The presence of Iranian-backed paramilitary units alongside Iraqi security forces battling Islamic State in the country hindered efforts by American military advisers to partner with their Iraqi counterparts on the battlefield.
Embedded U.S. military advisers with the 82nd Airborne Division’s Falcon Brigade attached to Iraqi units during the battle for the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar intentionally “tried to keep our distance” from the Shia militias known as Popular Mobilization Units or PMUs, Brigade Commander Col. Pat Work said Tuesday.
“We did not work with them” during the siege and eventual liberation of Tal Afar, which had been under Islamic State control for the last three years, Col. Work told reporters during a teleconference from the division’s headquarters at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Maintaining that distance from the PMUs, falling in line with the coalition’s long-standing policy of not interacting with the Iranian proxy forces, at times prevented brigade commanders from carrying out their mission in Iraq, Col. Work said. The presence of the Shia militias in Tal Afar “limited some of our ability to stand with our [Iraqi] partners at the time,” he said.
While the Iraqi security forces “did the preponderance of the fighting” in Tal Afar, adviser elements from the brigade did advise and support Iraqi commanders on the front lines, where Iraqi forces were separated from the Shia paramilitaries. Despite the difficulties posed by the presence of Iranian-backed fighters to U.S. and coalition forces, Baghdad continues to see the PMUs “as a thickening force” to the main Iraqi units engaged in the fight, Col. Work noted.
The quick succession of victories against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, in Tal Afar and Hawija, the latter of which had been the group’s final major holding in Iraq, was a testament to the “battle hardened and professional force” fielded by Baghdad throughout the anti-Islamic State campaign, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq Col. Ryan Dillion said last week.
The Tal Afar offensive featured the largest combat role for the Iranian-backed PMUs since Iraqi military and militia forces retook Fallujah from Islamic State control last May.
The Shia paramilitaries were largely sidelined in the fight for Mosul, over accusations the militias participated in extrajudicial killings during previous anti-Islamic State offensives in Fallujah and Anbar province. The militias, trained and equipped by units from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and its elite Quds Force units, were seen by coalition officials as an overt effort by Iran to expand its influence in Iraq, similar to Tehran’s efforts backing government forces in neighboring Syria.
As a result, U.S. and coalition commanders refused to provide any military support to PMU units in the fight against the Islamic State. But Baghdad chose to federalize the PMUs ahead of the Mosul offensive and tasked them with leading the attack on Tal Afar and the Mosul’s western flank when the operation kicked off last October, despite coalition efforts to negate all military support to the PMUs and their patrons in Tehran.