Qassem Soleimani with his bodyguards near the frontlines of Tikrit
The US military continues to launch airstrikes in Tikrit against the Islamic State despite the presence of Iranian-backed Shiite militias. Claims, including those from US military commanders, that the militias have withdrawn are incorrect, and have even been rebutted by a Pentagon spokesman.
On the first day of airstrikes, which began on March 25, the US-led coalition launched 17 strikes, according to US Central Command. Between the morning of March 26 and the morning of March 27, the US and allied nations launched three additional airstrikes in Tikrit.
The US approved the strikes against the Islamic State after receiving assurances from the Iraqi government that the Shiite militias had withdrawn from Tikrit and that the ground operation would be led by the Iraqi military, and not Iranian generals and their militia proxies.
“Preconditions for us to provide support were that the Iraqi government had to be in charge of this operation. We had to know exactly who was on the ground,” General Lloyd Austin, the commander of US Central Command, told Congress on March 26, according to Military Times.
Austin also wrongly claimed that the the militias had left the Tikrit battlespace.
“The Shiite militias that were there have pulled back from that area,” Austin said.
Austin’s statement was contradicted the next day, when Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren briefed the press. Warren claimed that most of the Shiite militias have withdrawn from Tikrit.
“These are primarily the Shia militia units that we had no interest in being on the battlefield in the first place,” Warren continued. “These are the Shia militia that are clearly linked or often infiltrated by Iran, so their departure from the battlefield is welcome.”
Yet the Department of Defense news article that summarized Warren’s briefing opens by stating, “Several thousand regular Iraqi security forces and troops from the Popular Mobilization Forces [Committee] have resumed their offensive operations on the ground in Tikrit …”
The leadership of the Popular Mobilization Committee is closely tied to Iran and its commander is a designated terrorist. The unit, which was established in June 2014 after the Iraqi Army and police collapsed as the Islamic State advanced in multiple provinces the overarching command for all of the Shiite militias.
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 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 been visiting the Shiite militias fighting on the Tikrit front, and is said to be directing the operation. [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. The New York Times reported on March 26 that the Hezbollah Brigades and Asaib al Haq, another Iranian-supported milita, have withdrawn from the fight in Tikrit. But Asaib al Haq issued an official statement that same day saying it would remain in the area but would not enter the city if the US was conducting airstrikes.
Other Shiite militias that are continuing to fight in Tikrit include Kata’ib Sayyed al Shuhada, Harakat Nujaba, and Saraya Khorasani. All of these militias are closely linked to Iran and Qods Force.
Kata’ib Sayyed al Shuhada is led by by Mustafa al Sheibani, a dangerous terrorist who previously commanded what the US military called the Sheibani Network. Sheibani was directed to return to Iraq by Qods Force in 2010 as US forces prepared to exit the country.
Harakat Nujaba is led by Akram Abas al Kabi, the military commander of Asaib al Haq who is listed by the US as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in 2009. Harakat Nujaba was created in 2013 to funnel fighters from Asaib al Haq and the Hezbollah Brigades into Syria to support President Bashir al Asad.
Both Sheibani and Kabi have been directly or indirectly linked to EFP, IED, mortar, rocket, and small arms attacks that killed hundreds of US soldiers in Iraq up until December 2011.
Saraya Khorasani is led by Ali al Yasiri, who is also closely tied to Iran. An Iranian general who was advising Saraya Khorasani was killed by an Islamic State sniper late last year.
US military commanders have remained steadfast in their support of air operations in Tikrit despite the presence and overt involvement of Shiite militias that are directed by Iran, and militia commanders who are responsible for killing US servicemen as recently as three years ago.