US praises role of Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Baiji operation

Over the past several days, US officials have celebrated the capture of Baiji from the Islamic State. While doing so, they have praised the role that Iranian-supported Shiite militias have played in capturing the strategic central Iraqi city. These are the same militias that are responsible for killing hundreds of US soldiers just a few years ago, and many of these militia leaders are listed as Specially Designated Global Terrorists. Additionally, the US is continuing to provide air support to aid these groups.

Both the US military and the Obama administration’s Deputy Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL (the outdated acronym for the Islamic State) issued statements that praised the role the Shiite militias played in recapturing Baiji.

Brett McGurk, the Deputy Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL [another acronym for the Islamic State], tweeted that the “US commends progress by Iraqi Security Forces and popular mobilization forces [emphasis ours] against ISIL terrorists in Baiji.” He also confirmed that the the US has launched around 130 airstrikes in support of these groups since August.

McGurk’s plaudits for the role that the “popular mobilization forces” have played in Baiji was echoed by the US military, which called these units “Shiia [sic] security forces.”

Army Major Mike Filanowski, an officer in the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), said that “The people who did the heavy lifting [in Baiji] were the Iraqi special forces.” He continued by saying, “they not only secured the [Baiji] oil refinery, but also the power plant to the north all the way up to the al-Fatah Bridge.” While the Iraqi special forces did help capture the refinery, they were not the only forces doing the “heavy lifting.”

The Department of Defense press release that quoted Filanowski admitted that the Popular Mobilization Committee (also called Popular Mobilization Units or Popular Mobilization Forces), was conducting operations.

“In the last three days, a special operations team from the elite Counterterrorism Service spearheaded the attack,” the DoD statement said. “The team worked with Iraqi army soldiers, Popular Mobilization Front forces — essentially Shiia security forces — and federal police” [emphasis ours].

So while the US commends the Iraqi Security Forces and the Popular Mobilization Committee, it is also lauding designated terrorists and a Foreign Terrorist Organization. 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).

The Iranian-backed Shiite militias that played a prominent role in the assault on Baiji include: Asa’ib al Haq (League of the Righteous), whose leader Qais al Khazali is thought to be involved in the murder of five US soldiers in Karbala in 2007; Hezbollah Brigades, which is listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US government; Harakat al Nujaba, which recently called for the expulsion of US troops from Iraq; Harakat al Nujaba, which is led by Akram Abbas al Kaabi, a Specially Designated Global Terrorist; Kata’ib Imam Ali, led by Shebl al Zaydi, who is close to Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani; Kata’ib Sayyid al Shuhada, which is commanded by Mustafa al Sheibani, who is also a Specially Designated Global Terrorist; and Badr Corps, another large militia supported by Iran. For more information the role these militias played in the retaking of Baiji, including photographs and video of Iraqi forces operating alongside these militias, see LWJ report, Iraqi Army, Shiite militias report success in Baiji.

Sadly, this behavior by US officials is nothing new. Earlier this year, General (retired) John Allen, the former Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, claimed that the US is only supporting so-called moderate Shiite militas, and not the “extremist elements.” Allen’s statement is below:

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.

Allen said that the fact that the US is supporting the Popular Mobilization Committee “should not alarm us.” Except it should alarm us. Because as we detailed, the organization’s operational leader is a Specially Designated Terrorist, and its most effective militias are Iranian pawns that are responsible for killing hundreds of US soldiers and remain openly hostile to the US.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of The Long War Journal. Caleb Weiss is an intern at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributor to The Long War Journal.

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8 Comments

  • Paddy Singh says:

    There is nothing the US can do in regard to these Iranian militias now. The common enemy is Isis, their creation. Now with the Russians taking over at least Assad, a secular thug, will remain in charge. Was there need to take out Saddam and Gaddafi?

    • Mitch says:

      Assad will not remain in charge, Russia is working with all Syrians, Assad and unarmed opposition not terrorists or anti government militias. Once peace and government structures are restored throughout the country Assad will make way for the sunni al-Halqi. Pragmatic and sensible those Russians. ps the Iraqis were praising Russian intelligence, Iranian assistance and their Air Force for the recent victory, these statements by the Obama admin are really making them look foolish. Be on the lookout for Russian aircraft in Northern Iraq as per the latest agreement.

  • bill says:

    “Was there need to take out Saddam and Gaddafi?”

    NONE! With respect to GWOT. Leaked History tells us that.
    Now include this “Regime” Change Mentality (Fundamental Change)these DC fools seem to embrace, and we have the current state of affairs, or lack there of!
    North Africa/ME FUBAR!! Well done DC, sarcasim on 11

  • VNSINGH says:

    US did blunders in Iraq,Libya and Afganistan as they were all Russian supported goverments with no problems

  • beerpatzer says:

    Whether these Shia militias are “the same militias that are responsible for killing hundreds of US soldiers just a few years ago” is irrelevant. What’s more troubling is that by using these militias, the Iraqi government keeps generating alienating the local Sunni population. They may not like the Islamic State, but they like those private Shiite armies even less.

    Also I’d like to point out that the US considers the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Army) as a terrorist organization, which has close links with the Iraqi Peshmerga. Yet the Peshmergas are now considered America’s best allies. Politics makes strange bed fellows.

    • DonM says:

      “Links” i.e. avenues for communication do not mean some sort of collusion, cooperation, never mind alliance between either PDK or PUK (Iraqi Peshmerga). The Iraqi Kurdish Government recently told the PKK to get out of the mountains near the Turkish and Iranian border. The PDK and PUK have excellent relations with Turkey as a matter of fact. Where you may have some truth is the historical alignment between the PKK and Syrian Kurds (The YPG). They seem to have made statements that distance the YPG at least from PKK terrorist attacks in Turkey. The YPG along with several Sunni and Christian militias have taken a swath of territory from ISIS in North East Syria along the Turkish border. The Turks are not happy about this, and are getting lip service against these gains from the PDK in Iraq. But it is to this YPG territory that the US has deployed the 50 or so Special Forces (Trainers and spotters). The US has also deployed A10s and F15 Eagles (primarily a FB) to Southern Turkish Airbases. Together these forces are positioned north of Ar Raqqah. Time will tell if the YPG and its allies push south with visible US air support.

    • Akili says:

      I would also like to add that in america’s support of free Syrian army in Syria, it is directly helping al nusra, since these groups are coordinating, sharing supplies and working together

  • J House says:

    Anyone other than the President of the United States would be held on felony charges for materially supporting a U.S. designated terrorist organization. Apparently, President Obama can flout the law and provide arms or support to terrorists that have killed Americans. Any American citizen that sent these groups money or information helping them in any way would be arrested by the FBI and charged with supporting terrorism.
    We are living in an Alice in Wonderland world where official U.S. policy backs terrorists with U.S. military might, yet throws it’s citizens in jail for lessor crimes.

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