Kurdistan region of Iraq warned about pro-Iran militia threat years ago

The autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government has been wary of changes in Baghdad over the last ten years as pro-Iranian groups have grown in power.

A Kurdistan Region Peshmerga looks out at ISIS positions from his frontline near Kirkuk in 2015 (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
A Kurdistan Region Peshmerga looks out at ISIS positions from his frontline near Kirkuk in 2015
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Kurdistan region of Iraq warned about pro-Iran militia threat years ago
At the height of the ISIS war on a row of hills west of the city of Kirkuk, Kurdish commanders from the Peshmerga, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s armed forces, gathered to watch ISIS threats in the distance. They said  Iraq faced two threats. One threat was ISIS, which was being slowly pushed back from the gains it had made in 2014. Another threat was Shi’ite sectarian militias called the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). These groups had risen to fight ISIS but were gathering strength with Iran’s support.
Most Kurds agreed their sectarianism was a threat to other groups in Iraq. The US airstrikes on Kataib Hezbollah now reveal what Kurdish commanders were saying for the last four years: The Shi’ite militias are a threat to Iraq and the region.
The autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government has been wary of changes in Baghdad over the last 10 years aspro-Iranian groups have grown in power. Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister whose policies helped fuel the chaos that led to ISIS, was derided for ignoring Kurds and Sunni Arabs in Iraq.
At his worst, Maliki’s sectarian agenda, which was also pro-Iranian, was seen as suppressing Sunnis. When he left power in 2014, the US was encouraged by the rise of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who was seen as the right man to run the war on ISIS. Abadi, however, became the key instrument cementing the role of the PMU in Iraq. Asked by then-US secretary of state Rex Tillerson why the militias that signed on to fight ISIS didn’t “go home” after the war in 2017, Abadi said they were the hope for the future of Iraq and the region.
Abadi’s government in Baghdad worked with parliament to take a disparate group of militias, including Kataib Hezbollah, and make them an official paramilitary force, akin to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iran accomplished in Iraq in the years 2016-2018 what it could not accomplish in Lebanon: It transformed Iraq’s form of Hezbollah into an official force. Kataib Hezbollah commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis became deputy of the PMU. A wanted terrorist in Kuwait and a designated and sanctioned terrorist by the US, he was able to freely operate in Iraq and send forces to Syria to aid the Assad regime and Iran’s munitions trafficking.
The PMU had other unsavory elements as well, including Asaib Ahl al-Haq, run by Qais Khazali, a one-time detainee of the US in Camp Cropper. Overall the PMU was feared by Sunni Arabs and also by Kurds for its abuses during the war on ISIS. Kemal Kirkuki, Kurdish Peshmerga commander of the sector around Kirkuk and a former speaker of the Kurdistan Region’s parliament, said Iraq needed to be devolved into federal states to give Kurds and Sunnis autonomy and rights instead of enabling the Shi’ite militias to control others.
He also remarked in a 2016 interview with Rudaw that the PMU, which he called the “Hashd,” was unable to carry out offensives because the US-led coalition wouldn’t give it air support.
He said the Kurdish Peshmerga did not want to work with the PMU.
The tensions between the Kurdish region and the PMU boiled over in 2016 as more and more PMU units were sent north, and they came into contact with the Kurds after both had defeated ISIS. In Tuz Khurato the groups clashed and Kurds were attacked by sectarian militias.
The rise of the Iranian-backed militias prodded the Kurdistan region to oppose their growing presence. In September 2016 Kurdistan Region president Masoud Barzani warned about the Hashd entering Mosul during operations to liberate the city. He said the city’s residents, largely Sunni Arabs, should decide if the Shi’ite militias would enter their city.
He continued to warn about the role of the militias as they swept around Mosul to the West and captured areas near Sinjar. Sinjar is a sensitive area because it was home to the Yazidi minority, which was suppressed by ISIS. It was unclear if the presence of Shi’ite militias would lead Yazidis to fear returning to their homes after ISIS was defeated. In May and June, Barzani warned that the PMU were taking over areas near Sinjar.
The Kurdistan region’s calls went largely unheeded in Washington. The US wanted to empower Abadi, hoping he would become Iraq’s new strong man and that he might unify a nationalist Iraq that was less pro-Iranian. In 2017 Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister made a landmark visit to Iraq and Abadi also went to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi airlines began their first flights to Iraq in 27 years. The US felt that Abadi might be open to working closer with Arab states. But he would need to be empowered to do that. The Shi’ite militias therefore also needed a win to show their strength. Asaib Ahl al-Haq openly said that the battles for Mosul and Tel Afar were “revenge” for the martyrdom of Shi’ite imam Hussein centuries ago. The militias were accused of widespread abuses across Iraq in 2017.
The Kurdistan region planned a referendum on independence set for September 2017. The US and other countries opposed the referendum.
Iran also opposed it. After the Kurds had voted overwhelmingly for independence, Iranian-backed militia leaders such as Muhandis and Hadi al-Amiri of Badr Organization, planned an attack on the Kurdish region. They wanted to retake Kirkuk and Sinjar from the Kurds, areas the Peshmerga had defended from ISIS during the war. In October, they set their plan in motion. In brief clashes in mid-October they took Kirkuk from the Peshmerga with the help of the Iraqi army.
For the Kurdish region all the nightmares of the past, when Saddam Hussein had sent tanks against them, were rekindled. At the time Washington remained on the sidelines, quietly encouraging Abadi to show the Kurdish region a tough hand and punish it for seeking independence. The rise of the Shi’ite militias, who celebrated in Kirkuk by tearing down Kurdish flags, was a byproduct. A week after the US had quietly encouraged Abadi to retake Kirkuk, he summoned Tillerson to Baghdad and told him the Iranian-backed groups were in Iraq to stay.
Two months after the Shi’ite militias helped plan the attack on Kurds in Kirkuk, Qais Khazali went to Lebanon to threaten Israel. The Kirkuk battle had empowered the militias who now said openly they would evict the US and fight the US and Israel. In June 2018 airstrikes hit a Kataib Hezbollah compound in Syria. By that time the militias were already working with Iran to bring precision guided weapons and ballistic missiles via Iraq to Syria. More ballistic missile would arrive in August 2018. In February 2019 they began harassing US forces in Iraq. Then they began firing rockets at Americans.
 On December 27 a US contractor was killed and the US retaliated. The Kurdistan region’s generals and officials had warned about such an incident for years. Their warning fell largely on deaf ears.