On October 29, the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) predominantly comprised of Iran-backed Shiite militias, joined the military offensive led by the Iraqi army, US and Kurdish forces to reclaim the Sunni-populated city of Mosul from the Islamic State (ISIS). The Shiite militias opened a new front in western Mosul, a trajectory that could cut off ISIS from their bases in Syria. While the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi had agreed to the militia’s role, there was no agreement on entering the city itself.
According to press reports, Qassem Suleimani, chief commander of Iran Revolutionary Guards Quds Force is in Western Mosul commanding Shiite militias, and Hezbollah members are also present and assisting the militias.
The PMF’s chief commander Hadi Al Amiri and his deputy Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis have been members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Quds Force and commanders of the Badr Brigade in Iran, a militia group formed by the Revolutionary Guards in the 1980s to fight alongside Iranian forces against Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War.
Following the fall of Saddam in 2003, the Badr Brigade changed to the Badr organization with an armed militia, which has become Iran’s key proxy force in Iraq.
On October 28, PMF’s deputy chief commander, al-Muhandis gave an interview to pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar that was also posted on an IRGC-tied website in which he confirmed the PMF’s role in the Mosul operation and declared that “after the defeat of ISIS, PMF will continue to exist, will combat terrorism and defend Iraq against any threat. PMF will expand its activities into Syria.”
It is worth noting that many of the Shiite militias that form the PMF have already sent thousands of fighters to Syria defending the Assad regime.
Muhandis’ use of “defending Iraq against the threat of terrorism” as a justification for maintaining armed Shiite militias in Iraq is similar to Hezbollah’s pretext in keeping its army in Lebanon allegedly to “defend Lebanon against Zionist threat” even though Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000.
For months prior to the offensive, Iran, and its Iraqi proxies pressured the Iraqi government to accept the militias’ role in the Mosul offensive, a move that could give them a share of the victory and provide them with a pretext to justify their existence in Iraq long after the defeat of ISIS. This would secure Iran’s influence in Iraq, which predominantly relies on these militias, a prospect that many believe to be the Hezbollah-ization of Iraq.
Iran has been clear about its intentions on the role of PMF in Mosul and the future of its Shiite militias in Iraq. In late August, cleric Akram al Ka’bi, the leader of the Harakat al Nujaba, a main Iranian proxy militia in Iraq which is part of the PMF and is also heavily involved in Syria, traveled to Iran, met with the regime’s top officials including IRGC commanders and was given a platform to show his allegiance to the Iranian Supreme Leader and to echo the regime’s views about the Mosul offensive and the PMF’s future.
In his meeting with the speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ka’bi declared: “The battle for Mosul is a defining battle for the future of Iraq that could shape the future of Islamic resistance in Iraq. Mosul is the scene of battle against the US and Barzani, the leader of Kurdistan who wants to create a pro-Israeli government in Kurdistan.”
In his press conference, Ka’bi declared that “No country including the US can prevent us from participating in the Mosul offensive and cannot eliminate us and the PMF will continue its activities after the defeat of ISIS.”
He continued: “the PMF militants are trained by Hezbollah. We do not believe in geographical borders and commander Suleimani represents the resistance front in the world.”
In his interview with Iran state TV, Ka’bi declared that despite US opposition, the PMF would definitely participate in the Mosul offensive. He stated that the PMF could agree to be integrated into the Iraqi Defense Ministry only if its organizational structure, its hierarchy, and its leadership remain intact and the PMF is subordinated to resistance groups (a term used by the Iranian regime to identify its proxies across the Middle East).
In the meeting with Ali Akbar Velayati, top foreign policy advisor to the supreme leader, Velayati emphasized the significance of PMF participation in the Mosul offensive. According to Mashrigh news website, Ka’bi told Velayati that his militia follows the orders of Iran’s Supreme Leader.
A more aggressive Iran
In the absence of being held accountable for its crimes in Syria or its hegemonic drive across the region, Iran seems to be emboldened and on the offensive.
Since Iran and the 5+1 countries reached a nuclear agreement and the economic sanctions against Iran were lifted, Iran has become more aggressive in pursuing its radical agenda in the region. It has accelerated its missile program, increased its military support to Yemeni rebels who are firing Iranian missile to Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, increased support to Islamist groups in Palestine, expanded its military involvement in Syria, taken more American hostages and provoked US ships in the Arab Gulf.
