The Case for Attacking Pro-Iranian Militias in Iraq

IRGC Seal
Qassem Soleimani
Gen. Qassem Soleimani

In the wake of the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, the United States faces the issue of what to do with the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) of Iraq. The PMF are a veritable deep state in Iraq destabilizing the country and threatening U.S. forces

The PMF includes dozens of Iraqi Shia militias that worked with Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Quds Force, a branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Abu Mehdi al Muhandis, a prominent PMF member of the Kata’ib Hezbollah militias was also killed in the attack. Khata’ib Hezbollah, which the US government considers a terror group, vows revenge.

The PMF are deeply embedded in Iraqi society and security structures. They arose during Iraq’s sectarian civil war, beginning in 2006. The PMF killed hundreds of American soldiers and civilians, using explosively formed penetrator devices provided by Iran. The PMF are also responsible for systematic and widespread war crimes against Iraq’s Sunni population.

When the Islamic State invaded Iraq in June 2014, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shia cleric in Iraq, issued a fatwa summoning the faithful to defend holy shrines. The PMF played a leading role in the fight to drive ISIS out of Iraq. Along the way, they evolved from a militia into an army — trained, equipped and financed by Iran. The PMF endure, though the caliphate has been defeated.

The Iraqi constitution stipulates that militias are illegal, but the government has been unable to demobilize them. Instead Baghdad has sought to coopt PMF, bringing them under the nominal control of the prime minister’s office and appointing their leaders to government positions.

Iran claims the PMF act independently, outside of its control. While Iran pledged to de-escalate after launching ballistic missiles against US bases in Iraq on January 8, the PMF’s vow of revenge has to be taken seriously.

On January 12, the PMF launched rocket attacks against Balad Air Base that killed four Iraqi servicemen. Though no American trainers were injured at Balad, the attack is a harbinger of future attacks.

PMF leaders such as Falih Alfayyadh (Chairman of Popular Mobilization Committee), Hadi al-Amiri (Commander of the Badr Brigade), Ali al-Yasiri (Khorosan), and Qais al-Khazali (Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq) threaten US forces in Iraq. After Soleimani and Muhandis were killed, Khazali ordered his fighters to prepare for an upcoming battle against the US. He vowed that America’s military presence in Iraq would end soon.

The PMF are proven adversaries targeting US interests, as well as America’s Kurdish allies. For example, Muhandis and other PMF leaders were involved in seizing Kirkuk in October 2017, and trying to kill the pro-American Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim.

After Soleimani’s killing, 170 Iraqi lawmakers approved a resolution asking the Iraqi government to end the agreement under which Washington sent forces to Iraq more than four years ago to help in the fight against ISIS. The resolution barely garnered a majority, with Sunni and Kurdish legislators boycotting the tally. The Trump administration dismissed the vote, concerned that pulling out 5,200 U.S. troops could cripple counter-terrorism efforts and allow the resurgence of ISIS.

Washington’s Options

The United States could withdraw its forces from Iraq. However, President Trump is adamant about maintaining the American military presence, despite the Iraqi parliament’s request that US forces leave the country and demands by Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi.   

The US could ignore the PMF and hope they go away. This is unlikely given their integration into Iraqi security structures and base of popular support with Iraq’s Shia majority.

Washington could urge Baghdad to control the PMF. To date, however, the Iraqi government has shown little willingness or capacity to rein them in.  

Not acting is not an option. The leaders of the PMF–Falih Alfayyadh, Hadi al-Amiri, Ali al-Yasiri, and Qais al-Khazali — have been identified as terrorists by the United States. The bombing the Balad Base is the first salvo in a campaign to avenge the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis.

The PMF represent an imminent threat, plotting more attacks to drive the US out of Iraq. Under such circumstances, targeted killings are allowed under international law. 

The U.S. government faces a credibility gap, created by President Trump’s claim that Soleimani was killed to prevent an imminent threat. Any future targeted killing must be based on verifiable evidence that an attack is imminent. The after action report should be transparent and detailed.

While some Iraqis would object, Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds would welcome the removal of Shia extremists, and some Shia politicians would also approve. The removal of Shia extremists would open more space for moderate Shia groups, reducing sectarian polarization. There is no love lost between the PMF and Iraqi politicians, who are struggling to stabilize the country and form a new government.

