The Islamic State (ISIS) sprang forth from Syria and seized a number of Iraqi towns and cities in 2014. Iraq’s leading native Shi’a cleric, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, issued a fatwa in response that authorized a ‘righteous jihad’ among Iraqis to defend their nation and its holy places. Officially, this led to the Iraqi government authorizing the formation of “popular mobilization forces” (PMF) made up of volunteers who were obeying this fatwa and wanted to fight ISIS. The idea was that these PMF would serve as a citizens’ militia to assist the formal security forces in repelling the advance by the barbaric Islamic State.
In fact, the backbone of the PMF had existed for years. They were Shi’a militias belonging to various factions within Iraq, mostly dating to the Saddam era and all of them with varying ties to Iran. Some of them have weaker ties: Sistani’s own faction provided a sizable militia that it was hoped would not be very much under Iran’s sway. Others have quite strong ties. The Badr Organization, formerly the Badr Corps, descends from a decades-long effort by Iran to overthrow the Iraqi regime and replace it with a regime loyal to itself. The Harakat al Nujaba militia has sworn to overthrow the Iraqi government anytime the Supreme Leader of Iran says so. The Iraqi branch of Hezbollah is, as Hezbollah generally is, an Iranian proxy force. It is also traveling under the banner of the PMF. In fact, a number of units set up by Iran explicitly to kill Americans during the Iraq war have been operating in the counter-ISIS fight.
The Iranian-backed Shiite militias that played a prominent role in the assault on Baiji include: Asa’ib al Haq (League of the Righteous), whose leader Qais al Khazali is thought to be involved in the murder of five US soldiers in Karbala in 2007; Hezbollah Brigades, which is listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US government; Harakat al Nujaba, which recently called for the expulsion of US troops from Iraq; Harakat al Nujaba, which is led by Akram Abbas al Kaabi, a Specially Designated Global Terrorist; Kata’ib Imam Ali, led by Shebl al Zaydi, who is close to Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani; Kata’ib Sayyid al Shuhada, which is commanded by Mustafa al Sheibani, who is also a Specially Designated Global Terrorist; and Badr Corps, another large militia supported by Iran. For more information the role these militias played in the retaking of Baiji, including photographs and video of Iraqi forces operating alongside these militias, see LWJ report, Iraqi Army, Shiite militias report success in Baiji.
The question analysts long asked about the PMF was, “What will they do once ISIS is gone?” The answer, it appears, is to turn on Iraq’s Kurds. (Note that the first of those two links refers to PMF as PMU, short for “Popular Mobilization Units.”)
The three most important groups are all pro-Iranian and directly connected to the Revolutionary Guards. These are Ktaeb Hizballah, headed by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis; Asaib Ahl al-Haq, headed by Qais al-Khazali; and the Badr Organization, commanded by Hadi al-Ameri. All three of these leaders are closely linked to Qods Force Commander General Qassem Suleimani. They are, as one region-based diplomat put it, “Iran’s proconsuls” in Iraq.
Al-Ameri, al-Muhandis, and Suleimani himself were all present in Kirkuk on October 15 and16, laying the groundwork for the takeover of the city.
Now, the role of Iran in backing these PMF militias has been very well known for a long time. That makes it very strange that the United States Department of State just claimed it was “not aware” of Iranian coordination in this offensive against the Kurds.
Michael Pregent, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, has taken point on making clear how absurd that claim really is. (SSG President Jim Hanson has contributed as well.) Suleimani had even issued a direct, public warning to the Kurds. Pregent also pointed to a claim by Kurdish forces that their American military advisers, likely Green Berets, had told them to stand down in the face of this offensive against Kirkuk. Pregent also provided the image that heads this report, of trucks flying Iraqi and PMF flags headed toward Erbil. As of this writing, Kurdish peshmerga are reportedly in heavy contact with PMF and Iraqi army forces.
Why is the United States doing this? In part it is because we have allowed similar military advisers to become entangled with forces that are surrounded by PMF. These advisers, often Green Berets and other special operators, represent a substantial investment in training and human experience. America always wants to bring home as many as possible, not only because we honor and respect such men, but also because they are a strategic asset and difficult to replace. At the moment, our military advisers in Iraq are in grave danger because of the sheer weight of numbers should Iran order the PMF to turn on those advisers.
Moreover, much of the United States’ foreign policy community is hoping that forcing the Kurds to remain in Iraq rather than pursue independence will stabilize the region. Kurds in Turkey and Iran also would like independence, and the Kurds now control substantial parts of Syria as well. The people in the US Department of State, and even in parts of the American military, would prefer that the old borders held.
Finally, the US is backing sitting Prime Minister Abadi in the upcoming 2018 elections in Iraq. Abadi would stand to gain some prestige among the Shi’a majority in Iraq if he forced the Kurds to bend the knee to Iraq’s central government.
Nevertheless, I agree with Ranj Alaaldin in Foreign Policy and Rebecca Heinrichs in The Hill that the right thing to do is to back the Kurds. The Kurds were early and reliable American allies during the Iraq war. They provided effective fighters against al Qaeda in Iraq, and they have since done against ISIS. They independently bore a great deal of the brunt of the campaign against ISIS. They were oppressed by Saddam as they have been oppressed by the Turkish and Iranian governments, and as the current Iraqi government seeks to oppress them. Further, while Iran is sharply contesting the independence of the central government in Baghdad, a free Kurdish government would be a reliable ally to the United States. For both moral and practical reasons, then, we ought to defend the Kurds’ interests.
Nor does the Trump administration’s newly-announced policy on Iran make much sense if it does not move to defend the Kurds from IRGC-backed militias. If the IRGC is a terrorist organization, as the Treasury Department has determined, then the presence of IRGC Quds Force commander Suleimani in their leadership cannot be ignored. Trump administration policy on Iran was made a mockery of by the State Department’s insistence on turning a blind eye to what everyone can see about Iran’s involvement in suppressing the Kurds.
A healthy future for Iraq means not being dominated by Iran. It is also in the American interest for the whole of Iraq not to fall under Iranian domination. A free and autonomous Kurdish region is a hedge against that, whether inside or outside of Iraq’s federal borders. In addition to being the right thing for the United States to do, supporting the Kurds is the wise thing for us to do.