These Iraqi militias are ready to fight the United States if they start a war with Iran

BAGHDAD – Hashem Al Mayahi did not always despise America. When the United States first invaded Iraq to rid the country of Saddam Hussein in 2003, he hoped that regime change would pave the way for a better future.

“I thought they would make Iraq a paradise after we got rid of Saddam,” he recalls.

But as Baghdad sank into violence and chaos, and american abuses surfaced, he began to mobilize his neighborhood against the occupation, first as part of the Mahdi’s army, an insurgency led by popular Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, and later by his dissident group, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq. Asaib grew up and gained notoriety for targeting US troops, claiming responsibility for more than 6,000 of these attacks.

Now, with the United States and Iran at an impasse that threatens to escalate into armed conflict in Iraq, he is ready to start over. In an exclusive interview with VICE News, Al Mayahi said Asaib was prepared to strike US targets in Iraq using the same insurgency tactics he deployed during the height of the US occupation.

“90% of it will be a war,” the 46-year-old told VICE News from his home in a Baghdad neighborhood. “When America attacks Iran, we will not be silent.”

Al Mayahi is a senior military commander in Asaib, who is now technically part of the Iraqi security apparatus after his contributions to the war against ISIS and operates under the command of the prime minister. But the militia and its sister groups maintain close ties with Tehran. And as relations between the United States and Iran continue to deteriorate, Asaib and similar militias could become major players in any conflict.

“When America attacks Iran, we will not remain silent”

There are already signs that Iraq could become a main battleground between the United States and Iran. This month, rockets were fired in a base housing American troops north of Baghdad and, a few days later, in the compound of American oil giant Exxon Mobile in the south of the country. No one claimed responsibility.

The attacks came just weeks after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that “Iran and its proxies” were planning imminent assaults on US interests in Iraq and rushed to Baghdad for look for insurance Support. He also urged Baghdad to curb Iranian-backed armed groups like Asaib.

“We urge them to act quickly to consolidate these forces”, Pompeo Recount journalists after the visit. “As long as there are Iranians out there who have the capacity in terms of weapon systems that are not under the control of the Iraqi government, then the Iraqi people are in danger and it is a less stable nation. “

Pompeo Iraq

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, second from right, speaks with Chargé d’affaires at the US Embassy in Baghdad Joey Hood, second from right, upon his arrival in Baghdad on Tuesday, May 7, 2019 . (Mandel Ngan / Pool Photo via AP)

Such demands put the Iraqi government in a delicate position: it cannot afford to alienate the United States, a key strategic partner, especially in the defense and energy sector. But some officials in Baghdad resent Washington’s lobbying campaign, which they say overlooks the national circumstances that gave birth to these groups and continues to galvanize their base of support.

“It’s really not that simple,” said a senior government official who requested anonymity. “Each of these groups has its own background, its own history, its own interests, its own demands for self-protection.”

Asaib is closely linked to Iran, that’s for sure: During the interview with VICE News, Al Mayahi openly spoke of receiving salaries and military training from Iran, and did not hesitate to proclaim his loyalty to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He also admitted to having fought in Syria, where Iran has deployed its affiliates to support Bashar Assad’s regime.

But some analysts Argue that these groups’ relationship with Iran is best described as one of converging interests rather than an outright indirect force.

“Much of their day-to-day decision-making, whether it is the deployment of units or expansionist trends in certain governorates – for example, their decision to take over a particular infrastructure point or expand operations economic – are driven by their own national strategic calculations, ”said Erica Gaston, a non-resident scholar at the New America Foundation.

Asaib is widely believed to have used his battlefield gains against ISIS to broaden interests, requisitioning certain sectors of the economy and leading mafia gangs that collect unofficial taxes, smuggle goods and extort businesses.

Bad blood

Asaib disarmed when US troops left in 2011, but they mobilized again three years later when Iraq’s supreme Shiite religious authority rallied young men to stop ISIS’s advance. on Baghdad. More than 150,000 men responded to the call, joining various militias under the aegis of the Shiite-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces (FMP). A 2016 law made the PMF an official arm of the Iraqi security forces, alongside the country’s military, the Counter-Terrorism Service and the Federal Police.

When US troops returned to Iraq to fight ISIS, they found themselves fighting on the same side as the PMF.