Iraq can never be secure with the PMF unfettered. Getting rid of the PMF would catalyze an Iraqi-owned process to stabilize the country, enhance national sovereignty, and eventually rid the country of foreign forces. It would also professionalize the Iraqi army, as the first line of defense against violent extremism.

Iraqis resent Iran’s controlling stake in their country. They know the PMF are gangsters who run a parallel state. Iraqis crave stability and effective governance, which cannot be achieved with the PMF at-large.

Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He worked on “The Future of Iraq Project” as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert to the State Department during the Bush administration. Phillips is author of Losing Iraq: Inside the Post-WarReconstruction Fiasco.

Leaked Intelligence Reports Expose How Iran Dominates Iraq

MOIS intelligence
Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s top commander is active in Iraq.

In 2003, George Bush proclaimed “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. In fact, the misbegotten U.S. attack delivered the country into the hands of Iran, our strategic enemy.

The story highlights the leading role of Gen. Qaem Soleimani, whom some reports say has been targeted for assassination. Another key player revealed: Iranian intelligence.

Some people say this story is an instance war-mongering. That’s a stretch. The Iranian influence in Iraq is real and unsurprising. These documents don’t make the case of U.S. war with Iran. They make the case for the folly of U.S. militarism in the Middle East. We came to conquer and, of course, we got played. 

Many of the cables describe real-life espionage capers that feel torn from the pages of a spy thriller. Meetings are arranged in dark alleyways and shopping malls or under the cover of a hunting excursion or a birthday party. Informants lurk at the Baghdad airport, snapping pictures of American soldiers and keeping tabs on coalition military flights. Agents drive meandering routes to meetings to evade surveillance. Sources are plied with gifts of pistachios, cologne, and saffron. Iraqi officials, if necessa

I’m reading this trove now and will have more to say soon.

Source: Leaked Intelligence Reports Expose How Iran Dominates Iraq

Trump’s Pressure On Iran May Spark Mideast Conflict

Israeli Air Force plane
Israeli Air Force plane
Israel’s U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets were reportedly used in an attack on Iraq earlier this month. (Credit: Youtube/CWW7News)

Israeli attacks in three Middle East countries are pushing a volatile region that is already the scene of two long-running wars, closer to a third. The lethal strikes show how the Trump administration has effectively outsourced the military component of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. As a result,  one U.S. ally–Israel–is attacking in another American ally—Iraq, supposedly for the sake of advancing American interests.

On Saturday, Israel confirmed that its warplanes struck an Iranian-operated base in Syria that was allegedly preparing to launch a major drone attack against Israel. On Sunday an armed drone struck a Hezbollah media center in the suburbs of Beirut. Hezbollah said it was the first Israeli attack in Lebanon since Israel and Hezbollah fought to a draw in 2006. 

Later Sunday another drone strike in Iraq killed a commander of one of the Iranian-backed militias, known as Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Israel did not confirm or deny the latter two attacks but most news sources assume Israel was responsible. Last week “senior U.S. officials” told the New York Times that Israel was behind three other unattributed attacks in Iraq.

Israel says that the PMFs constitute a threat to its security, by enabling Iran to move its short-range ballistic missiles closer to Israel. But Iraqis see the PMF, a coalition of some 60 militias, as necessary protection against ISIS. The PMF sprang up in 2014 when ISIS routed the Iraqi government forces and took over much of western Iraq. Supported by Iran and blessed by Iraq’s Ayatollah Sistani, the PMF fought alongside U.S. troops in driving ISIS out of western Iraq. Without the PMF, ISIS would probably still hold large swathes of the country.

Since 2017, the Iraqi government has been incorporating PMF personnel and weapons into its armed forces, with the goal of lessening the country’s dependence on Iran and gaining military units with battlefield experience. Faleh al Fayadh, the chairman of the PMF coalition, is Iraq’s national security advisor. The idea was to weave the two forces together. Now Israel hopes to divide them.

Not surprisingly, the Israeli attacks are being denounced in a country where the U.S. is far from popular.

Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdul Mahdi ordered the U.S. military to ask permission before undertaking any flights in the country (U.S. commanders said they would comply “immediately.”)  Iraq’s country’s ceremonial president, called the attacks “a blatant hostile act” that crossed the red line of Iraqi sovereignty. A pro-Iranian bloc holding 10 percent of the seats in the Iraqi parliament called the attacks a “declaration of war.” 

