Instead of marginalising these merciless, sectarian, anti-Western, Iran proxy militias, American officials have “regularly participated in joint operation meetings in Baghdad that include representatives of Shiite militias.”
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the beginning of an offensive on March 1 to dislodge the Islamic State (ISIS) from Salah ad-Din Province. Abadi announced that this would be led by the Iraqi army and Hashd al-Shabi, known in English as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), the militias composed overwhelmingly of Shi’ites and directed by Iran.
While the offensive seems to be winding down, it is not over. ISIS is out of ad-Dawr/Dour and al-Awja, south of Tikrit, and Albu Ajeel to the east. Al-Alam to the north seems to still be contested. On March 10, ISIS was driven out of al-Qadissiya, a northern district of Tikrit City. On March 11, the anti-ISIS forces entered Tikrit City, “inched closer to the city center … and took up positions in a military hospital, the police academy and the traffic police headquarters … Forces in southern districts took over three palaces erected by former dictator Saddam Hussein”.
Iraqi media reported on March 11 that the fall of Tikrit was expected the next day. Iran proxy militia Harakat Hizballah an-Nujaba (HHN)announced that the town had actually fallen. That wasn’t true: as of the morning of March 12, ISIS “still held the presidential complex and at least three other districts in the center of Tikrit, holding up further army advances with snipers and bombs.”
Since the offensive began, a massive and well-organised messaging campaign has been underway to portray the offensive in Tikrit as a solely Iraqi affair, and to smear as sectarian anyone who points out Iran’s overwhelming role in planning and leading the offensive. The Special Groupies have argued that Iran’s role has been exaggerated, that the militias are simply a reaction to ISIS, that the militias are not sectarian, and that the atrocities committed by the militias are in no way comparable to those committed by ISIS. These arguments are all gravely mistaken.
Argument One: Iran’s Role Is Overstated
One means of minimising Iran’s role has been to argue that most Shi’ites joined the militias did so in response to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s fatwa on June 13, 2014, a few days after ISIS invaded Iraq from Syria. There is truth in this. However, it is irrelevant to the question of Iran’s influence, as can be seen from the example of Syria.
In Syria, Iran has orchestrated a Shi’a jihad to save Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Iran did this by manufacturing a religious crisis, specifically by disseminating propaganda saying takfiris wanted to destroy the Shi’ite shrine of Sayyida Zaynab near Damascus, then recruiting Shi’ites from Afghanistan to West Africa (the majority were Iraqi), to defend this shrine. On the pretext of preventive measures, Shi’ite foreign fighters are now leading Assad’s offensive in Aleppo. Quite possible the majority of Shi’ite jihadists in Syria don’t adhere to absolute veleyat e-faqih, and at the individual level simply believe themselves to be conducting a religious duty for holy war. This doesn’t negate the fact that they are serving a State power-play by Iran. There are even Christian militias formed by Iran’s proxies, and despite the fact Christians are mistreated in Iran and would be reduced to dhimmis if the Khomeini’ist vision was realised in Iraq and Syria, these formations too represent “a major strategic victory for Tehran and its proxies“.
Now apply this to Iraq, where some of the Iraqi Shi’ite jihadists have returned after gaining battlefield experience in Syria.
Baghdad’s de facto commander-in-chief is Qassem Suleimani, the leader of the Quds Force, the external operations wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), which is charged with exporting the Iranian revolution. Suleimani arrived in Iraq the day before Abadi gave the order for the offensive, and has beenpicturedmanytimes at the front since and even appeared in a video—ensuring that everybody who cares to notice can see who is in control.
After the fall of Albu Ajeel on March 9, Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s (AAH) leader Qais al-Khazali made a speech celebrating the leading role of his militia in expelling ISIS. Khazali had been a commander in Muqtada Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM). Iran broke Khazali’s splinter from JAM, training it via Hizballah’s Unit 3800, led by the Lebanese Ali Musa Daqduq, a “surrogate” for the IRGC, which put an Arab face on the efforts of the IRGC’s Ramzan Corp or Department 9000 to create “Special Groups” (proxy Shi’ite militias) to kill Coalition forces. AAH killed hundreds of Western soldiers in Iraq.