But with ISIS all but gone, their competition for economic, political and military influence in Iraq has become more pronounced. Just as the United States is pressuring Baghdad to restrict the powers of the PMF, the PMF says it is time for the American troops to leave.

“We do not trust US policy in Iraq,” said Laith Al Adhari, a member of Asaib’s political bureau, located in a large complex in the affluent Jadriyah district of Baghdad. “If America wanted stability and security in Iraq, then the Americans should go. “

Dressed in a neat beard, a light gray suit and a pink tie, Al Adhari represents Asaib’s elegant new image: as a political movement that has Iraqi interests, not Iranians, at heart.

“If America wanted stability and security in Iraq, then the Americans should go”

“We cherish our national identity. We do not accept any violation of our sovereignty, and we do not accept the American or Iranian presence, ”he said. Asaib’s support base hails from the Shiite south, but amid growing public opposition to Iranian interference in Iraq, the group has sought to re-brand itself as a national movement that represents all Iraqis.

The party won 15 seats in parliament in last year’s election, the biggest gain among all parties, and is part of a PMF-led Iran-friendly bloc that has championed a bill aimed at to expel foreign troops.

According to the Iraqi constitution, Parliament cannot propose its own legislation; he can only vote on laws initiated by the executive. So far, the prime minister has shown no intention of proposing such a bill, repeatedly stating that US troops were in Iraq only to train and advise Iraqi security forces.

The PMF sees it differently and accuses the United States of using its military presence to achieve its geopolitical objectives, a belief that was cemented by Trump’s proclamation of wanting to use American bases in Iraq “to monitor Iran” .

“America protects its interests and we protect ours”

“At the height of the war on terror, the number of troops was 5,000. Aren’t they supposed to decrease the number after the victory over ISIS? This means that they are not just there to train, ”Al Adhari said.

A spokesperson for the US-led coalition to defeat ISIS confirmed that the US is maintaining around 5,200 troops in Iraq.

“We are continually reviewing our force levels in Iraq in order to do the job that has been asked of us by the Iraqi government, and we only have the forces we need,” said US Army Col. Scott. Rawlinson.

Al Adhari’s views are more refined than those of Al Mayahi, the military commander who has bluntly professed his allegiance to Iran. Nonetheless, in a two-hour interview, Al Adhari crafted an equally ambiguous account of why Iran was a more “natural” ally for Iraq than the United States.

Unlike the United States, he argued, Iran had not sanctioned Iraq in the 1990s and ruined its economy. He had not invaded Iraq under the false pretext of weapons of mass destruction. Echoing one of President Trump’s favorite critiques of the Obama administration, Al Adhari also accused the United States of “bringing terrorism to Iraq” by creating fertile soil for extremism and fully support ISIS (the latter, although unfounded, is a widespread opinion across Iraq).

The United States, for its part, views key segments of the PMF as terrorist groups. In 2017, Congress introduced a bill impose terrorism-related sanctions against Asaib and another militia linked to Iran, Harakat Hezbollah Al Nujaba. In March, the State Department added Nujaba to the list of terrorist organizations, the second PMF unit to achieve the designation after Kataib Hezbollah. Asaib could be next, a prospect that did not seem to confuse Al Adhari.

“Today anyone who is against American interests is considered a terrorist,” he said. “America is protecting its interests and we are protecting ours.”

Some analysts say the Trump administration’s aggressive stance towards the PMF may soon backfire.

“As long as the Americans are still there, it is impossible to lay down our arms”

“Tackling these groups requires a very indirect approach,” said Douglas Ollivant, senior researcher at the New America Foundation which focuses on Iraq. “The PMF has very high national approval ratings for its role and sacrifices in the fight against ISIS. The only long-term antidote to their influence and strength is the strengthening of the Iraqi state.

Despite the PMF’s sprawling political and economic influence, the government says it has made progress in bringing the PMF into the fold. When tensions began to escalate in May, several senior PMF leaders, including Asaib leader Qais Khazali, echoed the government’s call for restraint.

But behind the scenes, Al Mayahi, the military commander, says Asaib is ready to fight what he sees as US interference in the region.

“Politicians want to calm tensions,” said Al Mayahi, the military commander. “As long as the Americans are still here, it is impossible to lay down our arms.”

Cover: In this file photo from Friday July 1, 2016, members of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces march from the Shiite group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, in a Quds Day march in Baghdad, Iraq, on Friday 1 July 2016 (AP Photo / Hadi Mizban, file)

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