Iran is also encouraged by the recent developments in Lebanon as its proxy Hezbollah successfully bullied the entire political establishment in Lebanon in surrendering to its demand and accept its candidate for the Lebanese Presidency.
For Iran, the participation of its proxy militias in the Mosul offensive and securing the continuation of their activities in Iraq is a sign of having the upper hand in the region.
Mashrigh, a website affiliated to the Revolutionary Guards, echoed this attitude in an editorial published on October 28: “The summit of three foreign ministers from Russia, Iran, and Syria in Moscow is a signal that these three countries have decided to take the offensive in the region. This change of attitude is well demonstrated by PMF’s decision to take part in the Mosul offensive. In the summit, the foreign ministers discussed the aftermath of ISIS defeat and how to counter US plots.”
PMF’s role in the Mosul offensive and the prospect that these Shiite militias remain active in Iraq will have disastrous consequences for Iraq and the whole region. These militias have a long record of accomplishment of sectarian violence and human rights abuses and are accused of war crimes in the Sunni regions of Iraq.
A US embassy cable from Baghdad dated December 9, 2009, that was revealed by WikiLeaks writes the following regarding Hadi Ameri, the head of PMF and the leader of Badr organization: “Ameri is widely known to have played a leading role in organizing attacks by the Badr Corps militia (the strongest, most disciplined Shia militia at the time and precursor to the current Badr Organization) against Sunnis during the sectarian violence of 2004-2006. Sources indicate that he may have personally ordered attacks on up to 2,000 Sunnis. One of his preferred methods of killing allegedly involved using a power drill to pierce the skulls of his adversaries.”
Since the creation of PMF in 2014, these militias have been involved in atrocities against Sunni minorities in Iraq. They have repeatedly been denounced by international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, which has reported “Evidence of war crimes by government-backed Shi’a militias.”
In January 2016, Human Rights Watch deputy Middle East director denounced these crimes and declared, “again civilians are paying the price for Iraq’s failure to rein in the out-of-control militias. Countries that support Iraqi security forces and the Popular Mobilization Forces should insist that Baghdad brings an end to this violent abuse.”
It is also imperative to note the role that Iran and its proxies have played to fuel sectarian tensions across the region and contributed to the rise of radical Sunni groups including ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
In March 2011, in the midst of the Arab Spring, the Syrian people rose up against the Bashar Assad regime. The regime’s security forces reacted brutally and used deadly force to crush the uprising. In response, to the government crackdown, Syrians took to arms and joined the Syrian Free Army. In late 2011, the anti-regime forces were on the brink of triumph to topple the Assad regime. At which point, the Iranian regime decided to intervene on a large-scale to prevent the downfall of Assad, deploying its Revolutionary Guards members along with Hezbollah fighters, Shiites from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Assad and Iranian force begun the widespread massacre of the Syrian people. As a result, the situation took a dramatic turn for the worse and became significantly more radicalized. As the Free Syrian Army and other moderate opposition groups became increasingly weakened, the extremist elements such as the Al-Nusra Front and ISIS grew intense.
Following the US troop’s withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011, the Iran-backed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his allies, the Shiite militias, stepped up their repressive and sectarian policies against a Sunni minority. Consequently, protests erupted in the Sunni-populated regions. The Maliki government suppressed and murdered protestors with renewed brutality. Sunnis rebelled in many of these regions creating a power vacuum in these areas.
In the spring of 2014, ISIS forces, which had already emerged and strengthened in Syria, exploited the rebellion in Sunni regions of Iraq against the central government and took over important Sunni-populated cities including Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, establishing dominance over significant parts of both Iraq and Syria.
Participation of Iran-backed Shiite militias in the Mosul offensive highlights the crucial issue of Iranian influence and role in Iraq. Since the fall of Saddam in 2003, Iran’s proxies have been the primary force in fueling sectarian tensions, undermining democracy and spreading violence and instability in Iraq and across the region.
The longer it takes for the Iraqi government and the international community to realize the need to confront Iran and its militias, the costlier it would be for the people in Iraq and the region.
The story was first published on November 9, 2016 on the website of the Arabian Gulf Center for Iranian Studies (ArabianGCIS)