Sudden setbacks around the strategic city of Ramadi in Iraq have blown a hole in the recent optimism of the Pentagon and the Baghdad government. The war against the so-called Islamic State, widely known as ISIS or ISIL, looks like it is going to be a long one, and the critical undecided question remains: “Who’s going to fight it?”
U.S. officials would like us to believe that the Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia militias that were at the vanguard in the first wave of attacks to retake the city of Tikrit last month are now of less importance. The final push into the city center there had the way paved by U.S. and allied coalition airstrikes, and the boots on the ground belonged to—well, who did they belong to?
Some were Iraqi government troops, but some were Shia militias. And U.S. government officials, including State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, have not only attempted to cast the battle as a victory for the Western-led coalition—downplaying the active role of the Iranian-backed groups—but may be trying to fudge the facts about the groups which benefited from the U.S. airstrikes.
The fact is, Iranian domination of the Iraqi security field extends to many groups, both old and new. The Badr Organization is the largest of the Iranian proxies and its leader, Hadi al Amiri, maintains a large amount of control in politics and on the battlefield.
Meanwhile, Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, a wanted terrorist and Iranian agent who was convicted of bombing the U.S. embassy in Kuwait in 1983 and of building the registered terrorist group Kata’ib Hizballah, has now been made the deputy commander for the Popular Mobilization Force, the umbrella organization for the agglomeration of Iraqi Shia militias.
Since the collapse of the Iraqi army and other state security apparatuses last year, many of which had been infiltrated by Iranian-backed groups, the U.S. has lacked credible allies on the ground. Even before the main ISIS push last June to take Mosul, the second-largest metropolis in Iraq, Iran’s proxy militias were already building up their forces, and it wasn’t a pretty picture. Many of these groups racked up gruesome records of human-rights abuses. But the strength of these Shia militias is an undeniable reality, and it has put U.S. policymakers into the position of looking for “good” Shia militias with cleaner records and fewer links to Tehran.
For instance, an April 2 an article in The Wall Street Journal suggested one militia that the U.S. could work with was Kata’ib Jund al-Imam (KJI), translated as the Brigades of the Soldiers of the Imam. American and Iraqi officials interviewed for that piece claimed that this group, and others, “aren’t beholden to Iran, and are more careful to avoid stoking sectarian tensions with the Sunni community, [and] will help defeat the Sunni militants across Iraq.” According to CNN’s Ben Wedemen, the group’s fighters did not treat a commander from the Iranian-controlled Badr Organization with much respect. And surely this must mean KJI is more attentive to American demands and is no Iranian proxy.
Nadhim al Assadi, one of the group’s commanders, told the Journal, “Yes, we have our ideology and visions but at the end of the day, we go with the interests of the majority.”
Wait a minute. What “ideology and visions” are they are they referring to?
On one of the organization’s official web pages, their “What We Believe” section is quite open about what the group represents, and emphasizes its deep links to Tehran. Among their numbered principles: the foundation concept is Islamic government based on the wisdom of the marja’iya (religious sources of emulation, namely grand ayatollahs) and Wilayat al-Faqih.
Shades of the Ayatollah Khomeini: Wilayat al-Faqih is a broad concept in Shia jurisprudence, and in the traditional sense it often includes clerics caring for the infirm or orphans. But in the KJI context it takes on the ideological meaning of absolute Wilayat al-Faqih, a concept spelled out by Khomeini, Iran’s first Supreme Leader, in his book Islamic Government and still very much the prevailing ideology of the Islamic Republic of Iran today.
In the existing environment, this ideology calls for absolute political and religious loyalty to Iran’s current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Underlining the militia’s true loyalties are KJI events and posters extolling the sacrifices of martyrs killed in battle that regularly feature imagery of Khamenei and Khomeini.
It’s important to note that Iraq’s most prominent religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, is no fan of absolute Wilayat al-Faqih. In fact, absolute Wilayat al-Faqih is not a prevailing ideology in Iraq or with the Shia population as a whole, and many members of the militia probably are not ideologues and are only in the group to fight ISIS. But it is clear that the leadership elements of the organization are loyal to Iran, despite their claim to answer only to the government in Baghdad.
