MULLA QARAH, Iraq — The crisscrossing agendas facing Iraq — pressured by the U.S. and Iran while trying to set up a functioning government in Baghdad and preventing a revival of the Islamist terrorism that nearly broke the country apart — were on stark display during a nighttime skirmish this month.
Soldiers from the Popular Mobilization Forces — largely Shiite Muslim militias strongly backed by Tehran — were traveling from Mosul to Kirkuk when Islamic State militants attacked their convoy near the disputed Iraqi-Kurdish city of Makhmour. Six died, and 31 people from the predominantly ethnic Turkmen unit were injured in the shooting.
After the attack, forces near Makhmour asked the U.S.-led coalition to bomb Qarachokh mountain, where the Islamic State fighters hide in caves between Iraq and the autonomous Kurdistan Region’s military bases. The coalition bombed later that night, said Col. Srud Barzanji, who commands Kurdish peshmerga soldiers in Mulla Qarah, near Makhmour.
Like many of Iraq’s Kurds, Col. Barzanji thinks the U.S. military should stay in the country to help fight the Islamic State, which is taking another look at its sanctuaries in Iraq as the last remnants of its “caliphate” in neighboring Syria fall to the U.S. and its allies.
“To leave would be to make the same mistake Obama did in 2011,” he told The Washington Times from his base, surrounded by suicide trucks taken from Islamic State forces.
But the U.S. military presence in Iraq is not universally welcomed. The pro-Iran Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) group is emerging as perhaps the loudest voice arguing that it is time for the Americans to go home. Iraqi media outlets have reported numerous calls from the militias for the U.S. to leave.
Members of the PMF and their political allies in the Iraqi parliament are also said to be spreading conspiracy theories that the Trump administration is helping the Islamic State inside Iraq as a way to justify the U.S. military presence. Just as Islamic State militants are attempting to reassert themselves in remote majority Sunni areas of Iraq, the PMF is stepping up its quest to expel U.S. forces from the country.
It’s an intriguing turn of events. The PMF militias formed in 2014 to fight the Islamic State, which had just captured large swaths of Iraqi territory and major cities such as Ramadi, Mosul and Fallujah. PMF fighters are predominantly Shiite Muslims and have received logistical and material support from Iran. Although Sunni Muslim, Christian, Yazidi and other faiths are represented in their ranks, many see the militias as a virtual arm of Iran inside Iraq.
The PMF formally became part of the Iraqi national security forces in late 2016, but many militia members credit Iran for supplying critical weaponry and military training in the long, successful fight to oust the Islamic State.
Complicating the picture, parties tied to the PMF are now part of the federal government and have political clout. They make up much of the Fatah Alliance, which came in second in Iraq’s parliamentary elections last year. The militias maintain presences in many Iraqi cities, including predominantly Sunni Muslim areas such as Mosul.
PMF leaders have repeatedly called on the U.S. military to leave Iraq. On March 10, a Fatah Alliance lawmaker implored the prime minister to “put a serious end to the presence of American forces inside Iraqi lands,” according to Iraqi outlet Hatha al-Youm.
The U.S. presence received new prominence in December when President Trump announced plans — since modified — to remove all U.S. forces from Syria as the fight against the Islamic State was winding but to keep the roughly 5,000 American troops in Iraq. Mr. Trump sparked a furor in Baghdad when he justified the move in part by saying he wanted U.S. troops in Iraq so they could “watch” Iran.
Iraqi leaders were determined not to be pulled into the bitter struggle between the U.S. and Iran.
“Don’t overburden Iraq with your own issues,” Iraqi President Barham Salih, a Kurd, said in response to Mr. Trump’s comments. “The U.S. is a major power … but do not pursue your own policy priorities. We live here.”
Iraq’s efforts to balance Washington and Tehran were on display again this week with a three-day official visit of Iranian Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani, which included a rare meeting Wednesday with powerful Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. With the Trump administration on a full-court press to isolate the regime in Tehran, the point of Mr. Rouhani’s visit was unmistakable.
“This visit seeks to send a message to the United States of America that Iran is still effective in Iraqi politics,” Ali Fadlallah, an Iraqi political analyst, told The Associated Press.
Iran’s allies in Iraq, including the PMF, have been quick to seize on Mr. Trump’s comments.
After reports of a U.S. military patrol in Mosul in February, a spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Forces said they warned the U.S. against carrying out such acts near them in the future. On March 10, a Fatah Alliance member of parliament said, “We will not allow the U.S. to control Iraq, even if it costs us our necks,” according to Iraq News Inc.
Members of the militias and their allies have repeated widespread conspiracy theories that Washington is helping the Islamic State in order to justify the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq.
In February, a member of the Al-Sadiqoun Bloc told the Iranian government Al-Alam News Network that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was holed up in the desert of western Anbar province under U.S. protection. The bloc’s military wing is Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which forms part of the PMF.
