Iraqi Militias Don’t Want To Be Our Frenemies

A day after Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi ruled out allowing the US to re-station ground forces in his country, Juan Cole observes that the country’s Shiite militias, widely considered proxies of Iran, are also warning against American intervention:

Hamza Mustafa reports from Baghdad that Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Iran-backed Badr Corps, warned that the American plan is to take credit for the victories of the Iraqi armed forces and the popular militias. He called for a rejection of the plan and dependence solely on Iraqi military and paramilitary to defeat ISIL. … The Bloc of the Free (al-Ahrar) led by Shiite cleric Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr called on al-Abadi to reject the US plan. Muqtada al-Sadr warned the US against trying to reoccupy Iraq and threatened, “If you return, we will return.” This was a reference to his Mahdi Army, which had subsided in importance after the US withdrawal. Muqtada boasted that the militia had inflicted heavy casualties on US troops and forced the US out. He also said that if the Mahdi Army “Peace Brigades” discovered an American presence in any province where they were fighting ISIL, they should immediately withdraw from the fight.

His conclusion:

It is difficult to tell how serious these militia leaders’ pronouncements are, since they might be attempting to save face with their followers even as they benefit from the US air cover. On the other hand, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq actually did in the past kidnap US troops, and the Mahdi Army fought them tooth and nail in spring of 2004, inflicting high casualties on them. Since President Obama’s air campaign requires Special Ops forces like Navy Seals or Green Berets to be on the ground with the Iraqi Army, they should apparently watch their backs. The people they are trying to help against ISIL don’t seem to appreciate their being there. And many of them seem to prefer Iran’s help.

So there are indigenous forces against ISIS that are telling us: we’ve got this. And we’re over-ruling them. Eli Lake, on the other hand, interprets these statements as evidence that Iran is working against us, noting that Tehran itself opposes US involvement in the conflict on the ground:

[Mohammad] Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday evening that Iran provides the militias with help organizing, some weapons, and military advisers. He also stressed they were disorganized. Nonetheless, Zarif said that any U.S. ground presence in Iraq would likely spur opposition. “The problem also when it comes to the United States is that the presence of foreign forces in any setting creates domestic opposition and domestic resentment,” he said. “And it is best, whether we support this or not—and we certainly do not support anybody engaging in anything that would complicate the situation—is to allow the Iraqis to fight this.”

Phillip Smyth profiles the resurgent Shiite militias, which he calls “highly ideological, anti-American, and rabidly sectarian organizations” and nearly as much of a security problem as ISIS itself:

Shiite militias have embedded themselves within the structures of the Iraqi government, which has become far too reliant on their power to contemplate cracking down on them. Together, they have committed horrifying human rights abuses: In early June, Shiite militias along with Iraqi security forces reportedly executed around 255 prisoners, including children. An Amnesty International report from June detailed how Shiite militias regularly carried out extrajudicial summary executions, and reported that dozens of Sunni prisoners were killed in government buildings. …

The growing power of these militias is a sign that, despite Maliki’s removal as prime minister, the Iraqi government remains beholden to deeply sectarian forces. These militias have generally retained their operational independence from Baghdad, even as they exploit the country’s nascent democratic system to gain support through their domination of official bodies. They are not simply addendums to the state — they are the state, and do not answer to any authority in Baghdad, but only to their own clerical leaders or Tehran.

All the same, Ben Fernandes argues that cooperating with Iran against ISIS carries fewer risks than not cooperating with Iran:

The current U.S. strategy to defeat ISIS unintentionally incentivizes Iran to build a nuclear weapon by increasing Iran’s perception of external threats and a need for the protection afforded by the possession of nuclear weaponry.  The U.S. intent to arm “moderate” Sunni groups in Syria to fight ISIS will simultaneously (if inadvertently) increase the “Sunni threat” to Iran and Iranian allies like the Assad regime.  Iran perceives all Sunni groups in the Levant as threatening regardless of a Sunni group’s views of the United States as the enemy.  Just as Saddam Hussein prioritized potential threats from Iran and internal dissidents far above the threat of external attack from the United States, Iran acts similarly towards internal dissidents, Saudi Arabia, and other Sunni groups vis-à-vis the United States.

ISIS credibly threatens regional stability, Iranian interests, U.S. interests, Iraq, and many others.  As such, there may be a way to find common ground with Iran in the fight against ISIS.  Iran will not become a reliable U.S. partner, but can be a transactional partner for specific issues of mutual interest just as the U.S. partnered with the Soviets in World War II.  A grand U.S.-Iran bargain over Syrian governance, ISIS, Iranian nuclear weapons, and sanctions may be more practical than dealing with each of these issues in sequence, per the current “ISIS first” approach discussed in GEN Dempsey’s testimony.