Pro-Iran Iraqi militias burn images of their PM, Israel and US flags

Shocking photos from Iraq this evening show the men, who were detained on the night of June 25, in crisp new jackets of the Popular Mobilization Forces, trampling and burning the images and flags.

Iranian-backed militias stand on a tank close to the Syria-Iraq border (photo credit: ALAA AL-MARJANI/REUTERS)
Iranian-backed militias stand on a tank close to the Syria-Iraq border
(photo credit: ALAA AL-MARJANI/REUTERS)
A group of men affiliated with the pro-Iranian Kataib Hezbollah, who had been released after a counter-terror raid several days earlier, burned the Israeli and US flags and trampled on photos of Iraq’s prime minister.
It is the latest show of force by Iranian-backed elements in Iraq – who are part of the official security forces but increasingly seek to supplant the state the way that Islamic Revolutionary Guards have done in Iran, and via Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.
The shocking photos from Iraq this evening show the men, who were detained on the night of June 25, in crisp new jackets of the Popular Mobilization Forces, trampling and burning images of their own commander-in-chief. This would be tantamount to a US National Guard unit burning images of the US president or members of Israel’s Border Police burning images of their prime minister.
There is no precedent historically for a unit of the security forces burning an image of its own commander, except as a show of force indicating that pro-Iranian groups now control Iraq.

This is a contest of wills between Iran and the Iraqi people, Iran and the US and Iran and the region in general. Protesters in Iraq have been demonstrating since last October for better standards of living and infrastructure. Pro-Iranian militias, such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Badr and Saraya Khorosani, have been implicated in killing hundreds of the protesters, acting on an Iranian model that murdered up to 1,500 protesters last year in the Islamic Republic.
Kataib Hezbollah, a powerful militia with thousands of dedicated supporters and cadres, is the tip of the spear of Iranian influence in Iraq. Once run by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a terrorist sanctioned by the US, it suffered setbacks when the US killed Muhandis and IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani in January. The two terrorist leaders were key to Iran’s influence. With them out of the way, the Iranians have struggled to control Iraq’s 150,000 or so militias in the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).
Hezbollah sent Mohammed Kawtharani to coordinate, and a man named Abu Fadak was promoted to replace Muhandis. Then Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani's replacement, came to Iraq several times – and even went to the Syrian border – to show his presence. But militias like Kataib Hezbollah are also doing Iran’s bidding by firing rockets at US forces in Iraq. There have been dozens of rocket attacks, including at least six since the beginning of June.

Iraq has a new prime minister named Mustafa Kadhimi, a former activist and intelligence chief; he replaced the former prime minister who had resigned due to the killing of protesters. Kadhimi must manage the COVID-19 crisis, a budget crisis and tensions between the US and Iran. He sent the Iraqi elite Counter-Terrorism Service to raid Kataib Hezbollah members on June 25 because of information linking these men to attacks on the US. These extrajudicial attacks were outside the orders the unit was supposed to carry out.
Groups like Kataib Hezbollah are all part of the PMU, which themselves are part of the security forces and have gotten a state salary since 2018. But they often act with impunity as rogue elements. They have killed three members of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition as well as one contractor. Washington has retaliated with airstrikes in December and March, killing militia members and decimating warehouses. The militias haven’t backed down though; they also traffic ballistic missiles for Iran and move weapons to Syria.
Kataib Hezbollah even built a base in Albukamal that was blown up in a mysterious June 2018 airstrike. Qais Khazali, who was sanctioned by the US last year – and was once detained by the US at Camp Cropper and found with Hezbollah members back in 2007 – went to visit Hezbollah in 2017 and threatened Israel.
This is why these militia members, after being released on June 29, burned the Israeli and American flags. They view themselves as members of Iran’s “axis of resistance” with loyalty to Iran first.
After being detained on June 26, they were transferred from the Counter Terrorism Service to the PMU’s SDPC on the same day and then released on June 29. Only 11 were released. They got new jackets from the PMU, part of its new line of clothing the group has been showing off in recent months, posing next to fake gold chairs, as if they were dignitaries.