Sheibani is now a main leader of Kataib Sayyid as-Shuhada (KSS, the Master of the Martyrs Brigade), which has taken a largepart in the offensive in Tikrit. KSS’ formal leader, Faleh al-Harishawi (a.k.a. Abu Mustafa al-Khazali), is an MP from Basra who has fought in Syria. KSS’ was one of the earliest announced Iraqi Shi’ite jihadist groups in Syria in April 2013. KSS is a direct Iranian proxy: its holy warriors, when killed in Syria, are returned to Iraq via Iran, for example. KSS, which has a particular fondness for publishing graphic images, was put together by Iran through Kataib Hizballah (KH) and the Badr Corp (now formally Badr Organisation).
Badr is Iran’s oldest Iraqi proxy, fighting with Iran in the Iran-Iraq War, and the militia from which the leaders of the other Special Groups are largely taken. Badr has been led by Hadi al-Ameri since 2002. Ameri was Iraq’s Transport Secretary, aiding Iran’s supply-flights to Assad. Sheibani, Badr’s commander before Ameri, brought the EFPs into Iraq via old Badr smuggling networks from Iran that supplied Badr during its shadow struggle with Saddam during the 1990s.
Sheibani took over command of Badr in the 1990s from Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Muhandis partnered with Hizballah for the 1983 bombings in Kuwait and the 1985 assassination attempt on the Kuwaiti emir. Muhandis has Iranian citizenship, is a close adviser to Suleimani, and during the American regency in Iraq was an Iraqi parliamentarian who lived in Iran—taking no effort to hide that he’s an agent of a foreign government.
Muhandis returned to Iraq in 2007 to lead KH, another Sadrist splinter and the most elite Special Group. Muhandis is personally designated a terrorist by America, and KH is organisationally. Muhandis also oversees a newly-created Iranian proxy in Iraq, Kataib al-Imam Ali (KAI), which is formally led by Shebl az-Zaydi, once a senior figure in JAM and “reportedly one of its more vicious sectarian leaders“. Zaydi, freed from jail in 2010 by Baghdad, has since worked in the Youth and Sports Ministry.
While Sheibani’s smuggling network largely supplied EFPs to AAH, Sheibani himself is more closely tied to KH. This is not surprising, given the close connection between Sheibani and Muhandis. “At one point,” it is said, “Muhandis and Sheibani lived in the same IRGC compound.” Sheibani is reported to have returned to Iraq in 2010.
Badr, AAH, KH, KSS, KAI, and various Sadrist elements are now the backbone of the PMUs and Muhandis had been the official leader of the PMUs; that role has now been passed to Ameri.
Through this dizzying web of agents and cut-outs—and it is intended to be confusing, to look spontaneous, to give Iran “deniability”—Iran exerts its control over the security sector in Iraq, and as Michael Doran has put it, “You could put … a stuffed animal … in the role of the Prime Minister in Iraq; what matters are the security services. And the security sector in Iraq is now totally under the thumb of the Iranians.”
Argument Two: The Shi’ite Militias Are Merely Reactive
A further argument is that the PMUs are simply people taking up arms to defend their homeland from ISIS. For many individual Iraqi Shi’a, this is true. For the expansion of Iran’s proxy militias, now under the PMU label, this is simply false. Not only were Badr and Hizballah—which even Hassan Nasrallah now admits (a decade late) is fighting in Iraq—created by Iran in 1982, and not only where Badr and its various offshoots operating in Iraq through the 1990s and then during the American regency to consolidate a “sectarian deep state,” but even in this most recent phase of Iraq’s crisis, the expansion of Iran’s Shi’ite militias began before ISIS’ invasion in June.
The expansion of Iran’s proxy militias was not limited to Anbar, and was occurring in Salah ad-Din, too. In January 2014, Saddam’s Albu Nasir tribe in Tikrit moved Saddam’s body for fear of the Shi’ite militias, a caution that was well-founded: Shi’ite militias stormed the tomb and set it ablaze in August 2014. By February 2014, AAH was rampaging through Salah ad-Din, matching ISIS in brutality as Iraq slid back into sectarian civil war. Both Maliki and AAH denied that AAH was connected with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). But the role of AAH, Badr, and KH under official cover across western and central Iraq was crystal clear.
Maliki mobilised militias after an April 7, 2014, meeting because he did not trust the official Iraqi forces—Maliki had purged the army of independent commanders, gave orders directly to men in the field by mobile telephones, and ran the Special Forces out of his own office, but he was still too paranoid to believe he had total control. And the mobilisation of Iran’s Shi’ite militias also happened at least six weeks before ISIS’ invasion of Iraq and Sistani’s fatwa. Khamenei’s taklif shari’i (obligation of law) for KH to mobilise was issued in April 2014. To disobey such a command is tantamount to disobeying god.
