DON'T LOSE ACCESS:
Your IP access to ForeignPolicy.com will expire on June 15.
To ensure uninterrupted reading, please contact Rachel Mines, sales director, at email@example.com.
The U.S. Is Providing Air Cover for Ethnic Cleansing in Iraq
Iran’s Shiite militias aren’t a whole lot better than the Islamic State.
American warplanes have begun bombing the Islamic State-held Iraqi city of Tikrit in order to bail out the embattled, stalled ground campaign launched by Baghdad and Tehran two weeks ago. This operation, billed as “revenge” for the Islamic State (IS) massacre of 1,700 Shiite soldiers at Camp Speicher last June, was launched without any consultation with Washington and was meant to be over by now, three weeks after much triumphalism by the Iraqi government about how swiftly the terrorist redoubt in Saddam Hussein’s hometown was going to be retaken.
U.S. officials have variously estimated that either 23,000 or 30,000 “pro-government” forces were marshaled for the job, of which only slender minority were actual Iraqi soldiers. The rest consisted of a consortium of Shiite militia groups operating under the banner of Hashd al-Shaabi, or the Population Mobilization Units (PMU), which was assembled in answer to a fatwah issued by Iraq’s revered Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani in June 2014 following ISIS’s blitzkrieg through northern Iraq. To give you a sense of the force disparity, the PMUs are said to command 120,000 fighters, whereas the Iraqi Army has only got 48,000 troops.
Against this impressive array of paramilitaries, a mere 400 to 1,000 IS fighters have managed to hold their ground in Tikrit, driving major combat operations to a halt. This is because the Islamic State is resorting to exactly the kinds of lethal insurgency tactics which al Qaeda in Iraq (its earlier incarnation) used against the more professional and better-equipped U.S. forces. BuzzFeed’s Mike Giglio has ably documented the extent to which IS has relied upon improvised explosive devices, and just how sophisticated these have been. Even skilled explosive ordnance disposal teams — many guided by Iranian specialists — are being ripped apart by what one termed the “hidden enemy” in Tikrit.
Because IS controls hundreds of square miles of terrain in Iraq, it has an unknown number of bomb manufacturing plants, and because it knows the terrain so well, it’s been able to booby-trap houses and roads. Even Shiite prayer beads left lying on the ground are thought to be rigged to explosives. One Kurdish official told Giglio that the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters alone have “defused or detonated more than 6,000 IEDs along their 650-mile front with ISIS since the war began in August.”
The toll this has taken on the militias is extraordinary. Cemetery workers in Najaf told the Washington Post that as many as 60 corpses are arriving per day. Former Defense Intelligence Agency officer Derek Harvey tweeted last week that an Iraqi Shiite source told him the number of militia war dead from the Tikrit offensive so far may be as high as 6,000. So the militias’ triumphalism, much of it no doubt manufactured by Iran’s propaganda machine, proved to be misplaced. Jeffrey White, another former DIA analyst now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, notes “there’s a failure of will on the part of the militias and government forces. They just didn’t have the sufficient desire and determination to take the fight forward given the casualties they’ve been sustaining.”
So now, the same Iraqi government which earlier dismissed the need for U.S. airpower had to put in an eleventh-hour request for it, lest an easy victory descend into embarrassing folly. But the past few months ought to have shown that even indirectly relying on Iranian agents to conduct a credible ground war against Sunni extremists was always a lousy idea for three reasons: those agents hate the United States and have threatened to attack its interest in Iraq; they’re guilty of IS-style atrocities themselves; and they’re lousy at fighting an entrenched jihadist insurgency.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey told Congress on March 3: “What we are watching carefully is whether the militias — they call themselves the popular mobilization forces — whether when they recapture lost territory, whether they engage in acts of retribution and ethnic cleansing.” He needn’t watch any longer. They are engaging in exactly that.
The crimes of war
On March 10, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a comprehensive study of human rights violations committed by both IS and pro-Iraqi forces. The Islamic State, OHCHR concluded, has likely committed genocide against the Yazidis, a ethno-religious minority in Iraq, in a catalogue of war crimes and crimes against humanity that include gang-rape and sexual slavery. But OHCHR’s language is equally unambiguous in condemning the other side on the battlefield: “Throughout the summer of 2014,” the report noted, “[PMUs], other volunteers and [Shiite] militia moved from their southern heartlands towards [Islamic State]-controlled areas in central and northern Iraq. While their military campaign against the group gained ground, the militias seem to operate with total impunity, leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake.” [Italics added.]
