soleimani. Many of the largest and most powerful Shiite militias in the Popular Mobilization Committee, such as Hezbollah Brigades, Asaib al Haq (the League of the Righteous), Saraya al Salam (Muqtada al Sadr’s Peace Brigades), Harakat Nujaba, and the Imam Ali Brigades remain actively hostile to the US to this day.
Qods Force has been instrumental in supporting Shiite militias inside Iran, and has done so since the US invaded Iraq in 2003. Qods Force, with the help of Hezbollah, helped establish militias such as the Mahdi Army, Asaib al Haq, and Hezbollah Brigades between 2003 and 2006. These militias, which the US military previously described as the “Special Groups,” are responsible for killing hundreds of US soldiers between 2004 and 2011. [See LWJ report, Iran’s Ramazan Corps and the ratlines into Iraq.]
Dispatch from Iraq: Iran-Backed Militias Keep ISIS at Bay, for a Price
Originally published under the title, “Iraq Falls Apart as Iran-backed Forces Keep Islamic State at Bay.” References to “Inquirer,” a section of The Australian weekend edition, have been replaced in this version with the first person pronoun.
July 4, 2015
Shia militiamen are becoming a fixture of daily life in the Iraqi capital.
Baghdad in the early summer has the atmosphere of a city under siege. Armoured vehicles carrying heavy machine guns are patrolling the area surrounding the international airport. The nearest positions of Islamic State are just 65km away. The atmosphere is fervid. The 40 °C summer heat adds to the effect.
The Islamic State threat pervades everything here. It is there in the muscular armed men deployed outside the luxury hotels. In the barbed-wire fences and heavy iron gates protecting the residences of the remaining foreigners. In the quick and suspicious glances passing between strangers.
Islamic State is surely already organising in the city, unseen. As it did in Ramadi and in Mosul, in Fallujah and all the way to Raqqa far to the west long before that. The mysterious explosions have already begun. Car bombings hit the parking lots of the Cristal and Babil hotels on May 28: 15 killed, 42 injured. No one thinks these will be the last.
The form that the defence against the Sunni jihadists is taking is also plain. At every intersection, on every wall, on every corner, the banners of Iraq’s Shia militias blare out their allegiance. The slogan “At your service, O Hussein” — referring to the greatest martyr of the Shiites, killed by the Sunni Ummayads at the battle of Karbala in 680 AD — is everywhere. It is there next to the countless banners and posters of Hussein’s serene, bearded visage that one sees all around. It is there, too, amid the ubiquitous militia billboards, alongside pictures of ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini, Ali Khamenei, Mohammed al-Sadr and Ali al-Sistani.
The same Shia sectarian slogan can be glimpsed on the wall of the Iraqi Army checkpoint on the road from the airport. At your service, o Hussein. That is to say, the defence of Baghdad against Islamic State is not taking place in the name of Iraq. The men doing the fighting and dying are there as Shiites. This applies even to many or most of those wearing the uniforms of the official Iraqi Security Forces.
But it apples to a hundred-fold more clearly to the organisations that are bearing the brunt of the actual fight against the Sunni jihadists — in Baiji, in Anbar province and elsewhere. These are the Shia militias.
The militias are irregular political-military formations, organised on openly sectarian lines and flying openly sectarian banners. The most significant of them are supported by Iran. Their field commander is a man who may very well be a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. And it is they, under the collective banner of what is called the Popular Mobilisation in Iraq, who today form the key armed force in the government-controlled areas of central and southern Iraq, including the capital Baghdad.
So the sectarian balance in Iraq has shifted decisively in favour of the Shia Arab majority. The representatives of this population are wasting no time in asserting their ascendancy. Yet the meaning of all this may well be the permanent fragmentation of the country into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish enclaves, rather than Shia domination of the entire territory still formally called Iraq. That is, rather than acquiring a new ruling caste, the country may well be ceasing to exist, replaced by a chaotic territory ruled by and divided between rival political-military organisations.
How did this situation come about? And what does it mean for the future?
The story begins in June last year. The forces of Islamic State were erupting across the border from Syria. Mosul had fallen. Salahuddin, Anbar, Diyala and Kirkuk had gone the same way. Irbil and Baghdad looked like being next. The US-trained Iraqi armed forces melted away under the hammer blows of the Sunni jihadist fighters.
Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a fatwa on June 13 calling on all able-bodied men to take up arms against Islamic State.
On June 13, Ayatollah Sistani, the most venerated Shia cleric in Iraq, issued a fatwa declaring a limited jihad to turn back the advancing Islamic State forces. Thousands of young Iraqi Shia men began to enlist in existing Shia militias or to form new such groups. Sistani himself did not seek to play any further active role in organising the mobilisation he had called for. Instead, on June 15 the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior announced the formation of a Popular Mobilisation Committee, to be headed by Falih al-Fayyadh, who also serves as national security adviser to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
From the outset this committee has played a liaison role between the various militias, rather than one of direction and leadership. The militias have their own leadership structures. They are not taking orders from Abadi.
