In Iraq, tension between the US-led coalition and armed
groups linked to Iran has risen in recent months. For example, the United
States sanctioned key representatives of Lebanese militant group Hezbollah on
Nov. 13, saying they had moved money, acquired weapons and trained fighters in
Iraq. Problems have also arisen with some factions of the Iranian Militias in
Iraq and Syria (IMIS).
As a whole, the IMIS are part of Iraq’s security forces, but its dozens of factions are Shiite armed groups with ties to Iran. There has long been tension between some of the local Sunni population and those Shiite-majority IMIS units from southern and central Iraq.
Recently, one of these Shiite factions claimed that elite Danish troops — members of the US-led coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq — fired rockets at them. The IMIS unit also alleged the Danes’ guilt prompted them to leave the border area in September.
The Danish unit, part of a highly secretive elite fighting force known as Jaeger Corps, denied any connection with the event.
The corps had created Task Force 61, the team that partnered with local Sunni IMIS fighters in Qaim. For two years, the task force had been training, advising and assisting the IMIS militia known as the Aaly al-Furat (AAF) Brigade. Task Force 61 was with AAF on the front lines in the fight to take back western Anbar from ISIS last year.
It was this Danish/AAF team that allegedly fired on a non-local IMIS group, according to the southern Shiite IMIS leader, Qassem Musleh, who spent years in exile in Iran before returning to the country in 2003. Musleh said in an Oct. 11 interview that the Danes had shot at them in September in Qaim.
But Kaare Jakobsen, commander of the highly secretive Jaeger Corps, said his men had already pulled back in September to Camp Brink at the Ayn al-Asad Air Base in line with a decision that had been made in August that their mission had ended.
He said AAF is the only brigade his men had partnered with in Iraq, though “we have also been training units of the 8th Division from the Iraqi army” under Maj. Gen. Qassem al-Mohammedi, the officer in charge of western Anbar.
“But we work in coalition” forces, Jakobsen stressed, “whether that be with the Americans or other NATO partners.”
Besides the Iran-backed IMIS faction’s allegations against the Danes, tension between Denmark and Iran has been rising for other reasons as well.
On Sept. 22, armed gunmen attacked a military parade in Ahvaz in southwestern Iran, killing dozens of people, including civilians. Iran blamed the separatist group the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA), which has members in exile in Denmark. Both ASMLA and ISIS were said to have claimed responsibility, though ASMLA since has decried the violence and claims to have had no part in it.
Tehran accused Denmark of harboring ASMLA members. On Sept. 28, the Iranian regime allegedly tried to assassinate ASMLA leaders on Danish soil. When Danish authorities discovered the alleged plot, they shut down the streets of Copenhagen and sealed the borders as part of a massive, but unsuccessful, manhunt. On Oct. 21, one suspect was detained in Sweden and extradited to Denmark. The man is a Norwegian national of Iranian descent.
Iran denied there was any assassination plot, but Denmark has recalled its ambassador to Iran and urged new EU sanctions against Tehran.
On Nov. 7, Denmark did detain three individuals thought to be ASMLA members, but released them the same day after police interviewed them. They had been accused of condoning terrorism for publicly praising the Sept. 22 attack.
Meanwhile, Musleh also voiced suspicion of Iraqi forces, claiming members of the army's 7th Division were “spying” on them.
The non-local Shiite IMIS factions under Musleh, who commands the IMIS’s Tufuf Brigade, now have their area headquarters in the Karabla district of Qaim, a fact that rankles some residents. Musleh is also an IMIS leader for western Anbar, but both the non-local and local IMIS operating there officially answer not to Musleh, but to the Iraqi army’s Mohammedi, according to Col. Moussa Hamad al-Karbouly. Anbar province is predominantly Sunni.
In recent months, Tufuf moved its IMIS health facility from further south in Akashat to the Karabla headquarters. Tough fighting against ISIS in recent weeks in eastern Syria, after ISIS advanced against the Syrian Democratic Forces, may hint that the move is possibly part of preparations for more cross-border activity by the IMIS. When dozens of dead and wounded fighters were killed in a June airstrike on Iraqi Shiite militias in Syria, the casualties were taken back across the border to the nearby state-run hospital in Qaim. The mysterious attack hit a base used by the pro-Iranian militias, including Katai'b Hezbollah, which were backing the Syrian regime.
Meanwhile, the Danish elite forces have withdrawn, but “there will be a different Danish battalion of conventional forces at the Ayn al-Asad base for training, at least until the end of 2018,” Jakobsen said.
As to which forces the Danish will train, the Jaeger Corps commander said, “If the Iraqi government sends them here, [the battalion] will train them.” However, “the [US-led] coalition will have to approve it, so I don't think that the IMIS will be included,” since many of the factions are close to Iran.
“But to be clear on this, we don’t have any problem with the IMIS or the Tufuf Brigade,” Jakobsen stressed. “The decision was made in August that the mission we were here on had been completed. It wasn’t because of an incident [the alleged September rocket attack in Qaim] we weren’t a part of.”
Since the Danes’ withdrawal, and as ISIS has advanced dangerously close to the Iraqi border with Syria in recent weeks, the IMIS reportedly has sent reinforcements to strengthen defenses there.
Earlier this year, the Anbar governor at that time asked non-local IMIS to leave the region. Instead, they now seem to be bolstering their presence.