Sunni villages in Amerli and Suleiman Bek, in the Salah ad-Din province, have been looted or destroyed by militiamen operating on the specious assumption that all inhabitants once ruled by IS must be IS sympathizers or collaborators. Human Rights Watch has also lately discovered that the “liberation” of Amerli last October — another PMU/Iranian-led endeavor, only this one abetted by U.S. airstrikes in the early stages — was characterized by wide-scale abuses including the looting and burning of homes and business of Sunni residents of villages surrounding Amerli. The apparent aim was ethnic cleansing. Human Rights Watch concluded, from witness accounts, that “building destruction in at least 47 predominantly Sunni villages was methodical and driven by revenge and intended to alter the demographic composition of Iraq’s traditionally diverse provinces of Salah al-Din and Kirkuk.”
Sunnis weren’t the only demographic subjected to collective punishment. A 21-year-old Shiite Turkmen from the Yengija village was “burned with cigarettes and tied to a ceiling fan” by militants of Saraya Tala’a al-Khorasani, another Iran-backed militia. He told Human Rights Watch: “They kept saying, ‘You are ISIS,’ and I kept denying it. They were beating me randomly on my face, head, shoulders using water pipes and the butts of their weapons…. They went to have lunch and then came back and beat us for an hour and half. Later that night they asked me if I was Shia or Sunni. I told them I was Shia Turkoman and they ordered me to prove it by praying the Shia way…. They kept me for nine days.”
This account tracks with a mountain of social media-propagated video and photographic evidence showing that Iraq’s Shiite militias are behaving rather like the Islamic State — beheading and torturing people they assail as quislings, and then exhibiting these atrocities as a means of recruitment. More worrying, a six-month investigation by ABC News has found that U.S.-trained Iraqi Security Force personnel are also guilty of anti-Sunni pogroms, with officers from Iraq’s Special Forces shown in one video accusing an unarmed teenaged boy of being a shooter (a charge the boy denies) before opening fire on him.
Looking the other way
The Obama administration’s counterterrorism-driven policy for the Middle East, and a quietly pursued diplomatic reconciliation with Iran, has resulted in America’s diminishment of grave war crimes committed by Iran’s clients and proxies, and the problem is hardly just confined to Iraq. In Syria, for instance, the National Defense Force, a conglomerate of militias trained and equipped by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force (IRGC) — a U.S.-designated terrorist entity — has been accused by the Syrian Network for Human Rights and the Euro-Mid Observer for Human Rights, of “[burning] at least 81 people to death, including 46 civilians; 18 children, 7 women, and 35 of the armed opposition fighters,” along with other pro-Assad forces. The State Department has offered condolences to Iran’s President Hasan Rouhani on the death of his mother; to date, it has not said a word about the immolation of these Syrians at the hands of a Quds Force-built guerrilla army.
All of which raises the question: Does the United States have a “common interest,” as Secretary of State John Kerry phrased it, with a regime in Tehran whose proxies are currently burning people alive in their houses, playing soccer with severed human heads, and ethnically cleansing and razing whole villages to the ground?
It really ought to surprise no one in the U.S. government that what amounts to an Iranian occupation of the Levant and Mesopotamia would lead to an increase in jihadist bloodletting. Dempsey has less of an excuse than most. A four-star general, he formerly commanded the First Armored Division in Baghdad, which in 2004 was the unit redirected, as it was about to go home, to fight the Shiite militias who had taken over Karbala and other southern cities, so he would have seen the precursor to the PMUs in action. Yet somehow managed to brief legislators that the Islamic Republic’s role in Iraq might yet prove “positive” — provided, that is, it didn’t lead to an uptick in sectarianism. This is like arguing that death wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t result in being dead. It did not take much, however, for the scales to fall from Dempsey’s eyes. He took a helicopter tour of Baghdad last week and noticed the “plethora of flags, only one of which happens to be the Iraqi flag,” The rest, he told reporters to evident dismay, belonged to Shiite militias. (He might have also added that posters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are now omnipresent in the Iraqi capital where ones of Saddam Hussein used to be.)
