Category Archives: Iraq-Iran-Militias

Showdown looming in Iraq

Showdown looming in Iraq

Baghdad seems to be bracing itself for an almighty bout of arm-wrestling, with its dysfunctional government on the one side and the Shia militias on the other, writes Salah Nasrawi

On 20 October, one of the commanders of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF), Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, posted a letter to Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi on the Internet chastising the latter’s government for failing to support the Shia para-military force in the war against the Islamic State (IS) terror group.

In the unprecedented letter, Al-Muhandis demanded that Al-Abadi reconsider the budget allotted to the PMF and provide it with more weapons, equipment and facilities, which he said the PMF needed in the war against IS.

“With each battle we go to plead and beg,” wrote Al-Muhandis in the letter, raging with bitterness at what he perceived as Al-Abadi’s passivity towards the force known in Arabic as Al-Hashed Al-Shaabi.

“Even if your intention is to dissolve Al-Hashed in the near or distant future, the least you should do now is to provide the means it needs to sustain the current battle,” he wrote.

He specifically asked Al-Abadi to supply Al-Hashed with armoured personnel carriers and bomb detectors. “Why are these volunteers, as you call them, left to face explosives, missiles and the enemy’s weapons with their bare bodies,” he asked.

Among other demands, Al-Muhandis made in his letter was putting Al-Hashed, largely composed of Shia militias, on a par with the army and security forces and creating a joint command system that would coordinate between Iraq’s three forces.

Whatever the implicit message, Al-Muhandis’s open letter to the Shia leader contains an element of symbolism that invokes the expression of a titanic power struggle in Iraq.

Al-Muhandis, whose real name is Jamal Jaafar Mohamed, is the leader of Kataib Hizbullah, an Iranian-sponsored Shia militia which has been active in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003. In addition to acting as the leader of the militia, Al-Muhandis also serves as deputy commander of Al-Hashed.

Al-Muhandis is orchestrating along with two other powerful leaders, Hadi Al-Amiri, commander of the Badr Organisation and Qais Al-Khazali, founder of the Asaib Ahl Al-Haq network, or the “League of the Righteous”, most of the activities of the PMF.

Al-Hashed was formed from Shia militias following the fall of Mosul in June 2014 to IS militants and their lightning advances into cities and towns in central Iraq. Backed by Iranian weapons and advisers, Al-Hashed led the Iraqi government’s counter-offensive to regain control of most of the land lost to IS.

According to many analysts, the militias are now eclipsing Iraq’s security forces in the fight against IS. Last week they recaptured Baiji, a strategic city north of Baghdad, from IS after several botched offensives by the Iraqi army.

Al-Hashed now commands some 120,000 fighters. In addition to the some $1 billion it receives from the state budget, the PMF gets additional funding from other Iranian religious clerics and donations from Shia businessmen and political groups.

Though the government says the PMF comes under the control of the prime minister’s office, most of the militias which compose the force, and in particular the main ones, function without any government supervision or control.

Since they rose to prominence following last year’s IS onslaught, the militias have expanded their hold on towns and neighbourhoods in Iraq. International human right groups have accused the militias of using the weak rule of law in Iraq to commit abuses.

In September, a militia group claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of 18 Turkish construction workers in Baghdad and listed demands for their release that included Turkey to stop its interference in Iraq and to lift a siege on several Shia towns and villages in Syria. The workers were released four weeks later after an undisclosed deal with the government.

The militias are becoming a growing risk for governance and stability in Iraq as they are increasingly functioning within the state apparatus and in particular in the security forces where sometimes they operate as replacement forces where the state is absent.

The link between the Shia militias and the government security forces dates back to the period following the US-led invasion in 2003, when thousands of Shia militias who were fighting against the regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein were integrated into Iraq’s post-Saddam army and security forces.

After Al-Abadi was nominated as prime minister in July last year, he designated Mohamed Ghabban, a senior official in the Badr Organisation, as the new interior minister despite the Sunni rejection of Al-Amiri, the head of the group, to assume the post.

Since he assumed office, Ghabban has purged hundreds of officers and replaced them with others who are now loyal to Shia militias, in particular the Badr Organisation.

Three days after the publication of his letter, Al-Muhandis posted another note protesting against a raid by US special forces on IS targets in northern Iraq in cooperation with the Kurdish Peshmergas. It was the first time that American troops have been reportedly deployed in the fight against IS since the US started its airstrikes against the terror group in August last year.

The Pentagon said the raid was aimed at rescuing Kurdish fighters who were being held by IS. A Facebook page operated by Al-Hashed, however, disputed the US claim that the raid was a rescue mission and accused the US troops of “evicting” besieged IS commanders from the area.

“We are aware of your plans and who the politicians are who are collaborating with you. We fought them for ten years when our hands were empty. Now our hands are full, and we can reach you and unveil your plans and expose you if you do not stop,” it wrote.