From whom, then, are they taking orders? The answer is clear, and it is not encouraging.
The leadership of three of the four most powerful militia bodies is linked to Iran. The militias in question — the Badr Organisation, the Kata’ib Hizballah group and the Asaib ahl al-Haq — receive direct assistance from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The fourth, the Saraya al-Salam militia of Moqtada al-Sadr, is also pro-Iranian and aided by Iran but maintains a greater degree of independence.
The field commander of the Popular Mobilisation forces is a grey-bearded man in his 60s from the southern Iraqi city of Basra. His name is Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and he is a close adviser to Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force. Muhandis is also a former member of the Shia Islamist Dawa Party and a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, in which he fought on the Iranian side.
The central role of the Revolutionary Guards in training, equipping and advising the militias is not a closely guarded secret. It is openly acknowledged by senior members and opponents of the Popular Mobilisation Forces.
The militias are political as well as military organisations. Their power in Iraq goes beyond the possession of guns.
Popular Mobilisation forces field commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (right) with Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani (center) and Imam Ali Brigade leader Shebl al Zaydi (left).
The Interior Ministry, of which the Popular Mobilisation Committee is a part, is controlled by a representative of the Badr Organisation, a pro-Iranian Iraqi Shia movement. Badr’s leader, Hadi al-Ameri, is universally acknowledged to be the real decision-maker at the ministry.
This means the federal police, an additional significant element of the Iraqi Security Forces, is also under the de facto control of a representative of the militias.
It is this militia conglomerate, sectarian in nature, backed and trained by Iran, not answerable to any elected authority, that is the main force facing Islamic State on the key fronts to the north of Baghdad and to its west.
At a small facility in the town of Mizra’a, just south of the frontline in Baiji city, I catch up with Muhandis minutes after he has briefed a group of senior commanders from the militias and the army.
The scene is an instructive one. A room full of uniforms. Some with the insignia and emblems of the Iraqi Army. Some in the blue of the federal police, some in the drab camouflage and mix-and-match of the militias. These are not junior personnel. They include, for example, Major-General Juma Anad al-Jubouri, commander of the Iraqi Security Forces in the whole of embattled Salahuddin province.
But all the men present defer to Muhandis, ostensibly a civilian, who is the only speaker at the meeting.
Muhandis is quite open about the leading role of the Shia militias as we talk in the dusty courtyard after the briefing, with militia fighters and commanders all around us eating a hastily prepared lunch. “The Hashed (Popular Mobilisation) is playing the main role currently,” he says, “and it is now planning and leading large operations — in full co-operation with the army.”
“The army has weapons and capabilities we don’t have. The federal police are also playing a role. But we have planning and management, and we have the enthusiastic fighters.”
He is openly contemptuous of the efforts of the US and its allies in Iraq. “US support has not led to the retaking of Mosul. It didn’t prevent Baiji. It couldn’t regain Anbar. Instead, Ramadi has fallen,” Muhandis says. The militias, meanwhile, “rely on capacity and capabilities provided by the Islamic Republic of Iran”.
Asaib ahl al-Haq fighters operating in Baiji last month
All the same, the militias and their allies have not yet defeated Islamic State in Baiji. Earlier news reports had suggested the city was fully in the hands of the government. But Muhandis admits that the Sunni jihadists are still in control of half of it. Our entry into even the liberated half has had to be aborted because of heavy gunfire ahead. Evidently, Baiji is still contested.
The city matters because it is the next landmark on the road leading north from Baghdad, via Tikrit (recaptured in April) and eventually to Mosul, the jewel in the crown for Islamic State in Iraq.
But the most crucial front for the militias at present is Anbar province, west of the capital. The focal point of the Anbar front right now is Ramadi city, the provincial capital. It is close to Baghdad, situated on the Euphrates river and adjacent to highways connecting Baghdad to the Jordanian and Syrian borders. Its fall in May made nonsense of Iraqi government claims that the tide had turned in the war against Islamic State.
I have travelled to the frontline 10 km east of Ramadi, accompanying fighters of the Kata’ib Hizballah group. This is a smaller, more disciplined and ideological force than Badr. It regards itself — and is widely regarded by others — as the spearhead of the Popular Mobilisation forces, carrying out the most complex and dangerous missions. It is also (unlike Badr) on the list of US-designated terrorist groups.
Kata’ib Hizballah fighters have a reputation for discipline and ideological fervour.
One young man, his face reconstructed after a terrible wound received in an improvised explosive device blast but back on active service, says: “ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is a terrorist organisation. It has no religion” — sentiments any Western leader could agree with and probably echo. But then he continues: “It is supported by the US, Saudi Arabia, Israel and others. We are trying to fight them, but the Americans come and bomb us and that allows ISIS to run away.”
