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US troops in Iraq menaced by monster they helped create

In his 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment, US Director of National intelligence Dan Coats came to the blunt conclusion that: “In Iraq, Iran-supported IMIS militias remain the primary threat to US personnel.”

This report states that the threat posed by these militias is increasing in the context of escalating tensions between America and Iran, warning that “the regime might direct its proxies and partners in Iraq to attack US interests.” The report regards confrontation between the two sides as almost inevitable. “Iran’s regional ambitions and improved military capabilities will almost certainly threaten US interests in the coming year;” Coats warned.

Earlier iterations of these paramilitary factions were armed by Iran to wage an insurgency that killed around 500 US troops between 2003 and 2011. Nevertheless, Barack Obama, in his wisdom, in mid-2014 judged these militants to be the world’s best hope in the fight against ISIS. The US passively allowed them to fully mobilize and syphon off billions of dollars from the Iraqi state budget, and occasionally America provided de facto air cover for their operations. This is despite the fact that sectarian atrocities by these forces were largely responsible for creating the toxic sectarian climate that facilitated ISIS’s emergence. In the fight against terrorism, these sectarian militias are manifestly part of the problem — not part of the solution.

When coalition troops departed Iraq in 2011, these militants numbered just a few thousand. After the mass mobilization of 2014, the Iranian Militias in Iraq and Syria (IMIS) became a force of over 120,000 fighters with an annual budget of around $1.6 billion. This vast force constituted itself in plain sight of American commanders, who told themselves that noisy threats to attack US targets in the near future were empty rhetoric. Ironically, these forces weren’t even particularly effective. They proved hopeless at urban fighting, consuming their energies destroying defenseless neighboring villages and then entering the cities after the fighting to terrorize the local populace. 

These militias have allowed the resurgence of ISIS in areas of central Iraq wrested back from the Kurdish Peshmerga. These paramilitaries largely ignored ISIS and occupied themselves with score-settling, vote-rigging, displacing local citizens and perpetrating systematic human rights abuses. Thus, under the pretext of the fight against ISIS, a militant menace was allowed to constitute itself; today this represents a greater long-term threat than ISIS ever did. Many of the non-sectarian components have now been demobilized, meaning that this force is almost wholly dominated by pro-Iran factions loyal to Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. 

IMIS is securing its military posture by consolidating its political posture. Despite a remarkably weak showing in the 2018 elections, IMIS has wielded its influence to entrench its position within the forthcoming government. Nine months after the elections, negotiations remain deadlocked largely because these forces demand ownership of the Interior Ministry, allowing them uncontested dominance over domestic security. A parallel scenario has finally given rise to a new government in Lebanon, where Hezbollah and its allies have a de facto blocking majority, allowing them to hold the state hostage over any policy proposals not to their liking.

Shiite communities in southern Iraq have largely turned against these militias due to their complicity in violence and corruption, having acted as a Trojan horse for allowing Iran to get its claws into every niche of society, dominating the economy, religious schools, the intelligence infrastructure and the media. When protests erupted across the south last year, IMIS offices bore the brunt of protesters’ anger. Militants reciprocated by taking a front-line role in brutally suppressing the demonstrators.

These Iraqi militants are getting drawn further into the Syria conflict, positioning themselves to capitalize on the US departure. Iraqi paramilitaries are closely affiliated with Iranian proxies, which have long been active in Syria. Iran has a penchant for exploiting foreign mercenaries as cannon fodder to die on its behalf: During the worst of the Syrian fighting, impoverished Afghans and Pakistanis were tossed into the front lines. 

The dominant role enjoyed by these groups in Syria today makes a major Israeli incursion increasingly likely. Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah last week contributed to this saber-rattling, warning that the “resistance axis” could escalate responses to Israeli strikes, including through the bombardment of Tel Aviv. “Part of our plan in the next war is to enter into Galilee… we have this capability and we’ve had it for years,” Nasrallah boasted. In recent days, Iraqi militant commander Qais Al-Khazali similarly proclaimed his enthusiasm for fighting in Syria and Lebanon if Israel embarked upon military action. The ghoulish glee with which these militants anticipate such a confrontation belies the fact that Lebanon and Syria would be decimated by the ensuing war.

Better late than never, it is positive to see the US’ new intelligence report recognizing the threat that these militias pose — despite the fact that US commanders are victims of their own incompetence in allowing these forces to be constituted in the first place. 

Nevertheless, the US and its allies are doing almost nothing of practical value to rein in these paramilitaries. Trump’s hurried pullout from Syria and Afghanistan will remove a further check on regional militants and terrorists. Both American and Iraqi military experts have warned me that the only route for eradicating IMIS’ threat may eventually be to deploy the Iraqi Army against them. However, it may soon be too late to contemplate such a radical approach if the group gets its way in dominating the Interior Ministry and security forces. 

America played a significant role in creating this menace. Having belatedly recognized the threat it poses to the West and the region, Washington now has a responsibility to lead the way in banishing this monster.