“The United States is preparing to create a new terrorist organization in Iraq to facilitate its interest in its troops staying in the country,” Awas al-Khafaji told Baghdad Today.
A Popular Mobilization Forces spokesman did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Other Iraqi politicians who have criticized the presence of U.S. troops include allies of Muqtada al-Sadr, the fiery nationalist leader whose Shiite militias fought the U.S. after the 2003 invasion. Mr. al-Sadr’s Sairoon electoral list won the largest single bloc of seats in parliament in May elections, although he has expressed equal skepticism about excessive Iranian and U.S. interference in Iraq’s internal affairs.
The PMF is likely to remain potent in the Iraqi domestic debate opposing a U.S. military presence, even with the resurgent Islamic State threats, one analyst in Baghdad said.
The PMF “won’t change its view on the Americans for ideological reasons,” Diyari Salih, a frequent guest on Iraqi political news shows, said in an interview. “It considers [the Islamic State] the hands of the Americans, there to balance its role in the region and create … Sunni-Shia conflict.”
The frequent criticisms of U.S. forces have prompted the Iraqi government to explain that international coalition airstrikes in the country must obtain government permission.
The political wrangling is intensifying even as security analysts warn that the threat from the Islamic State is poised to expand.
Islamic State fighters are entering Iraq from Syria through the vast desert region along the countries’ border. Baghdad declared victory over the Islamic State in December 2017 when the extremist group lost all of its territory, including Mosul during a bloody siege. But even Iraqi military officials say the threat has not disappeared.
“There are [Islamic State] remnants who have a presence in the mountains. They’re surrounded by our forces,” Iraqi army spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool told The Washington Times.
The terrorist group has a continued, albeit limited, ability to strike in the country, he said.
“They try from time to time to do attacks here and there,” said Gen. Rasool. “Operations are still ongoing. We’re following and monitoring these terrorist movements.”
Having lost its once-extensive territorial base, the Islamic State has also resorted to threatening and attacking inhabitants of areas it once controlled, said Ali Al Bayati, a member of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights.
“People are receiving different messages and calls from unknown numbers telling people not to cooperate with the state,” Mr. Ali Albayati said. “There are even some examples of killings and assassinations happening in different areas.”
Iraq is a significantly safer place today than it was in 2014, at the height of the Islamic State offensive. Iraq began building a security fence along its border with Syria last year. The Islamic State still has strength in the disputed areas that Kurds see as part of their semiautonomous region.
In 2014, the Kurdish peshmerga fighters moved into disputed areas, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, even as the Iraqi national army was in full retreat in the face of Islamic State offensives. After the Kurdistan independence referendum in 2017, however, the Iraqi army and PMF reclaimed control of Kirkuk, Makhmour and the other disputed areas.
The result has been inadequate security and increasing Islamic State attacks in the disputed territories. Attacks in Kirkuk were at an all-time high in October, according to a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Pressure to stay
Not everyone in Iraq wants the U.S. and other foreign forces to leave. Peshmerga soldiers often praise the international coalition’s contributions in the fight against the Islamic State. The Iraqi military likewise believes that working alongside the international coalition still has value, even with the greatly diminished threat from the Islamic State.
“We still need coordination with the coalition and their help,” said Gen. Rasul.
The commander noted that the Americans are just one of many international militaries in Iraq, and operate under Iraqi authority.
“There’s an international coalition, and the Americans are working with Iraqi forces inside Iraqi bases,” said Gen. Rasool. “There is coordination with their movements and airstrikes, and the coalition presence is approved by the Iraqi government.”
The Trump administration is clearly focused on the rising influence of the Iran-linked militia movements inside Iraq. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a list of a dozen demands the U.S. has given Tehran in the wake of Mr. Trump’s withdrawal last year from the Iran nuclear deal, included a proviso that the Islamic republic “must respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi government and permit the disarming, demobilization, and reintegration of Shia militias.”
This month, the U.S. government officially designated Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba — the Movement of the Noble of the Party of God — as a terrorist organization and Iranian proxy group and announced Treasury Department sanctions on the group and its leader.
But Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia leader Qais al-Khazali said in January that he expects the Iraqi parliament to vote on the status of U.S. forces soon, and the security and defense committee asked parliament Tuesday to vote on the status of U.S. forces. It’s unclear whether Mr. al-Khazali’s group and the other units of the PMF will directly attack Americans or simply continue their threats in the media.
David M. Witty, a former U.S. Army colonel who advised the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service, said he does not think the U.S. military and the Popular Mobilization Forces will clash directly.
“I think it’s mainly just rhetoric,” Col. Witty said in an interview. “There’s not a consensus among Iraqi politicians on the U.S. presence.”