Shi'ite fighters from Mahdi Army launch rockets during heavy fighting against Islamic state members at Bo Hassan village, near Tikrit in northern Iraq..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Iraqi militias which are close to the Iranian regime have been able to reach a strategically situated village on the Syria-Iraq border. For Israel it means forces that are close to Tehran pose a risk of linking up through Syria The Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), reached the village of Um Jaris on the border in northwestern Iraq on Monday. The PMU’s Badr Brigade militia, which spearheaded the dash over 40km. to the border, is close to the Iranian regime.
This represents a major strategic shift in northern Iraq as Islamic State loses power and a corridor stretching from the Iranian border to Syria is opened up, dividing the Shi’ite – who are powerful in the south – from the Kurds in the north.
The PMU was organized in 2014 to fight Islamic State. It consists of several large, mostly Shi’ite militias, with differing backgrounds. In December 2016, they were officially incorporated into the Iraqi government as a paramilitary force, raising alarms about their influence over a post-ISIS Iraq.
According to Jonathan Spyer, director of the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, “Badr is one of the best organized and most veteran Iran-supported Shi’ite militias in Iraq.
Their leader, Hadi al-Amiri, is closely linked to the Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani.” They are an effective and well-organized military unit with armored vehicles and artillery, he said.
It was their armored vehicles that helped them cross quickly to the Syrian border, cutting off ISIS and liberating villages from ISIS near Sinjar along the way. The PMU now controls territory south of the Kurdish Peshmerga and this has caused tensions.
Rudaw, a Kurdish media outlet, reported that “the Hashd could soon resemble the Iraqi version of Hezbollah in Lebanon, or the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran.” A Kurdish commander told Rudaw that he fears, “they have come here to fight the Peshmerga when ISIS is gone.”
However, according to another Rudaw report, Shi’ite militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis said his men were liberating Yazidi villages where ISIS carried out atrocities in 2014. “We feel happy and sad of the liberation of this village [Kocho] that faced the murder of its entire people at the hands of ISIS.”
Muhandis said the PMU would remain to protect the Yazidis and hand over local control to Yazidi units affiliated with the PMU. Other Yazidis serve with the Peshmerga and their area is now divided.
The dash for the border comes amid a final offensive in Mosul against ISIS, which has been confined to a few square kilometers in the old city. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi, decked out in desert camouflage, flew to Mosul on Monday where he met with Muhandis and vows to oversee the final battle. He tweeted that he met with the Shi’ite militias, a stamp of approval for their role.
With Iran’s influence now stretching from Tehran, via Baghdad to the Syrian border several analysts and reports have argued that Iran is forming a “Shi’ite crescent” as part of a wider strategy to construct a corridor to the sea. In April, Kurdish experts I interviewed in Erbil sketched out a map and presented it, showing a line of Shi’ite villages and militia influence pointing past Sinjar to the border.
Fabrice Balanche, at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote on May 26 there was “concern [this] reflects the broader regional contest that the [Syria] war has become, with the [Syrian] regime racing to establish an east-west ‘Shi’ite axis’ from Iran to Lebanon.”
The next move that can be expected from the Shi’ite militias is to strike south along the Iraqi border and clear ISIS toward Qaim and Al-Bukamal, which could link them up with Syrian regime forces moving east from Damascus.
This is not a foregone conclusion as there are US-supported Syrian rebel groups on the Iraq-Syrian border near Jordan. But it’s clearly a concern for those in the region that oppose Iran.
Kurdistan24, a Kurdish news channel, reports that the PMU “has previously said it is ready to move inside Syrian territories to continue the fight against [ISIS].”
That would be a security concern for Israel, because Hezbollah is present in Syria and uses Syria as a corridor for weapons transfers. Linking up with Shi’ite militias in Iraq that have been compared to Hezbollah and openly show posters of Ayatollah Khamenei, poses a challenge to Jerusalem and the region.