The US military commended “Iraqi Militia Forces” for their role in helping liberate the city of Mosul from the Islamic State, but warned that the jihadist group remains a threat and still controls areas in Iraq. Many of those same militias operating near Mosul, though, are responsible for killing US soldiers during the occupation and remain hostile to America with the backing of Iran.
Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), the US-led coalition organized to battle the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, said Iraqi forces achieved a “victory” over the Islamic State. Reports from Mosul indicate that the Islamic State has been cornered into a football field-size area in Mosul’s old city neighborhood, with only scores of fighters and their families remaining. Many areas of the city lay in ruin as a result of the nine month-long battle to to regain control from the Islamic State.
A mix of forces from Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Service, regular troops, Kurdish Peshmerga, and Iranian-backed Shia militias were involved in the ground fighting. The US and other countries provided air support and other combat enablers, as well as advisers during the battle for Mosul. CJTF-OIR said all of these forces should be commended for their role.
“Iraqi Militia Forces, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and the global Coalition also deserve a share of the credit for their sacrifices to achieve this hard-won victory,” the press release noted.
The “Iraqi Militia Forces” are organized under the aegis of the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF, and includes many Iranian supported militias that are responsible for killing hundreds of American soliders in Iraq, such as Hezbollah Brigades, which is a US-designated terrorist group, Asaib al Haq, and the Seyyed al Shuhada Brigades. The last two militias have been operating on the outskirts of Mosul.
The PMF is led by Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, a designated terrorist who was described by the US State Department as “an advisor to Qassem Soleimani,” the commander of the Qods Force, the external operations wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Additionally, Soleimani serves as an official adviser to Iraq’s prime minister. Muhandis and Soleimani were instrumental in forming the PMF, which was made an official security branch that reports directly to Iraq’s prime minister. The PMF has been modeled after Iran’s IRGC. [See FDD’s Long War Journal reports, Iraq’s prime minister establishes Popular Mobilization Forces as a permanent ‘independent military formation’ and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces in Iran’s game plan.]
The US military’s praise of Iraq’s militias and the PMF should come as no surprise. US officials and generals have ignored, downplayed and even praised the role that the Iranian-supported militias have played in liberating other cities and towns across Iraq. For instance, in March 2015, General Martin Dempsey, then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, characterized the the Shiite militias’ and Iran’s efforts to retake Tikrit from the Islamic State as “a positive thing.”
“Frankly,” General Dempsey said, “it will only be a problem if it results in sectarianism.”
However, US commanders have turned a blind eye as the Shiite militias have been involved in numerous instances of sectarianism throughout Iraq.
“Still a tough fight ahead”
Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, commander of CJTF-OIR, warned that the Islamic State remains a threat in Iraq despite the loss of “one of its twin capitals and a jewel of their so-called caliphate.” US-backed Kurdish militias are currently fighting the Islamic State for control of Raqqa in Syria.
“Make no mistake, this victory alone does not eliminate ‘ISIS’ and there is still a tough fight ahead,” Townsend said.
“Although ISIS has lost Mosul, the threat remains in other areas of Iraq,” the CJTF-OIR press release stated.
Those areas include pockets around the cities of Tal Afar and Hawija, and along the Euphrates River Valley from Anah to Al Qaim on the border with Syria. Even if the Islamic State is driven from these areas, the group will likely follow the same strategy that it did after it was defeated during the US-led surge that ended in 2010. Then, al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of the Islamic State, went underground and waged a guerrilla insurgency. The group was also buoyed by the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011.
Townsend warned that the victory in Mosul does not mean that the Islamic State is finished, and urged Iraqis to “unite” to prevent the group from re-emerging.
“However, this victory does not mark the end of this evil ideology and the global threat of ISIS. Now it is time for all Iraqis to unite to ensure ISIS is defeated across the rest of Iraq and that the conditions that led to the rise of ISIS in Iraq are not allowed to return again,” he said.
The involvement of the PMF in military operations and the occupation of Sunni cities, towns, and villages and their sectarian reprisals may serve to radicalize Sunnis and push them into the arms of the Islamic State. Additionally, the Iraqi military’s increasing reliance on the militias strengthens Iran’s influence in Iraq, which is also feared by Iraq’s Sunnis.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.