Iranian-backed Shiite militias, including Hezbollah Brigades, a US-listed Foreign Terrorist Organization, are leading the Iraqi government’s counteroffensive to regain control of Ramadi, which was lost to the Islamic State last week. The militias are now eclipsing Iraq’s security forces in the fight against the Islamic State.
Thousands of fighters from Shiite militias operating under the aegis of the Popular Mobilization Committee, backed by units from the Iraqi Army’s Golden Division and more than a thousand policemen, launched the counteroffensive from the city of Habbaniyah, one of the last government-controlled areas in eastern Anbar yesterday.
The militias and Iraqi forces blunted an Islamic State offensive, which was designed to take Habbaniyah and deprive the government of a launch pad to execute its counterattack on Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar which fell to the Islamic State on May 17. Islamic State forces broke through hastily erected defensive lines west of Habbaniyah and advanced into Husaybah and as far east as Al Madeeq on May 22.
Hezbollah Brigades confirmed on its website that it was involved in the fighting in Ramadi. The group blamed the fall of Ramadi on Iraqi politicians who held the militias back from the fight in Anbar.
“The security breach that took place in Ramadi was the result of some politicians trusting the Americans,” Hezbollah Brigades quoted one of its commanders deployed near Ramadi. The statement is a swipe at Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, who has been advised by the US not to deploy Shiite militias to Anbar.
Iraq relies on Iranian-supported militias for Anbar offensive
The Iraqi government’s reliance on the militias to lead the offensive in Ramadi highlights the deteriorating state of Iraq’s security forces as well as Iran’s growing influence in the country. Other militias thought to be operating near Ramadi include the Imam Ali Brigade, the Sayyed al Shuhada Brigade, and Harakat Nujaba; all three militias, which are backed by Iran, put out a call for their forces to organize for the Ramadi offensives.
After the fall of Ramadi, Prime Minister Abadi requested that the Iraqi government-sanctioned Popular Mobilization Committee, or Hashid Shaabi, deploy to Anbar province to battle the Islamic State.
The Popular Mobilization Committee is led by Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, a former commander in the Badr Organization who was listed by the US government as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in July 2009. The US government described Muhandis, whose real name is Jamal Jaafar Mohammed, as “an advisor to Qassem Soleimani,” the commander of the Qods Force, the external operations wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Soleimani has visited the Shiite militias as they were fighting on the Tikrit front, and is said to have directed the Tikrit operation. Soleimani has also been spotted on other fronts where the Shiite militias led the fight. [See LWJ report, US sanctions Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades and Qods Force adviser, and Threat Matrix report, Iranian general at the forefront of the Tikrit offensive.]
In addition to leading the Popular Mobilization Committee, Muhandis is also said to direct the operations of Kata’ib Imam Ali (Imam Ali Brigade) as well as command the Hezbollah Brigades. Top leaders in the Sayyed al Shuhada Brigade and Harakat Nujaba are listed as Specially Designated Global Terrorists or are known to have targeted US forces in Iraq during the US occupation from 2003 to 2011. [For more information the militias, see LWJ report, US begins airstrikes against Islamic State in Tikrit, supports Shiite militias.]
The US military, under the aegis of Operation Inherent Resolve, the coalition of nations tasked with “defeating and dismantling” the Islamic State, is now providing air support for the Iranian-backed militias that are responsible for killing hundreds of American troops and remain hostile to the US. Between May 22 and May 23, the US launched four airstrikes that “struck two ISIL [Islamic State] tactical units, destroying multiple heavy machine guns, two ISIL vehicle bombs, two ISIL vehicles, an ISIL fighting position, and three armored vehicles and a tank in ISIL-controlled territory,” according to a press release issued by Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve.
Over the past 24 hours, the US-led coalition launched four airstrikes that “struck an ISIL tactical unit, destroying an ISIL artillery piece, an ISIL armored personnel carrier and an ISIL armored vehicle, as well as 15 armored vehicles, two armored personnel carriers and two other support vehicles located in ISIL controlled territory.”
US and coalition airpower was also used to support the militias in offensives in Amerli, Jurf al Sakhar, and Tikrit. These militias committed war crimes in Amerli after ejecting the Islamic State, according to Human Rights Watch, and are accused of doing the same in Tikrit. [See LWJ report, Iranian-backed militias rampaged in central Iraq after freeing town: HRW.]
The use of Shiite militias in Anbar is likely to stoke sectarian tensions in the province, and may aid the Islamic State’s recruiting efforts. The militias are seen by many Sunnis as agents of Iran, who seek to oppress Iraq’s Sunnis.