The expansion of Iran’s proxy militias is not a response to ISIS; the ISIS war has given Iran a pretext to accelerate a process that has been underway for decades.
Argument Three: The Shi’ite Militias Are Not Sectarian
Probably the major Special Groupie argument, other than denying the Special Groups are controlled by Iran, is that the militias are actually nationalist. In buttressing this narrative, statements from non-Shi’ite politicians in favour of the PMUs are promoted. This has focussed on Sunni Arab politicians, many of them co-opted by Baghdad in Maliki’s time and not representing anybody but themselves, but also men likeDilbar Zebari, a Kurd and senior member of the Mosul City Council. Zebari is promoted despite the fact he is widely hated among the Kurds and that the Peshmerga was, at least until recently, on a collision course with Iran’s proxies.
Apologists emphasise the Sunni tribal fighters that accompanied Hashd into Tikrit: They said there were up to 5,000 Sunni pro-government fighters, though the real is around 1,000. AAH now boasts a Sunni unit. But as Phillip Smyth has pointed out: “a few token Sunni groups … is not going to change that this will be viewed as a fairly sectarian push”.
The propaganda accompanying this offensive is clearly sectarian. A widely-disseminated music video, put out under the logo of Liwa Ammar Ibn Yasir, linked to HHN and in turn AAH, Shi’ite militias involved in the Tikrit offensive, hails Suleimani as the “Falcon of the Shi’a,” makes reference to the “living martyr” Khamenei, and includes the line: “our sect is protected by him”. With this in the background it is extraordinary to see the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs say Iran’s role is a “positive thing” and “will only be a problem if it results in sectarianism”!
The overtly sectarian nature of the offensive can be seen in the name given to the offensive to retake Tikrit: REVENGE FOR SPEICHER. On June 12, 2014, at the Air Force based on Tikrit called Camp Speicher, ISIS separated out the Shi’ite cadets from the Sunnis, and murdered more than 1,500 Shi’ites.
There were reports that men from the local tribe, Albu Ajeel, helped ISIS in the Speicher massacre. This has led to threats of collective retribution against Sunnis. As senior and ostensibly-moderate a figure as PM Abadi said on March 2: “If someone is being neutral with ISIS, then he is one of them.” Ameri sharpened the point, directly threatening Albu Ajeel should it not renounce ISIS and side with the Shi’ite militias. But even the Sunnis fighting alongside the PMUs are “more anti-ISIS than they are pro-government“. Badr commanders have publicly stated that “collaborators [with ISIS are] worse than the terrorists,” and their “punishment will be more severe,” a license for collective punishment of Sunni communities seen as insufficiently hostile to ISIS, a position Sunnis have been forced into by seeing ISIS as the only barrier to domination and worse by sectarian, Iran-backed forces.
In short, while pro-government Sunnis are used to buttress a narrative of the Shi’ite militias acting for all Iraqis, anti-government Sunnis are all written off as pro-ISIS—and such people do not deserve a hearing, but rather have to be destroyed as “collaborators” and traitors.
Argument Four: Hashd al-Shabi’s Conduct Is Not Comparable to ISIS’
Those following the advance of the Shi’ite militias have been treated to all manner of atrocities, wholly indistinguishable from ISIS.
After Badr expelled ISIS from Diyala Province in late January and established rule in the area, there was ethnic cleansing of Sunnis, redrawing the map to extend Shi’a demographic predominance from Diyala to Samarra. “If the Shi’ite militia see me they will cut my head off, if Daesh see me they will kill my brother,” one displaced Sunni said, adding of ISIS and Badr: “They’re both the same”.
Among the most harrowing videos from Tikrit shows a Shi’ite jihadist beheading a Sunni captive—apparently a farmer—surrounded by a cheering crowd of militiamen. Unskilled, it ends with the knife-wielding militiaman stabbing the head off his captive. A video the same day has a Shi’ite militiaman—who looks underage—decapitating a dead body, apparently an ISIS jihadist. The militias have a mania for beheading—and showing the pictures/videos: stacks of decapitated heads in wheelbarrows, heads displayed on top of drainage pipes, heads played football with, and in a particularly gruesome AAH video, multiple heads were carried by a crowd of militiamen who then beat the heads while chanting sectarian slogans.
