Iran's Militias Are Taking Over Iraq's Army
On the front lines of Iraq’s war against Islamic State, it’s increasingly difficult to tell where the Iraqi army ends and the Iranian-supported Shiite militias begin.
Official U.S. policy has been to support the Iraqi Security Forces as both a hammer against the Sunni jihadists and also as a way to absorb the the Shiite militias that threaten to drive Iraq’s Sunni minority to support anti-government terrorism.
But in an interview this week, Hadi al-Amiri, the founder and leader of Iraq’s oldest and most powerful Shiite militia, the Badr Organization, told me the U.S. ambassador recently offered air strikes to support the Iraqi army and militia ground forces under his command. This has placed the U.S. in the strange position of deepening an alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran for its war against Islamic extremists.
Late last year, the U.S. formally committed to train and equip three divisions of the Iraqi army. While some senior U.S. officials have had positive words for Iran’s role in the fight against Islamic State warriors, official U.S. policy is to support the integration of Iraq’s sectarian militias into the Iraqi Security Forces.
In Diyala Province northeast of Baghdad, however, it’s the other way around. On a tour of areas recently liberated from Islamic State control, General Ali Wazir Shamary told me that ultimately his orders came through a chain of command that originated with Amiri. In other words, the Iraqi army is integrating into Amiri’s Badr Organization in Diyala as opposed to integrating the militias into the army.
From his headquarters, Amiri affirmed Shamary’s statement about the chain of command. “Abadi has put me charge of this area, the Diyala area,” he said, referring to the Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. He said the police and the army in the province ultimately report to him.
Amiri, a white haired fighter with darting and youthful eyes, helped found what was then called the Badr Corps in Iran in 1982, along with a collection of Iraqi Shiites loyal to the Hakim Shiite clerical dynasty. While the group has at times since the fall of Saddam Hussein been relatively cooperative with the U.S., it also has always had very strong ties to Iran, and particularly Iran’s elite Quds Force.
When asked about the commander of the Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, Amiri said he meets with him whenever he is Baghdad. “He advises us. He offers us information, we respect him very much,” he said.
Asked to elaborate, Amiri said Soleimani’s experience fighting Islamic State warriors in Syria was invaluable. “No country has experience like Iran in dealing with terrorists,” he said about the country the U.S. State Department considers the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. He added that Lebanon’s Hezbollah has also provided the Badr Organization with important lessons learned from fighting Israel and Sunni jihadists in Lebanon and Syria.
One might think Amiri is exactly the kind of person U.S. policy makers would seek to marginalize as it attempts to rebuild an Iraqi army that will help unify a country divided along sectarian lines. But Amiri told me that late last month he met with U.S. ambassador Stuart Jones at his home, where the ambassador made the offer of U.S. air support to his ground campaign.
“He told me, frankly speaking, ‘We are ready to offer back up in air strikes for the volunteers,’ ” Amiri said, using the term many militia leaders use to refer to the fighters under their command. Amiri said he thanked Jones for the offer, but told him he worried the U.S. Air Force could make a mistake and end up hitting his men instead of the Islamic State.
When asked about the meeting, a spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Jeffrey Loree, told me: “We don’t confirm the details of our conversations. Our policy is that we support the ISF with air strikes and we have urged that the militias be under the command and control of the ISF.”
Michael Flynn, a retired special operations general who served for three years in Iraq and until last year was director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said the prospect of U.S. air power supporting the Badr Organization would put the U.S. in a “very delicate alliance with Iran.”
“Members of the Badr Corps are responsible for killing many American Soldiers and they will likely do it again if given the chance,” Flynn told me. “We built an Iraqi military to defeat all the enemies of Iraq and groups like the Badr Corps represent enemies of a stable, secure, and inclusive Iraq. As soon as we get done helping them with ISIS, they will very likely turn on us.”
Already U.S. air strikes have supported Shiite militias and even Iranian trainers. In late August and early September, American pilots helped break the siege of the highway town of Amirli, supporting a ground campaign that included the Iraqi army, the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and also militias supported by Iran.
The Islamic State’s siege of Amirli was barbaric. The town was subject to mortar fire daily, its residents were starved and drinking wells were contaminated. But the aftermath of the siege was was ugly as well. Human Rights Watch is documenting accounts of local families who say that, in the aftermath of the liberation, the Shiite militias indiscriminately burned the homes of Sunni families.
Erin Evers, the Human Rights Watch Iraq researcher, said she found "reprehensible" that the Badr commander is in charge of all military operations in Diyala. “As an individual I don’t know what human rights violations I can attribute to him,” she said of Amiri. “The amount of people we have documented complaining of the Badr organization kidnapping and killing them, driving them from their homes, setting homes on fire, the list goes on and on.”
More recent allegations of abuses have emerged: Five witnesses said last week that 72 unarmed Sunnis were shot execution-style by Shiite militias and security forces in the village of Barwana. Prime Minister Abadi has called for an investigation and condemned the deaths.
Amiri said he welcomed the probe. But he also said he doubted very much that anything like this actually happened. “There are no volunteers in that area,” he said. He added that he gave several public orders for residents to leave the area during the fight. “I swear between me and God that I will never give the order to kill an innocent person.”
In a curious irony, Amiri and I had this discussion at Camp Ashraf, which used to be the headquarters of the People’s Mujahideen, a cult-like Iranian opposition group that aligned with Saddam Hussein against the Tehran regime. In 2003, the group struck a deal with the U.S. military to establish a Diyala sanctuary, until being expelled in 2012 and 2013 by the Iraqis. (People's Mujahideen said a massacre took place, which the Iraqi government says was a staged public relations stunt.) The room we met in was once named for the group's charismatic leader, Maryam Rajavi. This coincidence led to Amiri's only joke of the interview: “They are mujahideen and we are mujahideen,” he said with a chuckle.
It’s not a bad metaphor for Iraq’s new war against the Islamic State; holy warriors displacing holy warriors in the name of the one true faith.
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