Iranian-backed militias and politicians in Iraq have blamed the US for recent ISIS attacks. The same groups and activists have also demanded the US leave Iraq. US forces returned to Iraq in 2014 to fight ISIS at the invitation of the Iraq government. However, as the US left several bases over the last month after Iranian-backed militia rocket attacks and ISIS attacks have increased, leading the same militias that demanded the US to leave to now complain that the US was leaving and that ISIS was gaining.
One of the comments came from an Iraqi member of the parliament’s Defense and Security committee. He claimed that recent ISIS mass attacks on the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in Salah-a-Din governorate were “proof of cooperation between ISIS and those calling for the PMU to withdraw.” The PMU are a group of dozens of brigades, many of them made up of Shi’ite militias who are linked to Iran and the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. His comments alluded to the fact that after numerous rocket attacks against bases with US forces were carried out by pro-Iranian elements of the PMU, there were calls for the PMU to reduce its role.
At the same time Qais Khazali, Secretary General of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, one of the most anti-American militias that make up the PMU, blamed the US for the ISIS attacks that took place in Salah-a-Din governorate. He said the US was involved in a conspiracy with ISIS designed to push for a strategic dialogue with Baghdad that would see US forces remain in Iraq. Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, another PMU militia that is anti-American, pro-Iranian and has been sanctioned by Washington, asserted that US withdrawals were paving the way for ISIS to enter Iraq from Syria. Nujaba asserts that the US is involved in a conspiracy to divide and destabilize Iraq.
The overall narrative in Iraq goes like this: The pro-Iranian voices argue that the US is involved in a conspiracy to destabilize and divide Iraq. They assert that the US not only fuels ISIS, or created ISIS, but that the US also works with local Iraqi politicians to try and divide the PMU. The PMU was created in 2014 after a fatwa by leading cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani. It includes brigades that are based on older pro-Iranian militias such as the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah. These groups were led by men like Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis who once fought alongside Iran in the 1980s against Saddam. They view the US and Israel as the source of evil in the region and opposed the US presence in Iraq. As part of the PMU their militias became official paramilitaries of the Iraqi government. This put the US-led anti-ISIS Coalition in a tough spot. The US has trained the Iraqi army but doesn’t work with the PMU which is seen as mostly an anti-American Iranian proxy. Yet both the PMU and Iraqi army are part of the state’s security structure. The PMU controls large swaths of Iraq using security checkpoints. As such the PMU also plays a key role fighting ISIS.
In the last year some elements of the PMU turned their fire on the US. Kataib Hezbollah fired dozens of rockets at Iraq bases where US forces were present. Several Americans were killed and a US airstrike in January killed Kataib Hezbollah’s leader and IRGC Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani. The PMU and its activists in parliament used this as an occasion to call for the US to leave Iraq. The US-led Coalition is in Iraq at the invitation of the government. These pro-Iranian voices wanted the invitation withdrawn. However Iraq lacks a new Prime Minister and its government is in chaos. Using the chaos as an opportunity Iran sent the new IRGC Quds Force head Esmail Ghaani and other officials to Iraq to coordinate pressure on the US.
The US meanwhile decided to withdraw from half a dozen areas in Iraq, including key bases south of Mosul, north of Kirkuk, and in Anbar and Nineveh governorates. The US was repositioning forces at Camp Taji and Ayn al-Assad base to be under new air defenses the US sent to Iraq in March that could defend against the pro-Iranian rocket attacks and Iranian ballistic missile attacks.
The pro-Iranian proxies should have been happy the US was withdrawing from bases, wrapping up training due to coronavirus and some Coalition partners were withdrawing forces. Yet those same pro-Iranian elements now claim that the US withdrawals created a vacuum for ISIS. They bash the US for staying and for leaving. This is because Iran needs its agents in Iraq to always blame the US. They want the US presence as a kind of whipping boy. That way they don’t have to be the elephant in the room. The reality is that it is Iranian proxies in Iraq that are largely responsible for corruption and sponging up resources and moving Iraqi resources to Iran, so that Iraq’s electricity grid barely works and Iraq must import everything from Iran. Having the US presence was a distraction.
The other problem for the PMU is that it is divided between the hard core units that are pro-IRGC and those that are closer to the Iraqi Shi’ite leadership under Sistani. Not all of them solely swear allegiance to Iran’s Ayatollah. Any notion that the US might discuss strategic dialogue with Baghdad threatens their role because the PMU wants to become the IRGC of Iraq and swallow Iraq slowly, the way Hezbollah has done to parts of Lebanon. The protests in Iraq last year challenged the PMU role and recent announcements by Sistani-aligned PMU militias appeared to divide the group. This left their activists with one arrow in their quiver: blame the US for ISIS attacks. The Iranian regime propaganda often blames the US for “aiding ISIS.” In fact it is Coalition airpower, active in Iraq, that has hammered ISIS in Hamrin mountains and other areas. But the recent uptick in ISIS attacks and killing of dozens of PMU members by ISIS leads to US blame because they don’t want to blame themselves for not being able to keep the lid on ISIS. They ask “who benefits” and claim the US benefits from the ISIS attacks. This is because the US has called for Iranian proxies to stop the rocket attacks in Iraq. As such the US is, in some ways, seen as the main obstacle to total PMU control of Baghdad. It is part of the larger regional battle between the US and Iran that includes the Gulf and Syria.
ISIS continues to thrive in the vacuum left behind by US-Iran tensions in Iraq. Both the US and the pro-Iranian groups want to fight ISIS primarily but both are distracted by the US-Iran tensions. The pro-Iran proxies now have an extensive campaign to discredit the US in Iraq. Meanwhile other voices, based in some Gulf media, also blame the PMU and Iranian proxies for supporting ISIS, claiming the PMU has allowed ISIS to grow back its roots in Anbar and other areas. This is largely a propaganda war but the stakes in Iraq are very high.