On March 3, a barbaric video showed the Shi’ite militias shooting a teenage boy after accusing him of being ISIS. Even one of the militiamen tried standing in front of the boy and asking, “What’s wrong with you?”
This major upsurge in the dissemination of brutal images from the Shi’ite militias started last autumn. One infamous tactic adopted at that time is the “killing zones” in the Sunni farmlands around Baghdad, where, the militias/ISF say: “There are no civilians. Everyone in these killing zones we consider Islamic State.” Similar rhetoric of “no civilians” was heard as the militias headed into Tikrit.
Amnesty International has documented the “widespread killings by paramilitary Shi’a militias,” and this finally reached the Western press in a major way with a report by ABC on Wednesday, which highlighted the fact that these militias do this with American weapons and de facto American support—something that ISIS is not failing to translate into its propaganda.
The Special Groupies’ response is to say that while individual atrocities occur in battle, the PMU leadership condemns such behaviour, thus any equivalence between Iran’s proxy militias and ISIS is unwarranted. This is nonsense on particularly elevated stilts. For one thing, the atrocity videos and pictures are put out on the official platforms of the PMUs. “Usually when forces commit such crimes they try to hide them,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East Executive Director at Human Rights Watch said. “What we are seeing here is a brazen, proud display of these terrible crimes.”
The Shi’ite militias want this material disseminated, just as ISIS does with its gruesome material, to attempt to terrorise ISIS—and Sunnis generally—into submission, and a message to Shi’ites that the PMUs have the stomach for this fight and can protect the Shi’ites. That Iran’s proxies add in occasional condemnations of this material only emphasises the sophistication of Iran’s messaging—and this has been going on for years, starting in Syria.
Pro-Baghdad media openly says the PMUs in Tikrit are led by Ameri, Muhandis, Qais al-Khazali—Iranian agents to a man—and Iranian commanders, all of whom have long records of committing terrorism and atrocities. It is a weak argument to say that because Iran’s proxies haven’t been caught on video making exterminationist threats they are superior to ISIS.
This argument reached its logical conclusion after the hateful statement of Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman that disloyal Israeli Arabs should be beheaded: the Special Groupies seriously maintained that since this was a matter of policy from a senior Israeli—the absence of danger to Israeli Arabs notwithstanding—it was worse than the savage conduct and uncountable beheadings by the Shi’ite militias.
Ameri speaks to Western journalists and runs Diyala like Iran or Hizballah-controlled areas of Lebanon, as a durable theocratic dictatorship rather than the crazed pseudo-State of ISIS, and for this Ameri and the Shi’ite militias are said to be morally superior to ISIS. That this speaks to Iran’s superior propaganda capabilities and more realistic attempt to erase the region’s borders and consolidate an Islamist Imperium is studiously ignored by the apologists. Because of the backing for the Shi’ite jihadists by oil-rich States, they can run areas better than ISIS. But the anti-Western animus, fanaticism, willingness to use terrorism, sectarianism, and cruelty toward Iran’s opponents is at least comparable to ISIS, and in the case of Syria has notably exceeded ISIS in both scope and scale.
American actions have been profoundly unhelpful to the stated goal of destroying ISIS. While the U.S. has not backed the Tikrit offensive with airstrikes, the U.S. has been acting as the air force for these Iran-controlled forces in Iraq, and making Iraq an American-Iranian condominium. The Obama administration’s rapprochement with Iran, which has entailed a de facto alliance with Iran from Yemen to Syria, ispushing the Sunni moderates needed for a lasting solution to the ISIS problem into the ISIS camp.
A major argument for not supporting the Syrian rebellion these last four years is that the weapons might end up in the hands of forces that will kill and ethnically cleanse minorities. This logic is not holding in Iraq, where American weapons are flowing to brutal sectarian militias like Badr and actual designated terrorist groups like KH, who are killing and dispossessing Iraq’s Sunni minority. These inconsistencies are part of what ISIS feeds on.
Instead of marginalising these merciless, sectarian, anti-Western, Iran proxy militias, American officials have “regularly participated in joint operation meetings in Baghdad that include representatives of Shiite militias.” Indeed, U.S. ambassador Stuart Jones personally offeredAmeri, a fanatically anti-Western murderer and terrorist, the U.S. air force.
