Iran’s Shiite Militias Are Running Amok in Iraq
And the White House is still pretending it hasn’t unleashed demons on the country it once could have saved.
Countless memories haunt me after a decade of service in Iraq. Gripping the hands of an assassin-felled member of the provisional government as the life slipped out of her body in 2003; watching al Qaeda’s beheadings of American hostages in 2004; seeing photos of young Sunni prisoners raped and tortured by Iran-backed Shiite militias serving within the Iraqi police in 2005; and sitting helplessly at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad as news came in of al Qaeda’s 2006 bombing of al-Askari Mosque, one of the holiest sites for Shiite Islam, ushering in the civil war.
But after countless visits to Arlington National Cemetery and Walter Reed Medical Center, nothing upsets me more than the fact that thousands of American soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, and contractors are now enabling and emboldening a government in Baghdad that is simply beyond redemption.
It took the fall of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, for Western elites to finally begin to understand what many of us saw firsthand in the years since 2003: The Iraqi government is hopelessly sectarian, corrupt, and generally unfit to govern what could be one of the world’s most prosperous nations. Washington’s response to the Islamic State’s (IS) advance, however, has been disgraceful: The United States is now acting as the air force, the armory, and the diplomatic cover for Iraqi militias that are committing some of the worst human rights abuses on the planet. These are “allies” that are actually beholden to our strategic foe, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and which often resort to the same vile tactics as the Islamic State itself.
The dictatorship of Saddam Hussein was branded the “Republic of Fear” due to its wanton disregard for the sanctity of human life. Saddam’s abuses were legendary: The invasion of Iran in 1980, where his forces employed chemical and biological weapons; the genocide of more than 100,000 Kurds during the Anfal campaign; the invasion of Kuwait in 1990; and 1991’s massacre of Shiites in Karbala are only a few examples of his gruesome handiwork.
Post-2003 Iraq was supposed to be different. Throughout the past decade, however, countless NGOs and international news organizations have borne witness to the accelerating pace of abuses. The Republic of Fear is being reborn.
Perhaps the most vivid and disturbing evidence that the Iraqi government simply does not share America’s core values emerged on Feb. 6. In a grainy video posted on YouTube, a three-minute horror show plays out on the front lines somewhere in Iraq. Iraqi military officers and presumably Shiite militiamen — dressed in black, skull-adorned “Sons of Anarchy” shirts — crowd an ambulance emblazoned with the Iraqi state seal. Inside, a blindfolded and hog-tied man in military fatigues pleads for mercy as the Iraqi vigilantes beat him over the head, taunting him with expletives.
“We will f— your sisters,” they shout.
“No, God,” the prisoner weeps.
One of the vigilantes picks up a metal toolbox and slams it down on the crying man, as others enter the ambulance to beat and kick the helpless prisoner. A minute into the video, the man is dragged out of the ambulance and onto the ground, still blindfolded, arms bound behind his back. A dozen fighters surround him and begin kicking him until he lies motionless, blood dripping from his head. With some yelling “enough,” a man in camouflaged trousers walks up to the prisoner and beats him over the head repeatedly with a sandal, a gesture of monumental insult. Another man, also in camouflaged trousers, leaps up twice and lands with his full weight on the detainee’s skull. A third man, in full military uniform, kicks and punches the hemorrhaging man, whose blood spills across the sand below.
In the final horrific minute, the vigilantes carry the man a few feet away and drop him to the ground. Several men armed with U.S.-supplied M4 rifles then empty several magazines — perhaps more than 100 rounds — into the man.
The video concludes with one man chillingly yelling, “Enough! What’s wrong with you?”
Any viewer capable of understanding the dialogue overlaying the savage imagery is left in utter shock. But that emotion should soon be replaced by rage, as the realization sets in that countless American lives, families, and taxpayer dollars were sacrificed — and are being risked today — to facilitate such brazen cruelty.
