The United States faces a major test right now as Iraqi forces, including large numbers of Iranian-led militias, are moving into Kirkuk and engaging Kurdish Peshmerga forces. These Shia militias played a large role in the operations against ISIS but many are controlled and commanded by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) which is now designated a terrorist organization.
Akram al Kaabi, who is the Commander of one of these militias Harakat al Nujaba, was personally designated a terrorist in 2008. He has sworn allegiance to Iran and promised to overthrow his own government in Iraq when asked.
Another Qays Khazali, Commander of Asaib Ahl al Haqq murdered 5 American soldiers in a failed kidnapping attempt. He has also been responsible for massive sectarian slaughter of Sunni civilians during current counter-ISIS operations.
We tolerated these bad actors and their main paymaster and commander IRGC Qods Force leader Qassem Suleimani under the “enemy of my enemy” concept. They are deeply embedded within the Baghdad government and took advantage of President Obama’s misguided notion that Iran could be a partner for peace. The new Iran Strategy announced last week by President Trump recognizes that Iran is actually the biggest problem in the region.
Now we must deal with these militias as part of the IRGC terror team and we cannot allow them to operate on behalf of the Iranian Mullahs. The picture at the top of this piece shows an America Humvee being used by a militia with a picture of Iran’s Supreme Leader Khameini pasted in the window. The time to tolerate these Iranian terror auxiliaries is over.
When President Trump seemed increasingly likely to decline to certify the Iran Deal, the IRGC threatened to attack US bases in the Middle East. It is likely this move against the Kurds is an alternative way for them to pressure the US and avoid the devastating response any direct attack on US forces would bring. The Department of Defense response to an artillery exchange was an attempt to defuse tensions.
Coalition forces and advisors are not supporting Government of Iraq or Kurdistan Regional Government activities near Kirkuk, but are aware of reports of a limited exchange of fire during predawn hours of darkness Oct. 16. We believe the engagement this morning was a misunderstanding and not deliberate as two elements attempted to link up under limited visibility conditions.
Ideally this does not escalate, but the US must be prepared to say we will not tolerate an Iranian-led move to push the Kurds out of Kirkuk. This should be part of a larger effort to marginalize the Shia militias role in Sunni and Kurdish areas and eventually stop the IRGC from operating these units in Iraq completely.
It is also time to consider that a US policy attempting to put Iraq back together again may not be workable. Security Studies Group recommended that the US recognize Kurdish independence when they proclaim it. That is much more likely after the overwhelming vote supporting that in the referendum they held last month. Now that the Kurdish Peshmerga are being menaced and in some cases attacked by notionally Iraqi forces, the US must decide who our true allies are. This could also include our call for an international protectorate in the Sunni regions to ensure they also get an opportunity to rebuild free of Iran’s malign influence.
Our plan for post-ISIS Iraq and Syria recognizes that Iran has far too much influence and in many cases control. President Trump should follow his instinct that Iran is the problem and take the steps necessary to push IRGC terrorists out of their roles and safeguard the Kurds & Sunni. This policy can gain support from those in Iraq who are not pleased to be an Iranian puppet state. Even against the wishes of the Baghdad government, it is a time for choosing and the choices are clear.