FPI Bulletin: Iranian-Backed Militias Endanger Iraq

August 20, 2015

Although it has received little attention in Washington, Iraq’s military and Iraqi Shiite militias allied with the Baghdad government have spent the summer organizing military operations against Ramadi, Fallujah, and other ISIS-held cities in Anbar Province. The Obama administration, which has largely kept quiet on the unfolding campaign, has at times tried to minimize the participation of Shiite militias in the offensive, but its willingness and ability to do so has been eroding. While allowing Iran and its proxies a greater role in combating ISIS may yield short-term benefits, it will likely give Iran greater influence in the region, exacerbate sectarian violence, and drive more Sunnis to join extremist organizations.

ISIS began its conquests in Iraq with the capture of Fallujah in January 2014. In June of that year, ISIS seized Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, and began to advance on Baghdad. American troops soon returned to Iraq for the first time since 2011 in order to train and support the Iraqi army, but on a small scale and without the participation of U.S. advisors in the field. From the air, the United States has conducted strikes against ISIS positions in both Iraq and Syria.

The Americans quickly learned that sectarianism had devastated the cohesion of the Iraqi security forces following the U.S. withdrawal in 2011. Meanwhile, the Iranians had strengthened their ties to Iraqi Shiite militia groups. When ISIS advanced on Baghdad, Iraq’s foremost Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a call for Shiites to take up arms in defense of the capital. Disagreements have arisen among the militia groups over questions of leadership and policy, with various militia commanders, Iraqi government leaders, and Iranian officers vying for influence. Nevertheless, mutual loathing of ISIS has caused the militias and the Iraqi and Iranian governments to collaborate on most matters pertaining to the defeat of ISIS.

The Shiite militias are better equipped and better trained than the Iraqi Army. A reported 100,000  of them have received Iranian military training. The Iraqi Ministry of Interior has authority over the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella organization to which most of the major militia groups belong, and many militia members hold leadership positions within the ministry, including the minister himself, Mohammed Salem Al-Ghabban, whose Badr Corps is the largest of the militias.

To curtail Iranian influence, the Obama administration has prodded Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to retake Sunni areas using the national army and anti-ISIS Sunni tribes, and not the Shiite militias.  While the Iraqi Army has taken the lead in Anbar province, the Sunni heartland, the militias have played a leading role elsewhere, most notably Tikrit, where General Qassem Suleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force, personally led militia forces. Although the United States initially refused to provide air support at Tikrit, the Iraqi government convinced the Obama administration to intervene by agreeing to remove the militias from the fray. Tikrit swiftly fell, but in the absence of American advisors on the ground, militiamen took a leading role in the occupation of Tikrit and committed acts of arson, looting, and murder. Refugees who later attempted to return to their homes were at times blocked and beaten by militiamen who accused them of supporting ISIS. As a result, Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar and many U.S. officials warned against allowing the militias to participate in upcoming operations in Anbar.

After the fall of Tikrit, ISIS rebounded by seizing Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province and the most important of Iraq’s Sunni cities, in May 2015. This new crisis convinced Prime Minister Abadi that he could no longer afford to keep the Shiite militias out of Anbar. In response, a Pentagon spokesman explained that the United States would condone the use of militias “as long as they are controlled by the central Iraqi government,” despite the inadequacies of that arrangement in Tikrit. In late May, the militias played a large role in a failed efforts to retake Ramadi. Despite their numerical advantage and Prime Minister Abadi’s assertion that Ramadi would fall “in days,” ISIS consolidated its control.

In mid-July, Baghdad announced a renewed offensive against Ramadi. Iraqi officials made clear their lack of concern for civilian casualties and Sunni opinion. “In the past we were concerned about the innocent people in these areas, but for the coming military campaign we need victory at any cost,” said Brigadier Yahia Rasoul, a spokesman of Iraq’s defense ministry. This statement was particularly worrisome, because the ministry of defense had previously been the least sectarian part of the Iraqi government.

Reportedly, the Obama administration recently convinced the Baghdad government to reduce Shiite militia participation in operations near Ramadi. While a U.S. military spokesman said Iraqi forces were encircling Ramadi with support from U.S. airstrikes, the big push on Ramadi remains elusive, to no small extent because without the militia, the assault forces remain short on manpower.

In Fallujah, on the other hand, the Iraqi government has used the militias as the main attack force since May. The Iraqi air force has reportedly bombed suspected ISIS targets in Fallujah without concern for the presence of civilians. Even so, the militias have made little progress.

With every day that ISIS retains its grip on Anbar’s cities, the Iraqi government and its Iranian partners will be less likely to accept restraints on the Shiite militias. While the prospect of both damaging ISIS and improving relations with Tehran may tempt the White House to withdraw its objections, such benefits may be illusory.

Allowing Shiite militias to attack Sunni cities may increase the chances of near-term success, but would undermine the U.S. interest in persuading the Sunnis to turn against ISIS. While Iraqi government spokesmen talk about the “liberation of Anbar,” militia atrocities could cement Sunni antagonism toward Baghdad. Furthermore, America’s acquiescence may convince Iraqi Sunnis that the United States had sold them out, thus making them more amenable to recruitment by ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other anti-American extremists. In neighboring Syria, American passivity has already driven moderate nationalists into the arms of extremists. A militia-led offensive might also persuade the Gulf monarchies to support militant Sunni groups, in the belief that any Sunni is better than an Iranian-backed Shiite. Finally, if successful, a militia-led offensive would facilitate the movement of Iranian men and materiel into Syria and Lebanon, heightening threats to Jordan and Israel.

Only the United States can hold back the Shiite militias, rebuild Iraq’s army, and accumulate enough Sunni support to isolate and break down ISIS without genocidal violence. The United States will have to increase its troop commitment in Iraq to achieve those objectives. As events have demonstrated, a lack of decisive American action in Iraq will leave the decisions in the hands of the Iranians.

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