Muqtada al Sadr, the radical Shia cleric who battled US forces during the Iraqi occupation, is preparing his militia to participate in an offensive to retake the northern city of Mosul from the Islamic State. The US military is preparing to aid the Iraqi government in liberating Mosul, but has insisted that the operation will not include the Shia militias.
Two recent statements on the website of Saraya al Salam, or the Peace Brigades, Sadr’s official militia, said that “preparations are underway” to participate in the fight to wrest Mosul from the grip of the Islamic State. Mosul, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Iraq, fell to the jihadist organization along with much of northern, central, and western Iraq after the Iraqi military was routed in June 2014.
In one statement, Haj Abu al-Issawi, an “aide to jihadist leader Mr. Muqtada al Sadr,” said that the militia has been told to “get ready for the battle of Mosul,” and that “preparations are underway,” according to a translation by The Long War Journal. The leadership of Saraya al Salam is reviewing and evaluating the militia’s “intervention, engineering, and support forces” that would take part in an operation to liberate Mosul.
In a second statement, Saraya al Salam said that its “Third Division” held a parade in Najaf and is ready “to participate in the liberation of Mosul.” The division commander and “a number of leaders and Associate Director of the Martyr al-Sadr’s office” were in attendance.
A number of photos from the parade in Najaf were displayed in both statements. Saraya al Salam’s banner is prominent in many of the photographs, which include snipers and fighters mounted on trucks.
The participation of the Shia militias in Iraqi military operations feeds the Islamic State’s propaganda and aids its recruiting. The Islamic State tells Sunnis that the Iraqi government is a pawn of the Iranians. The presence of organized Iranian-backed Shia militias in military operations in Sunni areas supports the Islamic State’s narrative.
Saraya al Salam reports to the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF, also known as the Popular Mobilization Unit or Committee), which was created in June 2014 after the Islamic State overran large areas of Iraq. The unit was established with the approval of the Iraqi government, and is comprised of various militias. The paramilitary organization is dominated by Iranian-backed Shiite militias such as Hezbollah Brigades, Asaib al Haq (League of the Righteous), Harakat Nujaba (Movement of the Noble), Saraya Khorasani (Khorasan Brigades), the Imam Ali Brigades, and the Badr Organization.
All of these groups remain hostile towards the US. Many of these groups are led by men who are listed by the US as global terrorists, and one, Hezbollah Brigades, is a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Two of the groups, Harakat Nujaba and Saraya al Salam, have threatened to attack US interests within the past year. One of the militia leaders even said he would overthrow Iraqi’s government if ordered to do so by Iran’s “supreme leader.”
The deputy commander and operational leader of the PMF is Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, a former officer in the Badr Organization who was listed by the US government as a specially designated global terrorist in July 2009 and was described as “an advisor to” Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani. Qods Force is Iran’s external special operations branch that is, among other things, responsible for establishing, training, funding, advising, and at times, commanding Shiite militias in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
The PMF has been instrumental in liberating the Iraqi cities of Tikrit and Baiji as well as other towns from the Islamic State. Soleimani, the Qods Force commander, was directly involved in those operations and has been spotted on multiple battlefields in Iraq.
The US military has aided the Iraqi military, and by default the Iranian-backed militias, in retaking Bajii, Tikrit, and other cities and towns with airstrikes and other combat support. US military commanders have denied that “extremist elements” have participated in the operations, instead claiming that the PMF, which it considers to be moderate, is supported by the Iraqi government and thus a moderate force inside Iraq. But the makeup of the PMF suggests otherwise.
Images from Saraya al Salam’s “Third Division” parade in Najaf
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