The Obama Administration Has Made A Striking Choice In Iraq

Kataib HezbollahThaier al-Sudani/ReutersIraqi Shi’ite Muslim men from the Iranian-backed group Kataib Hezbollah wave the party’s flags while marching in a parade.

The US is stepping up its assistance to Iraq, with plans to send 175 M1 Abrams tanks and scores of armoured vehicles to an army that’s hasn’t been a trustworthy recipient of American aid.

And now Bloomberg is reporting that Iranian-backed Shi’ite sectarian militias are receiving equipment intended for the Iraqi military’s sole use, with the likely complicity of officials in Iraq’s security apparatus.

According to Eli Lake and Josh Rogin, US weapons are “winding up in the possession of the country’s Shiite militias.” American policymakers are aware of this but have decided that the moral hazard of supplying an Iraqi army that in turn supplies Shi’ite militias pales in comparison to the dangers of another ISIS blitz. 

“One senior administration official told us that the U.S. government is aware of this, but is caught in a dilemma,” Bloomerg reports. “The flawed Iraqi security forces are unable to fight Islamic State without the aid of the militias, who are often trained and sometimes commanded by officers from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. And yet, if the U.S. stopped sending arms to the Iraqi military, things would get even worse, with IS overrunning more of the country and committing human-rights horrors on a broader scale. The risk of not aiding them was greater than the risk of aiding them, the official said, adding that this didn’t mean the administration was unconcerned about the risks involved.” 

Iran has been closely advising Iraq’s military during the anti-ISIS fight. Sunni tribes — a crucial but fledgling partner in the US strategy in Iraq — have accused the Iraqi government of handing over military power to Iranian advisors as IRGC and Hezbollah fighters enter the country.

“Since the outbreak of the conflict Iran has wanted to turn Iraq into its own backyard through its agents,” Anbar tribal chief Sheikh Abdul Qadir al-Nael told Rudaw. “Now the military presence of Iran in Iraq has become clear as it has exceeded the Iranian advisers to thousand of other soldiers.”

The Shia Militias

As Matt Bradley and Ghassan Adnan reported for the Wall Street Journal in December, Shi’ite militias are more motivated, better trained, and more tactically proficient than Iraq’s national military. But these aren’t exactly virtues, considering Iraq’s ethnic and religious diversity, when those militias are burning Sunni villages to the ground.

The militias’ high morale and competence has fuelled and enabled a spate of sectarian human rights abuses, “including mass shootings of prisoners and Sunni civilians and the forced displacement of Sunni families on a scale approaching ethnic cleansing.” 

IraqREUTERSThe areas of control in Iraq as of October. The front lines have not drastically changed.

So the administration’s calculation may actually undersell the risks of indirectly supplying Iranian proxies. Although Lake and Rogin don’t directly name the militias that are receiving US weapons, a few possibilities come to mind — and none of them are encouraging.

The most important Shi’ite militia might be the Badr Brigade, a pro-Iranian militia turned political party that was one of the most brutal combatants in Iraq’s civil war last decade. And Iraq’s new interior minister, Mohammed al-Ghabban, served as a senior official in the Badr militia.

Then there’s Kataib Hezbollah, a group that (in this case ironically) began life as “a small elite force of around 400 fighters to carry out operations against the United States and Coalition Forces in Iraq” according to Iraq analyst Joel Wing.

Kataib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahi Muhandis received training in Iran and was implicated in terrorist attacks on American targets in Kuwait in 1983; he is also closely allied with former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, another notorious Shi’ite sectarian.

There’s also Kataib Imam Ali, whose secretary general “was once a noted figure in Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army — and reportedly one of its more vicious sectarian leaders” according to Matthew Levitt and Philip Smyth of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The group Asai’b ahl al-Haq was actually kicked out of the Sadrist camp during the US campaign in Iraq because of its especially close ties to Iran and its anti-nationalist, pan-Shi’ite ideology. Wing characterises the group, which fought against the US-led coalition during last decade’s Iraq war, as a member of the “ad hoc-force” Maliki called upon to fight ISIS over the summer as Iraq’s regular military disintegrated.

Asaib Ahl al-HaqYoussef Boudlal/ReutersMilita fighters with Asaib Ahl al-Haq Shi’ite, a proxy of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, from the south of Iraq run during a mission to take control of Sulaiman Pek village from Islamist State militants, in the northwest of Tikrit city September 1, 2014.

A Choice By The Administration

The militias’ rise is one of the factors helping to erode Iraqi nationhood as a concrete reality. Much of what remains of Iraq’s deeply sectarian national army doesn’t fly the national flag anymore. And Iraq’s Shi’ite militias have close ties to Shi’ite Iran, a country that hardly shares the US’s vision of a federated, democratic, and fully-autonomous multi-ethnic state.

In indirectly supplying these groups, the Obama administration is essentially deciding that preventing ISIS from spreading beyond its current front-lines is a higher priority than preserving a unitary Iraq.

This isn’t a position inconsistent with past US decisions in the country. The US’s empowerment of Sunni tribal militias last decade, or its intervention over the summer to prevent ISIS from overrunning the capital of the Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, both represented pragmatic US attempts at leveraging armed forces outside of Baghdad in order to keep a baseline of order inside the country.

The trouble in this case is that it’s the Shi’ite-dominated Baghdad government that’s been funelling weapons to these brutal militias. Lake and Rogin’s report is another example of how the administration has decided that defeating ISIS requires effectively picking sides in Iraq’s sectarian struggle. It’s a decision that could result in the containment or even the eventual defeat of the group — while empowering Iran and effacing all semblance of Iraqi nationhood in the process.

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