Twitter is abuzz with speculation about the victim’s identity. A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter? An Islamic State spy? Regardless, one thing is clear: These were 196 vivid seconds of a lynching, a field execution, an Iraqi government and Shiite militia-orchestrated war crime broadcast around the world. And the sad reality is that this killing was facilitated by the White House.
Since assuming office in 2009, President Barack Obama and his national security team have turned a blind eye toward the growing crisis in Iraq. They seem to have simply hoped that Bush’s “dumb war,” as Obama once described it, would not distract them from a domestic-driven agenda. Even as the cancer at the heart of the Iraqi government metastasized, senior American officials ignored the countless classified and open sources implicating the Iraqi government in theft, torture, rape, and ethnic cleansing — insisting that the country remained on the right track.
In 2010, Vice President Joe Biden confidently insisted that Iraq “is going to be one of the great achievements of this administration,” lauding Iraqis for “us[ing] the political process, rather than guns, to settle their differences.”
“At every significant step along the way [of Obama’s Iraq policy], many predicted that the violence would return and Iraq would slide back toward sectarian war,” then White House aide and now Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in 2012. “Those predictions proved wrong.”
In its eagerness to withdraw from Iraq, the Obama administration also undermined the country’s central democratic institutions. After preaching the virtues of democracy around the world, Obama chose to bypass the secular, Western-leaning winner of Iraq’s 2010 parliamentary elections, Ayad Allawi, in favor of the runner-up, Nouri al-Maliki. Ignoring Maliki’s sectarian and autocratic tendencies, the White House then repeatedly lobbied Congress to expedite sales of advanced American military equipment, including F-16 fighter jets, AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, and Hellfire missiles — even as the Iranian-allied strongman unleashed a reign of terror and purged his political enemies with less sophisticated American weapons systems.
Paradoxically, after Maliki actually won the 2014 parliamentary election — despite reigniting a Sunni insurgency and a broader civil war — the White House finally pivoted away from him. Washington’s preferred choice this time was Haider al-Abadi, a genuinely moderate and unifying member of the Dawa Islamic Party, which Maliki continues to formally lead. Nevertheless, the precedent set twice by Obama — that the United States does not actually respect the intent of Iraq’s Constitution nor Iraqi elections results — will haunt the United States and Iraq alike for decades to come.
The administration’s cumulative mistakes have played a decisive role in advancing Iraq’s implosion, the IS’s rise, and Iran’s regional hegemony. From the time that Obama took office until today, violence in Iraq has spiked nearly fourfold from the post-surge lows in 2009 — reaching levels not seen since the height of the civil war in 2006 and 2007. The Islamic State has conquered more than a third of the country while the Iraqi military imploded, despite a $25 billion investment in it by American taxpayers.
The White House responded by dispatching thousands of American military, diplomatic, and intelligence personnel to Iraq in a final bid to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. But this desperate, ill-conceived effort will inevitably fail because the administration is employing the chainsaws of Iraq’s Iranian-backed Shiite militias rather than the scalpels of American special operations forces in its ground war against IS.
When it became clear that the Islamic State posed an existential threat to Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government, the country’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, resorted to a measure not taken in a century: He issued a religious edict calling for all able-bodied men to take up arms to defend the state. Within months, hundreds of thousands of young Shiites responded to the call — and today, virtually all of them have been absorbed into Iranian-dominated militias, whose fundamental identity is built around a sectarian narrative rather than loyalty to the state. Recently, one militia commander estimated their total strength at 800,000 men, dwarfing the official Iraqi Security Forces.
Meanwhile, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, Iran’s special forces unit devoted to operations outside the Islamic Republic’s borders, has filled the void left by Obama’s military and diplomatic disengagement from Iraq. Quds Force commander Gen. Qassem Suleimani has personally led operations from the front lines, buttressing decades-old alliances while at the same time cultivating new proxies.
