Tense Alliance

Iraq Militias Threaten U.S. Over Friendly Fire Incident—but Did It Ever Happen?

While Obama talks up increased security cooperation and mulls sending more troop trainers, Iran-backed militias are vowing revenge over an explosion they say was a U.S. airstrike.

There were two rumors about the U.S. military in Iraq making the rounds Tuesday night.

The first, coming out of Washington, suggests that as many as 1,000 more American troops may be heading to Iraq soon, primarily as trainers and advisers to Iraqi security forces. Meanwhile, inside Iraq, Shia militias leading the ground war against ISIS are accusing the U.S. of secretly targeting them with airstrikes and are threatening reprisal attacks against Americans.

“We don’t want the coalition here,” Abu Ahmad, a commander from the Shia militia Ansar Allah al Awfiyah, said Tuesday. “They can send us weapons and intelligence reports about Daesh [ISIS], but we don’t want their planes or their soldiers here.”

That’s the fraught state of U.S. partnership with Iraqi forces in the counter-ISIS campaign, despite President Obama meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi this week to discuss increased security cooperation. The militias leading the war are the army of our ally in Baghdad, but our ally’s army considers us the enemy.

Militia groups backed by Iran and hostile to the U.S. have expanded their political power as they have assumed leadership over the war in the wake of the Iraqi military’s collapse. With the militias providing the bulk of the manpower to fight ISIS under the auspices of Iraq’s volunteer Popular Mobilization Units and firmly in charge of the war, attempts to ramp up stalled U.S. efforts to train the Iraqi military could threaten that power base.

On Tuesday morning, the Long War Journal’s Bill Roggio reported calls for “vengeance” against the U.S. from a leader of Harakat Nujaba, a Shia militia backed by Iran and aligned with Lebanese Hezbollah. The threat was prompted by the claim, circulating through Iraq, that the U.S. had killed members of another Iranian-backed militia group, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, in an airstrike last weekend in Abu Ghraib.

Blaming “the treacherous American aircraft” for the reported deaths of allied militiamen, Harakat Nujaba leader Akram Abbas al Kabi vowed, “All resistance movements will seek revenge in a timely manner.”

The U.S. has denied having any aircraft in Anbar province, where Abu Ghraib is located, when the explosion took place. The Iraqi government blamed the blast on ISIS rocket fire. The militias have not accepted either explanation.

Kabi is a veteran of Iraq’s Shia militias who heads a group that according to the Long War Journal was founded in 2013 to “facilitate the movement of Iraqi fighters into Syria to prop up President Bashar al Assad’s government.”

“Everyone is talking about this,” said Waleed Safi, a historian and journalist who is embedded with Shia militia groups in Iraq and was in Anbar on Tuesday.

The belief that U.S. intentionally bombed Iraqi security forces positions in Anbar “is very widespread,” Safi said, and inside Iraq the story “is escalating.”

“It’s not just the militias,” he said. Iraqi security forces members in Anbar whom Safi spoke with “are also saying the airstrike that hit was the Americans.”

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Of the 20 to 25 people Safi said he spoke with on Tuesday, all told him the explosion was caused by an airstrike, not by an explosion as the government in Baghdad has claimed. Most blamed the U.S. for the bombing, Safi said, but some acknowledged it wasn’t possible to identify what kind of aircraft dropped the bombs.

Supposed missile parts collected from the scene of the explosion in Abu Ghraib were turned over to another Shia militia group, Kataib Hezbollah. A representative of Kataib Hezbollah told Safi the group was conducting an investigation to prove that the blast was caused by a U.S. airstrike.

Safi asked to see the evidence himself and was told by a Kataib Hezbollah leader that he could view it. But despite the militia’s assurances it would present proof, its members refused to show him anything, citing “security reasons” and telling him that the team in Fallujah, where the evidence was allegedly being held, was not authorized to show it.

Even in the absence of evidence, the claim that the U.S. is targeting Iraq’s Shia groups has power. Among Iranian-backed Shia militias and Iraqi political groups influenced by Tehran, the belief that the U.S. is cooperating with ISIS is fairly common. A video promoted by Iran’s Press TV purporting to show U.S. helicopters dropping supplies to ISIS fighters has become popular among Iraq’s Shia sectarians and militias. Tacit cooperation between the U.S. and ISIS is actually the mild version of the theory. A more colorful strain relies on forged Edward Snowden documents to claim that ISIS was created by the U.S. and Israel, and is led by an Israeli actor playing the part of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Despite mutual suspicions, U.S. airpower has backed the Shia militias during a number of operations in Iraq. U.S. air support was a decisive factor in the recent battle for Tikrit, where it allowed bogged-down militia-led forces to break through ISIS’s defenses. That airpower has come with American interests and conditions attached, including taking the militias out of command and subordinating them to Iraqi military leaders. But with Iraq’s military in disarray and little to show for current U.S. efforts to train more soldiers, the militias have few challengers.