Iraq's Shiite militias are gearing up to retake the Islamic State's last major city in Iraq, with Tehran's backing — and despite Washington's opposition.
ERBIL, Iraq — The northern Iraqi village of Bashir has been all but flattened by war. Abandoned houses lie in heaps of rubble along the eerily quiet streets. Upon first glance, the village appears uninhabited, but every now and then a solemn-looking child will appear in a doorway. Down one dusty alley, a teenage boy plays with a live electrical wire, causing showers of sparks to dance across the ground.
A man emerges from a nearby building, rolling a wheelbarrow full of broken stones. He moved back to Bashir after the Kurdish Peshmerga liberated the town in May from the Islamic State, also referred to by the Arabic acronym Daesh. The Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a collection of Shiite volunteer militias with varying ties to Iran, also participated in the battle in a support role. Following the liberation of Bashir, though, the Peshmerga ceded control of the village, with its Shiite Turkmen population, to the PMF, which is now completely responsible for administration and security in Bashir.
“I am not afraid,” the man with the wheelbarrow stops to say. “Daesh still attacks us sometimes, but the Hashd al-Shaabi are here to protect us. Besides, it’s been two years now since we fled. We were paying rent we couldn’t afford in Kirkuk. We had to come home.”
The PMF presence in the town is unmistakable. The yellow, green, and black insignia of the Badr Organization, one of the most prominent groups in the PMF, flutters from many a building. It’s similar to the flag of Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese militia, and the men in the Badr Organization discuss their sister Shiite group with a mixture of envy and pride. As with Hezbollah, Iran’s influence on the PMF is also highlighted in Bashir — dusty posters of Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei, Iran’s past and present supreme leaders, are scattered throughout the village.
As Iraqi forces gear up for the operation to liberate Mosul, the Islamic State’s final stronghold inside Iraq, the PMF’s increasing power threatens to upend relations between Washington and Baghdad. U.S. officials remain suspicious of the force, which was formed in response to a June 2014 fatwa by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s foremost Shiite cleric. Most PMF-led offensives have been clouded with reports that the militias were involved in the ethnic cleansing of Sunni areas, and many of the Iran-backed groups are overtly hostile toward the United States.
As a result, the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State has done its best to prevent the Shiite militias from benefiting from any of its assistance. In the battle for Bashir, for instance, the coalition refused to provide the PMF with air support, instead covering only Peshmerga positions.
But U.S. officials are finding that isolating the PMF is easier said than done. The umbrella group is now an official affiliate of the Iraqi Army, thanks to a decision made by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi over the summer. The move provides the PMF with broad access to Iraqi government funding — on paper, it has received about $1 billion from the federal budget. Elements within the Interior Ministry are also reportedly under the thumb of the PMF. As the militias’ successful operations against the Islamic State in places like Baghdad, Tikrit, and Baiji mount, it has become abundantly clear that they are a force to be reckoned with.
But the PMF’s victories have been won by some of America’s most bitter enemies in Iraq. The group’s deputy leader is Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a U.S.-designated terrorist and the head of the Iran-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah.
“We [the United States] can’t work with Kataib Hezbollah, which not only killed so many of us in the last Iraq War but is continuing to be an Iranian-backed IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] direct support proxy,” says Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “These guys want Iraq to become the Islamic Republic of Iraq, with leadership not from some mullah in Najaf but from Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran.”
Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), himself an Iraq War veteran, also hopes that the PMF’s powers will be widely curtailed once the Islamic State is defeated. He recently laid out a plan for how he believes long-term peace and stability in Iraq should be instituted, which calls for conditioning U.S. military aid on political progress.
“It’s not enough just to defeat ISIS,” Moulton says, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “You’ve got to maintain the peace. That’s the part that we’ve been consistently missing, and we’ve got to get it right.… What we need to do is minimize the sectarian influence [of the PMF] and the ways in which they are marginalizing the Sunnis. If we had avoided that in the first place, we probably wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in today.”