Leaders of Al-Hashed have long denounced the US air support in the fight against IS and some have even threatened that they will “eject” US ground troops if they are sent to Iraq, a prospect the Obama administration has ruled out.

The US operation in Al-Hawija comes amid controversy on whether Al-Abadi should request Russian help in the war against IS. Since Russia started its airstrikes against opposition groups in Syria, Al-Hashed leaders have increased their pressure on Al-Abadi to seek Russian military support in the war against IS.

Such a request would put Al-Abadi in a delicate position with the United States, which has made it clear that it opposes Russian military intervention in Iraq.

Though Al-Abadi has agreed to set up a liaison group to coordinate intelligence and security cooperation with Russia, Iran and Syria to counter the threat from IS, he has been reluctant so far to ask Moscow to intervene.

Head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford said on a trip to Baghdad last week that the United States had won assurances from Iraq that it would not seek Russian airstrikes.

Another dispute that has worsened the mood among the increasingly disgruntled militia leaders has been the prime minister’s decision to appoint a controversial Iraqi-American who worked closely with the Pentagon during the early days of the US occupation of Iraq as his new chief of staff.

Last week, Al-Abadi named Emad Dhia (Al-Kharsan), who headed a group set up by the US occupation authority to assist the Bush administration in running Iraq after the invasion in 2003, as secretary-general of the Council of Ministers, a post which will put him in charge of running day-to-day government affairs.

The secretary-general of the council is a key post in Iraq, and since it was created under former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki its holders have been considered to be the “power behind the throne.”

In his post Dhia will probably oversee some of the actions of the military and security forces and Al-Hashed whose commanders are answerable to Al-Abadi in his capacity as the commander-in-chief of Iraq’s armed forces.

Al-Abadi’s mysterious decision to give the post to Dhia, who has never served in the Iraqi government and has lived most of his life in the United States and has worked closely with the Pentagon, is expected to worsen his relations with Al-Hashed’s leaders who fear that Dhia serves an American agenda.

Whatever the reasons behind Al-Hashed’s mounting discontent, relations between Al-Abadi and the Shia militias have reached a crossroads. Many analysts have expected that the rise of Al-Hashed will shift more power from the government to the militia leaders, eventually leading to a power struggle within the Shia alliance.

That seems to be happening sooner than it expected, and Al-Muhandis’s rage against Al-Abadi is just the opening act to more dramatic developments to come in the on-going struggle over who controls Iraq.

If the recent history of Iran can serve as an example, the Revolutionary Guard, on whose model Al-Hashed in Iraq is being built, has ultimately displaced the clerical elite who were behind the Islamic Revolution and become the country’s centre of power.

This article appeared first in Al-Ahram Weekly on Oct 29, 2015

More than just IS

This article appeared in Al Ahram Weekly on April 2, 2015.The paper went to print before the Iraqi military started its operation to root out IS militants from Tikrit in collaboration with the Shia militias. The participation of the militias highlights the challenges to the overall campaign against IS and US-Iranian competition in Iraq which the article aimed to pinpoint.

More than just IS

 As Baghdad prepares to retake Mosul from Islamic State forces, Tehran and Washington seem to be locked in a race for prestige in Iraq, writes Salah Nasrawi

 On 25 March, US bombers launched their first airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) targets in Tikrit, coming off the sidelines to help Iraqi government forces fighting to retake control of the city from the terrorist group.

US president Barack Obama approved the bombardment after a request from Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi on the condition that Iranian-backed Shia militias that have been fighting alongside the Baghdad government troops move aside.

But the US decision to give air support to the Tikrit offensive, the biggest collaboration so far by the US-led coalition with the anti-IS campaign in Iraq, could define the US role in Iraq for years to come and shape its regional struggle with Iran.

The Americans stayed away from the Tikrit campaign when it started four weeks ago, largely because the United States has been refusing to take part in the operation which was launched without consultation with Washington. They insisted that they could only help if the operations were coordinated by the joint Iraqi-US military centre in Baghdad.

Prior to the Tikrit campaign, US officials leaked reports to the American media about the Iraqi military operation in Tikrit, saying that it had no clear targets. The reports also stirred doubts about whether government forces could beat the IS militants in street battles.

Though the Iraqi forces have regained a string of towns and villages near Tikrit from IS, the leaks also claimed that Iraqi short-term tactical victories would not be enough to defeat the group.

A main US criticism of the Tikrit campaign was its heavy reliance on the Shia militias. The latter’s track record of sectarian violence was highlighted in the American media with warnings that their involvement in more offensives threatened to drive more Iraqi Sunnis into the arms of IS.

It may be no coincidence that several human rights groups also released critical reports about abuses by the Shia militias during the Tikrit offensive. Most of these reports highlighted what they termed “violations of the laws of war” against Sunnis in the wake of the IS retreat from the towns.