Everyone from Gen. David Petraeus to Kurdish intelligence chief Masrour Barzani is acknowledging the obvious: that Shiite militias pose more of a long-term threat to the stability of Iraq than does the Islamic State. Even Ayatollah Sistani has made noises lately about the rampant abuses committed by the “volunteers” he assembled through a religious edict.
While it is true that most Iraqis do not wish to live in a state of vassalage to Iran, it also true that most of the “units” in the PMUs are well-known subsidiaries of the Quds Force. “The indoctrination they’ve been getting is anti-American, Khomeinist ideology,” said Phillip Smyth, an expert on Shiite militias and author of a comprehensive survey of them put out by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Sectarianism has been promoted whether we like it or not.”
According to Chris Harmer, a former U.S. Naval officer and now an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, there really is no dressing up who the supposed “good guys” in Iraq now are. “They killed hundreds of Americans during the war,” Harmer said. “These are not ‘affiliated’ organizations — they are same guys, the same organizations. And can you find me anybody stupid enough to say that what Iran wants is a stable, unified, secular, non-sectarian Iraq?”
The enemies of our enemy are our enemy
Indeed, quite apart from having American blood on their hands and American interests furthest from their mind, Shiite militias — following Tehran’s favorite playbook — have also taken to conspiratorially blaming the United States for inventing and militarily supporting the Islamic State, while decrying any American anti-IS involvement in Iraq. Take, for instance, the Badr Corps, headed by Hadi al-Amiri, the commander of Hashd al-Shaabi, and a man infamous for “using a power drill to pierce the skulls of his adversaries,” or so the State Department found in a 2009 cable to Washington, which also alleged that al-Amiri “may have personally ordered attacks on up to 2,000 Sunnis.” (Despite this grim record, al-Amiri was invited to the Obama White House in 2011 when he was Iraq’s transportation minister.)
Lately al-Amiri taken to both boasting that Stuart Jones, the current U.S. ambassador to Iraq, personally offered him close air support, while reprehending those Iraqis who “kiss the hands of the Americans and get nothing in return.” But when it comes to Tehran, he’s full of praise for the “unconditional” support his country has received. Now al-Amiri has found a more modest tongue. He told the Guardian’s Martin Chulov on March 26: “We did not ask for [U.S. airstrikes on Tikrit] and we have no direct contact with the Americans. From what I understand, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi made the request. However, we respect his decision.”
Kataeb Hezbollah may be the only Iraqi Shiite militia in Iraq to be designated a terrorist entity by the United States, but that hasn’t stopped it from driving around in Abrams tanks, Humvees, armored personnel carriers, MRAPs, and toting M4 and M16 rifles — all the accidental largesse of Uncle Sam, which has sent $1 billion in military equipment to Baghdad, but has no oversight as to which actors, foreign or domestic, ultimately receive what. An abundance of U.S. weapons hasn’t dissuaded Kataeb Hezbollah from openly inciting violence against the American-led coalition to destroy the Islamic State.
“Recently we had them accusing the United States of supplying [IS] via helicopters,” said Smyth. “Kataeb Hezbollah then came out with a bullshit article claiming that they shot down a British cargo plane carrying arms to [IS]. They also said they were going to move antiaircraft missile batteries in Anbar and north of Baghdad to counter U.S. airdrops to [IS]. Whenever they sense too much of a U.S. influence in Iraq, they start to threaten American soldiers.” Kataeb Hezbollah, it bears mentioning, is headed by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iranian spy who is widely believed to have planned the bombings of both the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait in the 1980s. There’s even a photograph of him holding up a Kuwaiti newspaper fingering him for this act of international terrorism. Kataeb Hezbollah has also been caught on video playing bongos with severed human heads.
Another prominent Shiite militia is Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or the League of the Righteous, which in 2007 set an ambush which killed 5 U.S. servicemen in Karbala. It, too, now also happily motors around Iraq in U.S. armored vehicles, some of them thought to have been stolen from the U.S. consulate in Basra. One unnamed U.S. official told Al Jazeera that Asaib was most recently responsible for burning down homes in Albu Ajil, a village near Tikrit in retaliation for massacres carried out by the Islamic State. It has also been implicated in the abduction and murder of Sheik Qassem Sweidan al-Janabi, one of the Sunni tribal leaders who worked cheek-by-jowl with U.S. forces in fighting al Qaeda in Iraq during the so-called Awakening period.
