Iraqi Shi­ites in po­si­tion to be Ira­nian shock force

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY ROWAN SCAR­BOR­OUGH

Iran has po­si­tioned thou­sands of loyal Iraqi Shi­ite mili­tia fight­ers around Mo­sul with a strate­gic goal of cre­at­ing long-last­ing armies in­side Iraq that can also de­ploy as an ex­pe­di­tionary force to Syria, Ye­men and other con­tested re­gions, an­a­lysts say.

The Ira­nian-spon­sored Hezbol­lah Bri­gades, Badr Or­ga­ni­za­tion and other groups fall un­der the Bagh­dad-ap­proved um­brella group known as the Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion Forces. These mostly Shi­ite groups — some mod­er­ate, some ex­trem­ists — are dis­tinct from but co­or­di­nate with the Iraqi reg­u­lar army, po­lice and coun­tert­er­ror­ism units. The ul­ti­mate goal is the same: Evict the Salafist Sunni group Is­lamic State from the country.

But the Ira­nian-backed groups, guided by on-the-ground ad­vis­ers from the Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps’ no­to­ri­ous Quds force, have re­gional goals as well. They are geared to­ward what the U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity sees as Tehran’s de­sire to dom­i­nate the re­gion and blunt Amer­i­can in­flu­ence.

The U.S. des­ig­nated the Hezbol­lah group as a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion in 2009. It is re­spon­si­ble for the deaths of hun­dreds of Amer­i­can ser­vice mem­bers dur­ing the first war in Iraq.

There are an es­ti­mated 80,000 Iraqi fight­ers un­der Iran’s di­rec­tion. Many are now po­si­tioned west of Mo­sul, where there is heavy fight­ing as part of the month-old coali­tion’s cam­paign to free the last ma­jor ur­ban area still in the clutches of the Is­lamic State.

An­a­lysts say the mili­tias are hunt­ing fight­ers from Is­lamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, try­ing to make an es­cape into the group’s base in Syria, but will not take part in the on­go­ing in­va­sion into Mo­sul proper or the nearby town of Tal Afar be­cause of con­cerns of sec­tar­ian ten­sions.

Pa­trick Martin, a mil­i­tary an­a­lyst with the non­profit In­sti­tute for the Study of War in Wash­ing­ton, said the mili­tias fight separately from the gov­ern­ment’s Iraqi Se­cu­rity Force. They are not par­tic­u­larly good at close-in ur­ban war­fare — the kind of street-to-street bat­tles go­ing on in Mo­sul. In­stead, they fo­cus on clearing small vil­lages, en­cir­cling the town of Tal Afar and pa­trolling desert es­cape routes along the Syr­ian border.

“Per­haps the most no­table thing is that al­most ev­ery Iraqi Shia mili­tia is par­tic­i­pat­ing or is try­ing to par­tic­i­pate in op­er­a­tions near Mo­sul in or­der not to be left out, as par­tic­i­pat­ing in Mo­sul op­er­a­tions and re­cap­tur­ing Tal Afar are huge for the le­git­i­macy of the Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion Force,” Mr. Martin said.

“There’s a very big push among the most se­nior mili­tia lead­ers to en­shrine the Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion Force as a per­ma­nent se­cu­rity force,” he added. “It would ef­fec­tively al­low the in­di­vid­ual lead­ers to have a lot more say and ac­cess to re­sources and a sense of le­git­i­macy in a way they’ve never re­ally ex­pe­ri­enced be­fore.”

Iran, Mr. Martin added, now has in place loyal Iraqi proxy lead­ers and a force that “is not un­der com­mand and con­trol of Iraqi gov­ern­ment, is very cheap to main­tain and has a mod­u­lar as­pect to it that Iran could use to de­ploy to other the­aters that re­quire man­power.”

Post-Mo­sul fears

Many fear that the real trou­ble could erupt for Bagh­dad af­ter Mo­sul is re­claimed from Is­lamic State, given the mixed mo­tives and clash­ing agen­das within the U.S.-backed coali­tion and the sim­mer­ing dis­trust be­tween the Sun­nis, Shias, Kurds and other eth­nic mi­nori­ties in the area. Will Iran di­rect its mili­tias to kill for­mer Baathist Party of­fi­cials in the Sad­dam Hus­sein regime who op­er­ated an anti-Amer­i­can in­sur­gency? Will they pick fights with Kur­dish forces north of Mo­sul and with Sunni mili­ti­a­men?

Michael Ru­bin, an an­a­lyst on Iran at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, said Iran’s lead­ers “be­lieve they can win on a num­ber of fronts” by sta­tion­ing loyal Iraqis around Mo­sul.

“Con­trol­ling the re­gion be­tween Mo­sul and the Syr­ian border will al­low Iran greater abil­ity to sup­ply Syr­ian prox­ies by land,” he said. “Then there’s ide­ol­ogy. We look at Iran through a sec­tar­ian lens, as rep­re­sent­ing Shi­ite Mus­lims. It’s im­por­tant to rec­og­nize that, from Iran’s point of view, the Is­lamic repub­lic rep­re­sents all Mus­lims, so from Tehran’s per­spec­tive, why shouldn’t they be in Mo­sul?”

He added, “If the Ira­ni­ans have greater pres­ence along the length of Iraqi Kur­dis­tan, they can also be spoil­ers in case the Iraqi Kurds ever do seek to sep­a­rate. That’s a prece­dent Iran fears given its own eth­nic di­ver­sity.”

Asked about the role of mili­tia forces near Mo­sul, Air Force Col. John Dor­rian, the chief U.S. mil­i­tary spokesman in Bagh­dad, told The Wash­ing­ton Times:

“Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion Forces are op­er­at­ing to the west of Mo­sul in the vicin­ity of the Tel Afar Air­port, which is well south of Tel Afar city. They are clearing vil­lages in the area and se­cur­ing roads that ISIL might oth­er­wise be able to use to es­cape west from Mo­sul.”

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