On the ground in northern Iraq, however, the PMF fighters have no intention of obeying the dictates of politicians in Washington. The mistrust between the two sides is mutual — and in many ways unsurprising, given the fraught history of U.S. involvement in Iraq.
In a makeshift cafeteria at an outpost near Tuz Khurmatu, a couple of hours north of Baghdad, a group of about 15 fighters belonging to the Badr Organization settles down to eat lunch. As is customary in the region, they serve themselves while seated on the floor, sharing steaming heaps of rice and a large bowl of meat stew.
After they finish and wash up, a lively discussion about U.S. perception of the PMF ensues. “We do not need America’s support,” one fighter says. “The Hashd al-Shaabi has never been supported by the U.S. Since the beginning, there was direct support from Baghdad and Iran, and Iranian advisors are here. We tried [the Americans] for more than two years while ISIS was in Bashir, and they did nothing. They did not participate in any of the attacks that happened except for the last attack, when they covered the Peshmerga.”
Abdul-Hussein Mohamed, a grizzled man in his 60s, is second in command of the Badr Organization in the area near Bashir. In his office at the PMF base, he insists that the group does not take part in sectarian violence against Sunnis. “Most of the areas that we have defended were Sunni areas, so we saved more Sunni people from ISIS than Shiites,” he says. “If we were sectarian, we would not have gone to fight for them. We are not racist. We stood by our Sunni brothers and sisters.”
But the evidence against this claim is significant. Reports on the aftermath of the battle for Fallujah, in which the Islamic State was ultimately driven from the city, describe the brutal mistreatment of Sunni civilians by at least some PMF groups. Human Rights Watch has condemned the Shiite militias’ wartime behavior several times over the past year.
Renad Mansour, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the primary problem with the PMF is one of disorganization. Even if its senior officials issue orders forbidding abuses, they find them hard to enforce among the multitudes of groups that fall under their nominal command.
“The problem with [the PMF] is that it’s not one organization, with one leadership,” Mansour says. “You have certain organizations that are very powerful, including the Badr Brigade, but they are unable to control where other groups go or what they’re doing.”
The Badr fighters at the outpost near Tuz Khurmatu seem eager to begin the offensive in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city — though not as eager, they say, as the Americans.
“It is clear the U.S. is trying to rush the Mosul operation because of their elections,” one of their captains says. “But the timing of the offensive is in the hands of the Iraqi government and the Hashd al-Shaabi, not the Americans.”
In Washington, experts and politicians are working to prove him wrong. Knights believes that the PMF can be limited to a token role in the battle for Mosul: “They’re going to want to take their pictures [of their leaders in Mosul] and get their kind of propaganda,” he says, but believes the real fighting will be led by the Iraqi Army.
Moulton, meanwhile, is willing to delay the liberation of Mosul if doing so allows Washington to put pressure on the Iraqi government to embark on reforms that curtail the influence of the PMF. The congressman’s plan would provide financial incentives to the Iraqi government to persuade it to turn away from the PMF and increase investment in developing a Sunni Arab presence in the government and military — a move that could prove unpopular among Iraq’s other communities, given their lingering resentment at the large numbers of Sunni Iraqis who turned to the Islamic State in response to marginalization by the Shiite government.
“The [U.S] commanders on the ground, they see the enemy,” Moulton says. “They want to defeat ISIS. They naturally would like to do it as quickly as possible, but the reality is that we’re going to lose a lot of our leverage to encourage the Iraqis to make the political reforms necessary for long-term stability if we just go into Mosul without any plan for the day after.”
But Abdul-Hussein Mohamed has other ideas for the PMF’s role in Mosul — and beyond.
“We have already participated in areas that America forbade us to participate in, and we will continue to participate in them,” he says with a humorless chuckle. “We are Iraqis, and we will take part in all the battles.
“The Americans should come and thank the Hashd al-Shaabi, because if we did not exist, there would have been no security in this whole area when ISIS first became powerful,” Mohamed continues. “The danger in this region has affected Western countries as well. We defended not only Iraq, but the whole world.”
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