Remarkably, the demagogic Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, once the bane of U.S. forces in Baghdad, condemned al-Janabi’s murder — in language more severe than anything contrived by the U.S. State Department’s Marie Harf or Jennifer Psaki. “Did not I tell you that Iraq will suffer from the brazen militias?” al-Sadr was quoted as saying. “Did I tell you that the army must handle the reins?” Al-Sadr demanded that Shiite head-loppers be punished and actually backed up his rhetoric with action, suspending the participation of his own al-Salam Brigades and al-Yaom ak-Mawood military in ongoing operations. (He unsuspended these militias a week ago to help with the battle in Tikrit, but so far, because of the frozen nature of the ground campaign, none of the Sadrists have seen any real action.)
Assad’s friends in Iraq want to kill Americans
The Basij-ization of Iraq of was both inevitable, given the defunct and corrupted state of the U.S.-trained military, and Iran’s outsize influence in Baghdad even before ISIS conquered a third of the country. “When the Iraqi Army was destroyed last July, this was a gift to Iran to build up these militias,” Gen. Najim Jibouri, the former mayor and police chief of Tal Afar, a crucial Iraqi border town now held by the Islamic State, said in a recent interview. “A few days ago, Khaled al-Obaidi, Iraq’s minister of defense, went to Tikrit, but the militias wouldn’t allow him to enter. He had to stay in Samarra.”
All of which makes risible U.S. officials’ continued emphasis that there is no direct American coordination with Iran or its proxies. Gen. James Terry, the U.S. commander of the coalition, claims that the “ongoing Iraqi and coalition air strikes are setting the conditions for offensive action to be conducted by Iraqi forces currently surrounding Tikrit. Iraqi security forces supported by the coalition will continue to gain territory.”
One of the authors personally witnessed in Baghdad how the IRGC targets make their way into the U.S. targeting queue. Shiite militia commanders pass Quds Force-selected targets to Badr-affiliated Iraqi Security Force commanders on the ground (many of whom are, in fact, agents of the militias), who then pass them on as legitimate targets to Iraq’s Defense Ministry representatives in the Joint Operations Centers where U.S. advisors then put those targets into a queue for aerial sorties. This is the pattern of target development that U.S. forces tried to stop during the American occupation of Iraq — when there was actually a military strategy for countering Iranian influence in the country.
But this nefarious chain of putting intelligence into action — and making the United States do the dirty work — has been resurrected. Soleimani knows it, al-Muhandis knows it, al-Amiri and his Badr agents in the Iraq Security Forces know it — so, too, should the Pentagon, whatever claims to the contrary it puts out. Iranian intelligence operatives are now America’s eyes on the ground.
What does this mean for Tikrit? The Islamic State will no doubt be flushed from the city or bombed to death eventually, but it will be a tactical loss for IS, not a strategic one. They’ll still have Mosul and most of Anbar province. The Institute for the Study of War’s Chris Harmer notes that this will have a direct bearing on bigger fights ahead. “These militiamen will say, ‘This is how badly we got beat up in Tikrit, who wants to volunteer to storm that castle in Mosul?’”
Even if Iran’s proxies do end up massing on Mosul, they’ll remain the ultimate occupying force in post-Islamic State Tikrit. The Washington Post’s Loveday Morris tweeted on March 26 that Kataeb Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq have now “suspended” their operations in the city, no doubt out of a desire to not appear to be coordinating with the hated United States. But once the Pentagon declares victory, the militias will no doubt try to hijack it and move right in to serve as the occupying force in Tikrit.
Despite reports on Thursday that three Shiite militias were “withdrawing” from operations in objection to U.S. airstrikes, now the news has come that they’ve called off their boycott, largely owing to another edict by Ayatollah Sistani. Even an alleged accidental hit by U.S. warplanes on Asaib Ahl al-Haq barely raised that militia’s pique, according to the New York Times. A Badr Corps representative also told the newspaper, “We haven’t retreated from our positions near Tikrit.” Still, others have indicated that they’re not going to let a good turn go unpunished and intend to strike at American soldiers in Iraq.