The staunchly pro-Iranian Badr Organization commander Hadi al-Ameri — who was welcomed in the Oval Office by Obama in 2011, and is known for favoring power drills to murder his victims — has been tasked with leading all Iraqi efforts to secure and pacify the strategically important province of Diyala. Meanwhile, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the alleged mastermind behind the bombing of the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait in the 1980s, was given command of the Kataib Hezbollah (KH) militia, an Iranian-sponsored group responsible for some of the most lethal attacks against U.S. and coalition forces throughout the war. Muhandis and KH pose such a grave risk to Iraqi stability and American interests that they were designated as terrorists by the U.S. Treasury soon after Obama took office in 2009. Qais al-Khazali, the commander of the Iranian-sponsored Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) militia, which kidnapped and killed five American soldiers at Iran’s behest in the holy city of Karbala in 2007, proudly shared his recent photo with Suleimani via social media.
This constellation of Iranian-backed militias is eclipsing official Iraqi institutions, and sowing the seeds of conflict for decades to come. During a January 2015 press conference celebrating the “liberation” of Iraq’s Diyala province, Ameri stood in front of Iraqi military officers and militia fighters, thanking the Badr Organization and AAH for their efforts — without once mentioning Prime Minister Abadi or the international coalition. One of Ameri’s Badr commanders then told the New York Times that Sunni tribes had backed IS, and pledged that “their punishment will be more severe than [IS’s],” guaranteeing the continuation of vigilante justice and sectarian bloodletting.
These militia leaders are not only operating outside the Iraqi government’s control; many key figures are deeply embedded within Baghdad’s power structure. Hakim al-Zamili, an Iranian-backed militia commander notorious for ethnically cleansing Baghdad of its Sunni inhabitants while serving as Maliki’s deputy health minister, is now chairman of the Iraqi Parliament’s security and defense committee. Ahmad Chalabi, the convicted embezzler allegedly responsible for conspiring to feed false intelligence to Western governments ahead of the Iraq invasion, is now chairman of the Iraqi Parliament’s finance committee. Mohammed Ghabban, a top deputy to Ameri in the Badr Organization, is now interior minister, ostensibly Iraq’s top law enforcement officer. And Mohammed al-Bayati, another Badr leader, serves as Iraq’s human rights minister, with the sacred responsibly of investigating and curtailing the abuses of Iraqi security personnel.
It would be laughable, if it were not so serious. These are the men benefitting today from billions of dollars of American assistance to Iraq.
These Shiite militias’ conquests are being aided by millions of dollars in advanced American military hardware. Countless pictures and videos have emerged featuring Iranian-backed Iraqi militias parading with M1A1 tanks, M1113 armored personnel carriers, M16 and M4 rifles, Humvees, and MRAPs. At times, the militiamen launch into sectarian chants, and religious flags adorn other pictures — some have even taken to plastering their vehicles with photos of former Iranian Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini. These actions directly fuel the regional perception that the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have metastasized into a holy war, pitting Islam’s billion-plus Sunnis against the minority Shiites — a worldview directly responsible for swelling both the Islamic State and the militias’ ranks.
After years of gross neglect, Obama, Abadi, and the broader international community now face the seemingly impossible task of pacifying and reuniting Iraq. The nation is not only a failed state; it is a shattered one: Decades of misrule, corruption, and genocide at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party and Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa Party have totally destroyed the national identity, leaving only tribal, ethnic, and religious affiliations that preceded the founding of the modern Iraqi state in 1932.
It is high time that U.S. officials recognize the Iranian-backed Shiite militias for what they are: a supercharged, multi-headed hydra that represents a clear and present danger to Syria, Iraq, the broader Middle East, and thus to fundamental American national security interests. Although these events occurred less than a decade ago, many in Washington seem to have forgotten that even with 150,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq, these militias operated across Baghdad and southern Iraq much like IS does today: through a deliberate campaign of kidnapping, torture, extortion, and murder that would make Tony Soprano blush.