Tanker attacked in the Gulf of Oman, June 13.

But if Iraqis think the Israeli attacks are declaration of war on them, there’s no doubt who the Americans favor. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted Monday that U.S. fully supports Israel’s “right to defend itself.”  Fifteen years after attacking Saddam Hussein’s regime, the United States supports a secret war on the government that replaced him. 

“The attacks in Iraq underscores the contradictions in US policy,” said Paul Pillar, former CIA analyst for the region. “Here we have the administration not only not criticizing but actually applauding Israel for an armed attack on the territory of a friendly state that we are trying to help in other ways.”

Pressuring Iraq to join the campaign of “maximum pressure,” Pillar said in a phone interview, “is totally contradictory to the prosperity and stability of Iraq. They are dependent on trade with Iran and they are dependent on the popular mobilization forces for security.  The attacks only increase Iraqi resentment of United States and increases Iraq’s sense of dependence on Iran to protect itself.”

The reason why Israel and the United States are so hostile to Iran, is that the Islamic Republic has taken advantage of U.S. blunders since 9/11 to consolidate its prestige and allies, while the U.S. and its allies have lost strength.

The U.S policymakers sought to replace Saddam Hussein’s government with an anti-Iranian regime in 2003. They failed. Iran cultivated good relations with the new government and gained power and influence in Baghdad where it once had none. 

In 2011 U.S. policymakers thought they could overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria by supporting Syrian “moderates” (of whom there were few) and al-Qaeda linked fundamentalists (of whom there were many). They failed. Iran supported Assad and (with Russian, Iranian and U.S. help) has mostly routed ISIS. Iran is now entrenched in Assad’s Syria as it never was before. 

In 2015 U.S. policymakers thought Saudi Arabia could defeat the Houthi rebels in Yemen and deal a blow to Iran, the Houthis’ ally. They thought wrong. The Saudi coalition has inflicted the world’s worst humanitarian crisis on Yemen, yet achieved none of its goals. Now the U.S. is seeking peace talks to end the war and the Houthis are openly embracing the Iranians. 

Now U.S. policymakers expect Iraqi government to ignore Israeli attacks and support the U.S. campaign against Iran, a larger neighboring country that supports its economy and security. With the U.S. track record in the region, there’s little reason to think this will succeed. What Trump Iran’s policy lacks in coherence, it makes up for with recklessness.

Of course, the incoherent Trump could change his mind. He ordered and called off an attack on Iran for shooting down an unmanned surveillance drone, a sign that he has no desire to be a wartime commander-in-chief going into an election year. At the G-7 summit, he played along with the gambit of French President Emmanuel Macron to open the door to talks with Iran. If the U.S. lifts sanctions, Iran is willing to talk, President Rouhani replied.

The Israelis are worried Trump might accept. Afterall, Trump threatened North Korea with fire and fury, only to warm up to Kim Jong-il and embrace negotiations over the objections of his advisers. Israeli escalation in Iraq—and the expected response from Iran and Hezbollah—will make it harder for Trump to change directions on Iran, which is why the attacks are likely to continue. 

How Iran’s IRGC Views Israeli Attacks. 

IRGC Seal

General Hossein Alayee, a former chief of staff of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), explained to an Iranian news outlet, how he views the recent Israeli attacks on Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.

From: Iran Front Page, an anti-regime news site.

“It seems that Israel’s main purpose in launching the recent attacks on the buildings of Hezbollah in Lebanon, on the Hashd al-Sha’abi (Popular Mobilization Forces) military bases in Iraq, and on the positions that it believes belong to the IRGC Quds Force in Syria, is to make the US and a number of the European and Arab countries sensitive about the Islamic Republic’s increasing clout in the Middle East,” he noted.

“Israel wants to argue that despite the full-scale US sanctions, Iran’s power is constantly increasing in the countries around Israel, and that it would be possible to curb it only with bombardment and military attacks. In addition, the Zionist regime wants to create a rift in the relations of the governments of Lebanon and Iraq with Iran, and to link their security to restrictions on Hezbollah, Hashd al-Sha’abi and the Quds Force,” the general explained.

This view is consistent with my take that “Iran Is Not Another Iraq. Its a Different Kind of War.” It’s a proxy war, where two powers (Iran and the United States) use proxies to fight each other.