Akram al-Kabi, the leader of the Al Nujabaa Brigade, which has also fought with the Assad regime in Syria, has said: “We are staying in Tikrit, we are not leaving and we are going to target the American led coalition in Tikrit and their creation, ISIS.” Today, one of al-Kabi’s spokesmen reiterated that threat. Al-Kabi was once a deputy in Asaib Ahl al-Haq and was associated with that militia’s attacks against U.S. and British troops in 2008-2011, including an incident in which British contractors were abducted from the Iraqi Finance Ministry and later murdered. CENTCOM commander Gen. Lloyd Austin’s nevertheless briefed the Senate on Thursday with a straight face that “[c]urrently, there are no [Shiite] militia and as reported by the Iraqis today, no [PMU] in that area as well.” This is either propaganda or sheer ignorance about what is transpiring in Austin’s theatre of operations. The Guardian’s Chulov, who just returned from Tikrit, confirmed to one of the authors, in fact, that both al-Amiri and al-Muhandis were indeed in the center of the city on March 26.
Recrimination and resentment by these militias is no light matter. According to Politico, U.S. military planners are now worried that any decision to engage or isolate the Assad regime in Syria will encourage Iran or its cut-outs to attack the some 3,000 U.S. military trainers currently stationed in Iraq. It’s hard to tell where genuine concern bleeds into further excuse-making on the part of an Obama administration that has shown no intention of engaging or isolating the Assad regime, which is responsible for the vast majority of war dead and war crimes in Syria. Regardless, the result is the same: Washington is now behaving as if it needs Tehran’s permission to pursue its own anti-IS strategy, if it can even be called that.
You call this a plan?
“What strategy?” asks Chris Harmer. “We have only consequentially intervened in one part in Syria — Kobani. What’s the plan for countering [the Islamic State] there? Training 5,000 Syrian rebels per year. That is laughable when you consider the 200,000 dead from four years of attritional warfare, the four million refugees, and slow-motion destruction of the country. Five thousand doesn’t even get you into the ballgame. You have to have a significant portion of the population on your side. Moderate Syrians should be on our side. They’re saying the Americans are unreliable, they’re not on our side. This is why the moderate opposition has collapsed and the beneficiaries of that collapse have been al Qaeda, the Islamic State and Assad.”
The loss of confidence in the United States by moderate Sunnis in Syria is mirrored in Iraq. New polling data has confirmed that most Mosulawis, for instance, welcomed IS back into Iraq’s second city not out of ideological sympathy for the terror group, but out of deep-seated political grievances with the Iraqi government. Yet the Obama administration is doing next to nothing to redress these grievances. The Anbar tribal leader Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, whose charismatic brother was notoriously gunned down by al Qaeda just days after meeting with President George W. Bush in Baghdad in 2007, simply could not get a meeting with any significant official in White House during a 10-day tour of Washington last February. Vice President Joe Biden was good enough to drop in on a lesser confab, mainly to smile and pat them on the head and tell them to work constructively with the new government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
“Many of the people in Mosul will stand with [the Islamic State] if Shiite militias invade,” said Gen. Najim Jibouri. “Eighty percent of the population is does not like [IS], but if the militias are involved — 80 percent will stand very strong with [IS]. I told the Americans before, the image now is not like it was in 2003. Now the Sunni people want American forces. They will throw the flowers on them now, because the battle now is not between them and the United States and [IS], it’s between the Sunnis and Iran.” Yet far too many Sunnis still see the United States as aligned with Iran against them, Jibouri said.
Whether or not a nuclear agreement with Iran gets signed in Lausanne this weekend, whether or not Obama inaugurates a perestroika with Tehran as a result, the unshakable truth is that most of Iraq looks in the long term to remain a satrapy of the mullahs. This will only lead to further sectarian violence and civil war. “I met with almost two dozen national leaders in Iraq last week,” Ali Khedery, the longest consecutively serving U.S. diplomat in the Green Zone, told us. “I heard from Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish officials and virtually all of them told me that the real prime minster of the country is Qasem Soleimani and his deputy is Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.”
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images