Ameri has said—stood next to Muhandis on the frontlines in Tikrit—that while these Iranian proxies wage “jihad” to defeat ISIS and defend the homeland, the notoriously work-shy Iraqi MPs in Baghdad are drawing a salary and doing nothing. This populist appeal, with its element of truth, within the greater narrative of Iran and its tributaries having come to the rescue while anti-Iran elements in Baghdad either did nothing or supported ISIS, is the political victory Iran is securing in Iraq. The Shi’ite militias are going to part of Iraq’s political landscape for a long time to come, and through them Iran is not just securing power on the ground but legitimacy.
This is not just a problem for the Sunnis. The failure of the U.S. to give the Iraqi Shi’a another option leaves them dependent on Iran against ISIS—and knowing that this war and the heightened sectarian tensions create Shi’ite dependency, Iran has every interest in perpetuating the war and consolidating sectarian identities. Many Shi’a do not define their faith via the Iranian revolution, but what resistance have they if the Americans hand them over to men like Ameri, who believes that “Khamenei … is the leader not only for Iranians but the Islamic nation,” and has the troops to back it up?
This heightened sectarianism is among many reasons Iran’s influence in Iraq hostile to Western interests.
Michael Flynn, former DIA director, has noted that “groups like the Badr Corps represent enemies of a stable, secure, and inclusive Iraq. As soon as we get done helping them with ISIS, they will very likely turn on us.” This consideration is now among the things preventing American action against Assad. Obama has already given Assad a security guarantee and a loan of the U.S. air force. In exchange, Iran is holding its forces off the Americans in Iraq. But Iran’s forbearance is “contingent on that support continuing“; if the U.S. “infringe[s] on what Iran sees as its long-term interest [in Syria] … those Shia militias could turn” on American troops. Iran has a long history of hostage-taking; the West acquiescing to it is a recent development.
Other than the amount of Western blood these Shi’ite militias have spilled, Iran’s dominance of Iraq is a recipe for further chaos and killing. In mid-2007, David Petraeus assessed Iran’s proxy militias as being “more of a hindrance to long-term security in Iraq than [ISIS],” and this remains true now. If Sunnis’ only alternative to ISIS is the Iran-backed sectarian governments that sparked the war across the Fertile Crescent in the first place, they are not going to rebel against ISIS. Put simply: if the Shi’ite militias march on Mosul, the Sunnis will resist, and ISIS will again make itself the vanguard of this resistance; rather than splitting the Sunnis and ISIS, this will unify them.
Moreover, Iran simply cannot rule from Tehran to Beirut over something like twenty million Sunnis; whatever the attempt brings it won’t be stability.
Iran leading this offensive is “brilliant” for ISIS: “it … plays into their narrative that the Iranians are leading a Shiite conspiracy to take over the Middle East and that the U.S. is complicit in this plot”. The tragedy is, “What began as Mideast conspiracy theory now has the distinction of being an aspirational presidential legacy.”
Obama’s support for the Hizballahization of Syria and Iraq—the Iranian revolutionary model where Iran’s proxies operate alongside the formal State structures, especially the security services, but also within them, and direct them—is weakening the Western ability to contain Iran’s ambition for nuclear weapons:
[B]ecause the central [Obama] policy wasn’t Iran’s disarmament but Iran’s cooperation in (allegedly) stabilising the Middle East, what the U.S. really wanted was a nuclear deal that could get them past this thorny issue and to more pleasant pastures like fighting the Islamic State. This meant the U.S. threw away the “or else” [in the nuclear negotiations]: the process was the interest, which allowed Iran to turn the tables; now Iran could threaten to walk away from the negotiations if it didn’t get what it wanted. Iran gained sanctions relief, and every six months Iran can now say, “Pay up, or we leave”.
Obama’s Iran détente is allowing Tehran to build a Jihadist Empire that is making Iran immune to Western pressure. For example, with its control of the Iraqi government, Iran takes a share of oil revenue to fund the Quds Force, rendering Iran’s global terrorist apparatus invulnerable to Western sanctions. A “common trope” in Shi’a Iraq is that America and/or Israel are behind ISIS. Both Hizballah and the Iraqi Shi’ite jihadist militias therefore see attacking the West as a key component of the anti-ISIS fight. With Iran’s long record of anti-Western global terrorism, what are the chances that, with a beachhead on NATO’s doorstep in Syria, Iran does not help one of these deluded Shi’ite radicals, who believe America sent ISIS to destroy the Shi’a, attack the West?
While America acquiescing in the Islamist regime in Iran taking over Iraq will eventuate in bloodshed at home, it entails extraordinary damage to the forces of moderation in the region and the chances for defeating ISIS in the here-and-now.