Is the US supporting Iranian-backed militias in Iraq?

Crossed alliances have brought forth new tensions in the US fight against ISIS - and the effort to quell Iranian influence from spreading across the region.

Vehicles of the Shi’ite Popular Mobilization Forces move through Al-Qaim after recapturing the Iraqi city on November 3 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Vehicles of the Shi’ite Popular Mobilization Forces move through Al-Qaim after recapturing the Iraqi city on November 3
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A new report published online by The Washington Free Beacon claims there is “growing concern on Capitol Hill the US government is quietly working with militia fighters in Iraq who are directly tied to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.” The allegation comes as the war against Islamic State in Iraq winds down and Washington searches for a post- ISIS role in Iraq and Syria. It also appears as US President Donald Trump seeks to roll out a new policy to confront Iran in the region.
“Top lawmakers and others have begun to present evidence showing that the State Department continues to provide widespread support for Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, a program that first began under the Obama administration,” the report by Adam Kredo, a senior writer on foreign policy and national security for the online news site, notes.
“We have seen reports that some US-origin military equipment is being operated by Iraqi militia units that are not the approved end-users,” a spokesman for the White House National Security Council told
Representative Ron DeSantis, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee is quoted as saying Congress needs to get the facts about the State Department and its relationship with “these nefarious actors.” Kredo asserts that the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi “is believed, in part, to allocate funds to these Iranian forces via Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, a designated terrorist who leads Kata’ib Hezbollah.”
The complex problem that US policy faces in Iraq goes back to the 2010 Iraqi elections, when then-president Obama supported Dawa Party leader Nouri al-Maliki to become prime minister of Iraq.
The Dawa Party was a pro-Iranian Shi’a sectarian group, but Washington was withdrawing from Iraq that year and thought the party would provide stability.
Instead, it inflamed tensions and led to ISIS taking over a third of the country in 2014.
Jared Kushner flies to Iraq with top US general (credit: REUTERS)
The US returned to Iraq that year to fight ISIS and agreed to do it “by, with and through,” its partner in the Iraqi government. That meant advising, training and equipping the Iraqis – not leading the fight. At the same time, pro-Iranian Shi’a militias raised to fight ISIS by men like al-Muhandis were fighting alongside Iraqi forces.
In 2016, these militias, often called the Popular Mobilization Units, became an official force of the Iraqi government. This has put the US in a bind: how to fight ISIS with the Iraqi Army but keep the militias – some of which are seen as terrorist groups that have previously targeted US forces – at arm’s length? Kredo points to US Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Brett McGurk, who served in the same capacity under Obama, as the main driver of current US policy in Iraq.
“They [the Trump administration] inherited a situation. They have a lot of things on their plate, but if you don’t nip it in the quickly it will grow. This is about Iran’s presence in the region, in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and it affects Israel,” Kredo says. He argues that it is also tied to former Obama-era officials in the State Department who want to preserve the legacy of the Iran deal. US human-rights law prohibits providing military assistance to foreign militaries that violate human rights under a law called the Leahy amendment.
“I’ve asked the State Department to explain if they have heard of violations [of the amendment] and I can’t get an answer.”
There is a growing appetite in Congress to look into these allegations.
Part of the impetus came from a November 2 press conference in Washington in which four US Congressmen blasted US policy in Iraq. According to a Kurdistan24 report by Laurie Mylroie, US Representative Duncan Hunter brought a poster to the press conference of an M-1 Abrams tank with a Shi’a militia flag on it, along with other images.
“Here’s the IRGC commander Qassim Soleimani with the militias that we’re equipping, training and sending into combat.”
Representatives Ron DeSantis, Lee Zeldin and Trent Franks were also present.
Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice-president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says that as Washington has become more aware of the challenge of the IRGC’s support for Hezbollah, it should apply that concern across the region. “Using that logic, the US should be equally alarmed and mobilized against the PMUs.
They are mini-Hezbollahs. My sense is that we are at the beginning of the curve here. Washington requires an education process about the PMUs and the dangers they pose.”
Schanzer says that after ISIS, the next challenge will focus on combating these kind of Iranian proxies across the region.
In an emailed response the coalition's public affairs desk noted that "we do not support Popular Mobilization Forces."
They assert that the coalition provides training and equipment to Iraqi Security Forces that successfully complete a two-step vetting process.
"The first step is by the US State Department for checks for non-involvement with Gross Violations of Human Rights (GVHR) and the second step by the intelligence community checks for associations with terrorist organizations or with the Government of Iran."
The response about "gross violations of human rights" satisfies the Leahy law codified as section 620M of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and Section 362 of Title 10 of U.S Code which states Department of Defense funds cannot be used for training or equipment of foreign forces that engage in GVHR.
"Coalition Forces do not provide training or equipment to any ISF element that does not pass both vetting prerequisites," the coalition says. "The assertion that PMF [Popular Mobilizations Units] members have been operating US equipment is, to our knowledge, inaccurate.
For example, M1 tanks maneuvering with PMF units are manned by Iraqi Army crews."
The coalition's response clearly indicates the presence of the Shia militias is a recognized issue and that there are concerns about Iran.