What is the proof, I ask, that the Americans are aiding Islamic State?
A chorus of fighters begins to offer what they maintain are their experiences of this phenomenon. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes,” says the burned man. “They parachute aid, weapons and clothing and they drop it to ISIS.”
These claims are later echoed by the regional commander of Kata’ib Hizballah in Khaldiyeh, of which Husaybah is a part. Declining to give his name, he says: “America is not fighting ISIS. America is helping ISIS. In Tikrit, we had ISIS surrounded. But the US air intervention prevented us from advancing. The US put pressure on the Iraqi government to slow the advance. They put a spoke in the wheels.” The commander adds: “If it weren’t for Iran’s intervention, ISIS would have made it to the east and the south. Iran is the only one that was faithful.”
What about Kata’ib’s relations with other groups supported by Iran? With the Lebanese Hezbollah? With Hamas?
“All the Islamic resistance movements come from one womb. So yes, without entering into details, we have a relationship with all these movements.” The commander had joined Kata’ib back when the US was still in Iraq — “to resist the (American) occupation,” he says.
The frontline east of Ramadi is static for the time being. Husaybah is a built-up area and the two sides are facing each other at a distance of about 100m.
“There is sniping during the day and mortar fire at night,” says one of the young Kata’ib fighters manning the positions furthest forward. From a hole cut in the wall of one of the houses, the Islamic State fighters could clearly be seen: tiny, black-clad figures moving rapidly across an exposed point.
The Kata’ib fighters are clearly highly motivated, and well trained in the tactics of light infantry and guerilla warfare. They are all young, their equipment is clearly well-maintained, and they are ready for action at a moment’s notice. Kata’ib, according to several accounts, was the factor that stabilised the anti-Islamic State forces in Husaybah, beginning the process whereby the advance of the Sunni jihadists stalled as they sought to push east from newly conquered Ramadi.
The source of their motivation is not in question. “We have religious enthusiasm and we love our country,” as the commander in Khaldiyeh puts it. A bearded, red-eyed fighter in Husaybah expresses it in rawer terms: “We don’t rely on America. We rely on God and the family of Mohammed. And Kata’ib Hizballah. We rely on ourselves. And if anyone tries to break in here we’ll cut off his hands.”
For Iraq’s Sunnis, the rise of the militias is deeply worrying. Documentary evidence has already emerged of widespread sectarian violence directed against Sunni communities in the wake of the militias’ advances.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have issued reports detailing looting of homes and abuse of Sunni civilians by the militias in Baghdad, Samarra, and Kirkuk. An Amnesty investigation is under way into similar allegations regarding militia actions in Tikrit.
The militias, for their part, predictably reject all such allegations. But it is clear that for many Iraqi Sunnis, the rise of the Shia armed groups is a key element in the emergence of an Iraq in which the long dominant Sunni Arabs are set to constitute a vulnerable minority.
Hamed al-Mutlaq, an MP for the Iraqi List grouping and a Sunni from Anbar, sums up the situation: “De facto, Iraq is now divided,” he says. “In fact, worse than divided. The Kurds and the Shiites are safe in their areas. But the Sunni component has no existence and is displaced. Those who remain are under the sword either of ISIS or of the Shia militias.
“The militias are no different from ISIS,” he continues. “The Iranian intervention is no different from ISIS.”
The Iranian intervention, as Mutlaq calls it, is the key element in all this. As things stand, Tehran stands to dominate the oil-rich south of Iraq and the capital, even if the Kurdish north and parts of the Sunni centre remain out of reach. This already constitutes a major achievement for the Iranians. As to whether their forces can defeat the Sunni jihadists or merely contain them, this remains to be seen. Tehran may even prefer to leave Islamic State in place while it consolidates its hold over the parts of Iraq with which it is mainly concerned.
Meanwhile, the militias of the Popular Mobilisation remain the key element preventing a push by the Islamic State towards the Iraqi capital. The fighters of Kata’ib Hizballah and Islamic State, rival Islamist forces, continue to face off against each other with only a narrow stretch of parched ground and ruined buildings separating them in Anbar province.
The militiamen travel easily through the roadblocks of the army and the federal police outside Baghdad. Back in the city, their banners and billboards are everywhere, giving this ancient city the look of a Shia capital under siege.
As for the future, none of the Shia fighters I speak to mentions the possibility of disbanding the Popular Mobilisation if and when Islamic State is defeated (which anyway is not imminent). It looks as if Kata’ib Hizballah, Badr and the rest of them are set to play a key role in the area that was once Iraq. Welcome to militialand.
Jonathan Spyer, a fellow at the Middle East Forum, is director of the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs and the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2011).