We have a Shia militia problem in Iraq. By we, I mean the United States, the Kurds, the Sunni citizens, and any Iraqis who don’t favor Iran paying for and leading sectarian slaughter.
One of the overlooked stories of the counter-ISIS fight was the amount of rampant violence against civilians conducted by what are known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Many of these militias have been around for decades and fought against the United States during the Iraq War. But in 2014 Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Ayatollah Sistani, called for the people to rise up against ISIS. Many of the groups were then formally accepted by the Popular Mobilization Committee into the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior.
They accompanied the Iraqi military and coalition forces as the fight to push ISIS out went on. Sometimes they were involved in the combat, often they swept in after artillery barrages laid waste to Sunni cities. When they got there, it was looting, rape, torture, and executions. As combat forces moved forward, the PMFs were an easy way to maintain “security” in the areas liberated from ISIS.
But for the Sunni civilians in these towns, it was not much better than ISIS. The PMFs had often been formed to fight sectarian battles. Now they had their enemies right where they wanted, and they took horrific advantage of that. They were aided and abetted, and in many cases paid and commanded, by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) who had been invited in by the Baghdad government.
Who Are the Islamic Revolutionary Guards?
The IRGC is a military force, but it doesn’t report to Iran’s civilian government. The Islamic Revolutionary part of their name means they report to the mullahs and their mission is to protect and extend the Islamic revolution. They see the fight against ISIS as a great way to subjugate the Sunni areas of Iraq and bring them under Iran’s influence and even control. They are using the PMFs as a means to both these ends, and some PMF leaders have even sworn loyalty to the Iranian mullahs and offered to overthrow their own government if asked. That is not something the United States can tolerate.
This brings us to the crisis in Kurdistan. PMFs and their IRGC partners, along with Iraqi Army elite units, threatened the Kurdish Peshmerga in Kirkuk with annihilation and pushed them out of a city the Kurds had liberated from ISIS. Now the PMFs are again torturing and killing to their heart’s content. They are also moving further into Kurdistan to take control of the elements of infrastructure like airports and oil facilities that allowed the Kurds quasi-independence.
President Trump said in the speech announcing his new Iran strategy that the entire IRGC would be designated a terror organization. This makes the fact that many of the militia members are being paid directly by the IRGC not just problematic, but intolerable. The PMFs take advantage of U.S. funding to Iraq and have received U.S. equipment like Humvees and even M1 tanks from the Iraqi government.
We Can’t Fund Terrorists, Obviously
That puts aid to Iraq overall in jeopardy, as we cannot, and should not want to, provide aid to terror-related or connected organizations. Plus, Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s terror kingpin and head of the IRGC Qods Force, is personally supervising much of this while traveling freely around Iraq. When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asked about this, Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi claimed there was no Iranian influence and the PMFs were simply part of the Iraqi institutions: “Popular Mobilisation fighters should be encouraged because they will be the hope of country and the region.”
That is absurd, and the only real question is what to do about it. Many of the President Obama holdovers in Trump’s national security team, like Envoy to the Coalition to Counter ISIS Brett McGurk, believe the PMFs are not an issue. He minimized the wholesale slaughter when asked about it: “There have been reports of some isolated atrocities committed by some of the popular mobilization forces, primarily these are Shia volunteers”
That wasn’t the case then, and isn’t the case now. The PMFs are wreaking havoc at the behest of both Baghdad and Tehran. The IRGC terrorists leading them must be ejected from Iraq, and all funds flowing from them to buy loyalty must be stopped. All U.S. equipment must be recovered from the militias, and they must not be left behind in Sunni and Kurdish areas to provide security.
Iran is the actual problem here, just manifesting in the guise of the Shia militias. President Trump was spot-on in noting that Iran’s malign influence went far beyond its quest for nuclear weapons. Their attempt to gain control of parts of Iraq through their influence on these PMFs must be stopped before any hope for peace or stability can even be considered.