Another point listed by the group proclaims it will not allow for peace and security to be “violated by the imperialists, the usurpers, and the arrogant, particularly America.” The rhetoric is telling: “the arrogant” is a stock expression used by Iran’s clerical leadership and it’s frequently tweeted by Khamenei’s own Twitter account to refer to the United States.
Worse—much worse—KJI recently held a memorial service which featured its secretary general praising Hezbollah. The event focused on the “martyrdom” of Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of Hezbollah’s arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh, who was blown up in 2008 in a joint U.S.-Israeli operation. The younger Mughniyeh had become a protégé, almost like a son, to the infamous Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Suleimani. A Hezbollah flag was attached to the lectern and KJI posters venerating the younger Mughniyeh and Lebanon’s Hezbollah were festooned on the walls behind the speaker, who was none other than KJI Secretary General Ahmed al Assadi.
As it happens, al Assadi is the spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Force, suggesting the entire umbrella organization under which Iraq’s Shia militias operate is more beholden to a foreign power than to Baghdad.
Of course, this is just as Tehran would have it. It’s always been in Iran’s interests to promote the narrative that all Shia militias are working on its behalf, and American officials looking at the situation in Iraq should not fall into that trap. But neither should they have any illusions.
The overwhelming majority of Shia joining militias are not Khomeinists; they simply wish to defend their country. That needs to be understood and taken into account from the American point of view, and perhaps exploited. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the nature of the organizational leadership that exists now.
If the U.S. goal is to find or develop Shia militias with less Iranian influence, it’s going to face a lot of challenges. The Quds-Force-affiliated groups have a marked advantage in promoting themselves. They have Facebook pages and websites, or course, and in many cases they also have their own TV stations.
Due to the situation on the battlefield and the way supplies are routed, independent operations by less pro-Iran groups are harder to pull off. Meanwhile, training regimens are being centralized under the Popular Mobilization Force with its own “Directorate of Ideological Guidance.” Thus, identifying smaller new groups with less of a tie to Tehran is going to become increasingly difficult.
So, do Shia militias exist that are independent or unhappy with Iran’s increasing levels of control over Iraq’s security apparatuses? The answer is a tentative yes. Indeed, one of these militia/political groups might fit that description, and it reportedly has tens of thousands of members. But it’s not exactly a popular group in Washington.
The scabrous anti-American cleric Muqtada al Sadr could present a body of fighters which, in a roundabout way, could counter both ISIS and Tehran. His troops these days are called the Peace Brigades, and they are essentially a new incarnation of the Mahdi Army, which was used by the Iranians as a proxy during the American occupation of Iraq, fighting coalition forces and killing scores of them. And Sadr’s followers are not exactly inclined to cooperate with U.S. forces now. Fighters belonging to his Peace Brigades even claimed to suspend operations during the battle in Tikrit in protest against the use of American airpower in Iraq. Sadr has a history of ethnic cleansing and also of attacks on coreligionists, particularly more moderate players, including the horrific murder by his supporters of Sayyid Abdul Majid al Khoei in 2003.
Yet, if the priority is to counter Iran while fighting ISIS, an American modus vivendi with Sadr may be necessary. Certainly the modus vivendi between Sadr and Tehran is not going well. The Iranians have built up numerous Sadrist splinter groups that put pressure on the leader. At the same time, Sadr’s criticism of the actions of Iranian-controlled militias and his more nationalistic tone—going so far as to suspend his group’s activities after the slaying of an Iraqi Sunni tribal leader—certainly demonstrates a shift.
Does Washington have the capacity and willingness to manipulate these differences and use them? To do so, policymakers will have to admit they are now engaged in a “Great Game” style of conflict, working with Tehran as the two parties roll back the genocidal “Islamic State,” yet working against it on other fronts, all in the context of myriad splinter groups and rivalries that the Iranians have spent many years understanding and exploiting.
The Americans, if they deepen their involvement—and there is every reason to believe they will—would do well to remember the maxim of Colonel Creighton, an officer, an anthropologist and a spy who was Rudyard Kipling’s great fictional player of the Great Game in India: “There is,” he said, “no sin so great as ignorance.”