These and other media reports carried disgruntled messages to al-Abadi, who is also commander-in-chief of the Iraqi armed forces, from Washington which has been leading an international coalition against IS since the terror group made stunning advance in northern Iraq last June.

Al-Abadi has also been under pressure from Brett McGurk, deputy leader of the US-led coalition, and Stuart E. Jones, the US ambassador to Iraq, who have been meeting with him regularly to press him to request coalition airstrikes and sidestep the Shia militias.

But when al-Abadi showed reluctance to heed the US warnings, knowing that he cannot tear up the Iraqi rule book without the green light from Iran, US officials went public to make their point about the offensives.

General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, told lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the operation to reclaim Tikrit was dominated by 20,000 Shia militia forces, which far outnumbered the 3,000 Iraqi troops also taking part in the assault.

Dempsey expressed concern about what might happen after the Shia militia forces took control of the Sunni-dominated city. The Obama administration has been pushing al-Abadi to form a Sunni National Guard to police their areas after the IS withdrawal.

After a recent trip to Iraq, Dempsey said he had seen a “plethora of flags” while flying over the country, but only one official flag of Iraq.

Iran showed its anger over the US joining forces with Iraq in the fight for Tikrit and in forcing the Iran-backed militias to stand down. The Iranians have orchestrated their own propaganda effort to discredit the US-led coalition in the anti-IS campaign.

On Monday, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said a US drone strike had killed two of its advisers in Iraq. Iran’s controlled media outlets have been reporting airstrikes by coalition warplanes against Iraqi troop positions. Some of these outlets have been selling blown-up reports about the US maintaining networks of supply lines with the terror group.

The United States and Iran have been in stiff competition since Iraq started its campaign against the jihadists who seized huge swathes of land in Iraq in the summer of last year. Iraqi Shia militia leaders have been saying that they intend to deprive Washington of victory and “glory” in Iraq.

But the political match seems to be more than a contest between Iran and the United States over who is taking ownership of the war against IS. Instead, it seems to be a power play over Iraq and even the Middle East as a whole.

For now, efforts to drive IS fighters from Tikrit have entered their second month. While most Iranian-backed Shia armed groups have boycotted the offensives in protest against the US-led airstrikes, Iraq’s military has proved to be ill-prepared to drive the militants back.

That could have a big impact on the liberation of the remaining territories from IS insurgents, especially Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul. In February, US Central Command officials disclosed that the battle for Mosul would likely begin in April or May.

Yet, the disagreements over the militias’ role may have far-reaching consequences for Iraq’s fragile government. Al-Abadi seems to be caught in a US and Iranian double-pincer that could not only cost him his job but also the country’s stability.

Since the militias were ordered to step aside, relations between al-Abadi and their leaders have sunk very low, and some of them have even accused the prime minister of hampering the liberation of Tikrit by capitulating to the American conditions.

Others have accused al-Abdi of “selling off” the Shias to the Americans.

On Monday, Hadi al-Amri, a key leader of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, the name given to the militias, warned that his fighters “will not fire a single bullet” unless the US airstrikes stop.

This is a vital moment for al-Abadi, and it provides his government with possibly its greatest challenge since it was formed in August last year. While the row has brought al-Abadi to the brink of a conflict with the Shia militias, any caving in to the militias will be disturbing to the Iraqi Sunnis and the Americans.

Sunni leaders in Mosul have insisted that the liberation of their city should be carried out without involvement by Iran or the Shia militias except Iraqi volunteers and forces from the Iraqi army.

Tribes in Anbar, another Sunni-dominated province awaiting liberation from IS, have also resisted the participation of the Shia militias in the operations.

Meanwhile, Washington has intensified pressure on al-Abadi’s serving as the putative defender and protector of the Iraqi Sunnis.

On Sunday, US vice-president Joe Biden called al-Abadi to remind him of the importance of “the protection of civilians and of ensuring all armed groups act under the control of the state.”

According to a White House statement, Biden reiterated Washington’s demand that the Iraqi government enable fighters from Sunni provinces to participate in reclaiming their own territory from IS.

Washington is expected to increase the pressure ahead of a visit to the White House by al-Abadi in mid-April to discuss US military cooperation with Iraq in the joint fight against IS.

Moreover, the Tikrit offensive and the widely expected campaign to retake Mosul could have an impact on wider regional conflicts involving Iran with the Sunni Arab world, if Shia militias resume their participation in the anti-IS campaign.

Sunni Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia accuse Iran of fuelling the conflict in a number of countries across the Middle East, including Iraq.

The Mosul operation is specifically sensitive to neighbouring Turkey, a largely Sunni populated nation which maintains close ties to Iraqi Sunnis.

While Turkey is concerned about Iran’s role, many in the country emphasise historical affiliations with Mosul going back to the Ottoman occupation of Iraq.

Twelve years after the US-led invasion that turned Iraq into a playground for terrorists and foreign forces, the bickering over the war against IS is not about defeating the terror group as much as it is about regional power.