In an interview with CBS News, General (retired) John Allen, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition To Counter ISIL, or the Islamic State, attempted to assure Americans that they should not be concerned with the US providing military and other support for Shiite militias, many of which are backed by Iran. Allen attempts to separate the “extremist elements” from the Popular Mobilization Force (or Committee), when the distinction is practically meaningless. From the interview, which was published on the US State Department’s website (emphasis is mine):
With regard to militias, it’s really important to understand that the militias are not just a single monolithic entity. There are the militias that you and I are used to hearing that have close alignments with Iran. Those are the extremist elements, and we don’t have anything to do with that. But there are elements of the Shia militias that volunteered last year to try to defend Iraq from the onslaught of Daesh [Islamic State] who were called to arms by Grand Ayatollah Sistani, and those elements, or the Popular Mobilization Force, as they are known, have been subordinated to the Iraqi higher military campaign or command. And they will provide maneuver capacity and additional firepower to the Iraqi Security Forces as we continue to build them out, as we continue to build the professionalization of the Iraqi forces.
So the fact that militias are involved and tribes are involved in this part of the campaign, this part of the implementation of supporting Iraq ultimately to recover the country, should not alarm us. We just need to ensure that we manage the outcome of this. Prime Minister Abadi’s been clear that these organizations within the Popular Mobilization Force, the Shia volunteers, will eventually either transition into the security forces themselves or go home. That’s the solution that he intends and I think that that’s a supportable outcome. So for now – this goes back to the point that you made about urgency – urgency is an important factor here in helping us to focus on supporting the Iraqis, the tribes, and the Popular Mobilization Force to take those actions necessary to defeat Daesh locally.
The “extremist elements” referred to by Allen include the Hezbollah Brigades, which has been designated by the US government as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, Saraya Khorasani, the Badr Organization, Asaib al Haq (League of the Righteous), Kata’ib Imam Ali (Imam Ali Brigade), Sayyed al Shuhada Brigade, and Harakat Nujaba. Top leaders of the last four groups are listed by the US as specially designated global terrorists.
The problem with Allen’s comments is that these so-called “extremist elements” are indeed the largest part of the Popular Mobilization Committee. In fact, when the Iraqi press and government refer to deploying the Popular Mobilization Committee, one or more of these groups are in the lead.
And the Popular Mobilization Committee itself is directed 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, which is the external operations wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
The US military has supported these “extremist elements” in past operations, and continues to do so today. We’ve documented this multiple times here at The Long War Journal.
The US support of Iranian-backed Shiite militias began at Amerli in the northern Salahaddin province in late August 2014. Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asiab al Haq, Saraya Khorasani, and the Badr Organization all took part in the fighting. Human Rights Watch detailed how the militias rampaged after the completion of the operation.
At the end of October 2014, the US launched airstrikes in Jurf al Sakhar in support of the League of the Righteous, the Hezbollah Brigades, and the Badr Brigade. The Islamic State was driven from Jurf al Sakhar.
The Tikrit operation, which took place in March 2015, was led by the Kata’ib Imam Ali, Badr Organization, the League of the Righteous, and Hezbollah Brigades. At the start of the operation, General Martin Dempsey said that Iran’s involvement in Tikrit could be a “good thing.” The US halted airstrikes once Iran’s involvement became too difficult to hide, then restarted once the militias purportedly backed off. But the militias participated, with the help of US airstrikes.
Today, in Ramadi, Hezbollah Brigades is taking the lead in the fight to liberate the city from the Islamic State.
Allen is playing an all-too-familiar game with respect to the Iranian-backed Shiite militias. At the end of March, US Central Command leader General Lloyd Austin justified US airstrikes in Tikrit, claiming that Iranian-backed Shiite militias had withdrawn from the fighting there.
“I will not — and I hope we will never — coordinate or cooperate with Shiite militias,” Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee at the time.
“These forces obviously were not being controlled by the government of Iraq,” he continued.
But the militias did in fact participate in the final push for Tikrit. This was proven when Asaib al Haq’s flag was raised over central Tikrit.