Explained: How American Tanks Ended Up With Iraqi Militias


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Several years ago, the United States debated providing the Syrian rebels with high-tech weapons such as anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles. Critics have argued that the weapons could fall into the hands of “terrorist organizations” designated by the United States.

But it was in Iraq that the fear became real: The United States armed Iranian proxies who are killing Americans and terrorist groups with their best tank, the M1 Abrams.

The Popular Mobilization Forces (FMP), an umbrella organization of Iranian-backed Shiite militias fighting the Islamic State group, acquired M1 Abrams tanks donated to the Iraqi army. Two PMF militias – the Badr Organization and Kataib Hezbollah – have job photos and videos of their fighters alongside M1 Abrams tanks draped in their banners and flags.

The tanks were once owned by the 9th Armored Division, the only unit in the Iraqi Army that operates the M1 Abrams. It remains ambiguous whether the militiamen in the videos control the tanks themselves or simply pose with them under the supervision of the 9th tank crews.

“In the videos, the passengers of the tanks wear the uniforms of the 9th,” Iraqi army spokesman Colonel Muhammad Baidani said. The New Arabic. “Taking pictures and placing flags on the float does not in itself constitute proof of ownership. “

Baidani added that the Iraqi armed forces and the PMF conduct combined operations “in most battles”, calling allegations that the 9th loaned the M1 Abrams to the PMF “false”.

But PMF sources said The New Arabic another story, explaining that the militias obtained the M1 Abrams in two ways: “Sometimes the PMF requests American tanks from the Iraqi army, if Russian-made tanks are not available,” Hussam al-Mayahi said , a Badr engineer specializing in military technology and remote weapon stations.

“PMF also seized them after the fall of Mosul and the second battle of Tikrit, taking them to IS.”

During the IS campaign in eastern and northern Iraq, militants managed to seize numerous M1 Abrams tanks, including at least ten during the Battle of Ramadi in 2015.

Jafar al-Husseini, spokesman for Kataib Hezbollah, confirmed this story: “We captured the American tanks and other IS military vehicles, which in turn, [had] seized them of what was left of the Iraqi army. Now they are under our control, and we are looking for more. “

He claimed that Kataib Hezbollah and other Shiite militias now hold all of the IS M1 Abrams tanks.

Other tanks seem to come straight from the 9th: “Tanks are provided to us depending on the circumstances of the fighting and the offensives, before being returned to the Ministry of Defense,” said Karim al-Nuri, a senior commander of Badr. The New Arabic.

Al-Nuri said he never saw PMFs directly using an American tank but, when shown the photos and videos Badr had posted, replied: “It is important to take any char – whether Russian or American. “

If the United States delivered M1 Abrams tanks to the Iraqi Defense Ministry when it knew they could be turned over to the PMF, the Pentagon could have violated the Leahy Law – which prohibited US Defense and State Departments to provide military assistance to security forces guilty of human rights violations.

Human rights defenders to accuse PMF, including Badr and Kataib Hezbollah, ethnic cleansing, summary executions and other war crimes.

Iraq remains on the State Department’s list of countries with the most child soldiers, because of these militias that continue to recruit minors.

Kataib Hezbollah presents a larger dilemma. In 2009, the State Department designated it a “terrorist organization” for killing American soldiers, and the US Treasury Department called its founder, Iraqi warlord Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a “global terrorist especially. designated ”.

Al-Muhandis works as an agent for the Quds Force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps sub-unit responsible for extraterritorial operations on behalf of Iran.

“We have heard these reports and we are reviewing them,” said a spokesperson for the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, who noted in an email: “Defense Department policies on Provision of military assistance to foreign military forces require that Iraqi security forces receiving equipment or training are strictly controlled in accordance with Leahy Law as well as for associations with terrorist organizations and / or the Iranian government.

These policies seem to have failed.

A State Department official admitted that “not all defense items supplied by the United States are under the control of the intended recipient department / unit. We are concerned that a small number of M1A1 tanks may be in the possession of forces other than the Ministry of Defense and the Army.

“The United States has not provided these or other defense articles to the PMF.

“Nonetheless, we understand that some equipment came into the possession of PMF, who are part of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) by law, and were used in the fight against ISIS. We will continue to put pressure on him. Iraqi government to act as quickly as possible to return these defense items to the recipient ministry / units. “

Although he acknowledged that PMF had seized many M1 Abrams tanks in one way or another, the State Department declined to estimate how many. He could not confirm whether he had lost track of how many tanks might be under militia control.

The ranking of Democrats and Republicans on the US Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which oversee the sale of M1 Abrams tanks and other weapons to Iraq, has not responded to repeated requests comments by e-mail and telephone on this subject. article.

In December 2014, several months after the Iraqi military lost several of its M1 Abrams tanks to ISIS, the State Department agreed to sell 175 more, after the Defense Department informed the US Congress – which spent much more time deliberating on the tanks being sold. in Saudi Arabia than in Iraq.

For now at least, Iraq appears to have a continuous supply of M1 Abrams for years to come. Al-Husseini, spokesman for Kataib Hezbollah, may well make his wish come true.

Austin Bodetti is a freelance journalist focusing on conflicts in the greater Middle East and a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars program at Boston College, specializing in Islamic civilization and societies and studying Arabic and Persian.

He has reported in Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, South Sudan, and Thailand, and his writing has appeared in Motherboard, The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, Wired, and Yahoo News.

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