The impunity with which the Shiite militias operate is only growing. According to a senior U.S. official with an intimate understanding of the matter, the American Consulate General in Basra recently attempted to ship approximately a dozen used, armored SUVs back to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad for export and disposal, per State Department regulations. En route, the vehicles — still usable, and collectively worth millions of dollars when new — were mysteriously stolen. When senior U.S. diplomats reported the theft to the Basra governor and top security commanders, the locals promised an investigation, but reported little success.
Sometime later, during a routine trip across town, a U.S. security officer spotted one of the vehicles in front of a local garage. Bewildered and shaking his head, the U.S. official told me the Iraqi authorities insisted they could take no action, since that was a garage belonging to Asaib Ahl al-Haq — the very group that had masqueraded as an American diplomatic convoy to kidnap and kill five American soldiers in Karbala in 2007.
It is no wonder, then, that the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, recently insisted to Bloomberg’s Eli Lake that the militias “represent enemies of a stable, secure, and inclusive Iraq,” and that once the IS threat is defeated, “they will very likely turn on us.”
There is no reason to believe that the militias will disarm and disband after IS’s defeat. Indeed, with the central government weaker than ever, trillions of dollars of Iraqi oil wealth up for grabs, and the U.S. military no longer deployed in large numbers to constrain them, the militias have more incentive than ever to stay in business. And let’s not forget that it is in Iran’s strategic interest to use these militias to consolidate its gains over Iraq and the Levant, and to advance its ambitions for regional hegemony, which Iranian commanders are now publicly flaunting.
Iraq is the new, much larger, much wealthier Lebanon, and its battle-hardened militias are the new, much larger, much wealthier Hezbollah. They will haunt the world for decades to come on a scale exponentially more lethal and damaging than Lebanese Hezbollah — whose operations already span six continents, and whose operatives grace the FBI and CIA’s most wanted lists.
The day after the Islamic State is expelled from Iraq is the day Iraq’s next existential struggle for survival will begin. Given the militias’ demonstrated sadistic penchant for ethnic cleansing and summary executions, including their joy at beheading enemies — the same savage tactics used by IS — Iraq is destined for endless conflict for the foreseeable future.
It is time to admit that the modern Iraqi state as we have known it is living on borrowed time. Obama’s desperate and delusional strategy to defeat IS — which commits to investing only a fraction of the time and resources former President George W. Bush squandered trying to build viable Iraqi security forces — simply will not work, because we do not have a critical mass of Iraqi political leaders willing to put the country’s interests before their sect, tribe, party, or creed. The thousands of coalition airstrikes will also not succeed, absent a broader political framework under which all Iraqis can peacefully share power and be treated equitably by their government.
In short, as with Ngo Dinh Diem’s government in South Vietnam, no amount of American covert action, carpet bombing, or diplomacy can ever hope to compensate for a fundamentally inept, corrupt, and illegitimate local partner. Despite Washington’s delusions and countless Americans’ sacrifices, Saigon was eventually overrun by Chinese-backed communists — just as Baghdad has already been overrun by Iranian-backed Shiite militias advancing Islamic rule.
Prime Minister Abadi and senior members of his cabinet, including Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari and Oil Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, genuinely represent the finest of Iraq’s technocratic, nationalist political elite. However, they simply do not have the critical mass to overcome the hard-liners within their own government, let alone the Iranians. The White House’s myopia, along with Obama’s empowerment of one strategic enemy, the Iranian-commanded militias, to defeat another strategic threat, IS, is precisely why the dream of a stable, peaceful, prosperous, and pluralistic Iraq increasingly seems doomed. In short, Obama’s Iraq strategy is not only morally bankrupt, but operationally bankrupt as well.
Congressional leaders and the White House must stop treating Iraq and other national security matters as arenas for ideological skirmishes. Instead, they must craft a comprehensive Middle East strategy to defend our regional allies and aggressively confront both radical Sunni and Shiite militants, and Iran’s malign regional ambitions. By finally admitting that Baghdad is now firmly entrenched in Iran’s orbit — and is ideologically and operationally an extension of Tehran — Washington can finally begin to develop plans for how to roll back the new Republic of Fear.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images