In a significant break with past policy, U.S.-led forces in Iraq have started arming and training hundreds of fighters belonging to Shiite militias historically known for having ties to Iran, according to Los Angeles Times.
The sectarian militias are being trained for the operation to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul. While Mosul’s future remains uncertain, the cooperative effort is expected to strengthen the Shiite forces both militarily and politically.
The U.S.-led coalition has provided hundreds of guns and training to the fighters in recent weeks, indicating a new level of cooperation, although U.S. military officials quickly moved to downplay it, saying the fighters being trained have no ties to the Iranian-backed groups that targeted Americans in the past .
In response to The Times’ reporting, Col. John Dorrian, the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, insisted that “U.S. policy on this matter has not changed.”
“We only train forces we can vet,” Dorrian said. “You assess to make sure they don’t have association with terrorist groups, or groups associated with the government of Iran. They must be with groups that promote respect for human rights and rule of law.”
Dorrian acknowledged that some militias are still classified as terrorists by the U.S., but insisted those being trained had no ties to groups that have “American blood on their hands.”
After the Iraqi parliament passed the law legalizing the Shiite militias, U.S. and coalition special forces began training 500 of the new recruits at multiple sites outside Mosul on Dec. 4, Dorrian said.
But U.S. officials acknowledged the difficulty in fully vetting all members of the militias. And the senior leadership of the Shiite forces includes individuals who have been deemed terrorists by the United States.
After successfully fighting the Daesh terrorist group elsewhere in Iraq, the militias received the government’s blessing to take part in offensives, including the one to reclaim Mosul, which was launched Oct. 17.
Experts estimated there are at least 40 of the militias with a combined 80,000 to 100,000 active members.
Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city, with a diverse populace of more than a million people, and has been the biggest prize captured by the Daesh terrorist group in its drive to create a “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria.
Its population is mostly Sunni Muslim, the sect that Daesh claims to represent, and some human rights groups feared that allowing Shiite fighters to join the offensive would spark sectarian conflict.
Among the most powerful is Hadi Ameri, the head of the Badr Organization, the military wing of a Shiite political party. Ameri recently defended his long-standing ties to Iran while visiting militia fighters on the front lines. His group’s role in the offensive is expected to help his party in next year’s elections.
“It’s a mistake,” said Michael Pregent, a former Army paratrooper who served in Iraq and is now an Iraq expert at the Washington-based Hudson Institute. The Shiite militias, he said, were “directly involved in killing Americans. They’re sectarian.”
Haitham Mayahi, senior political advisor to Ameri, said the militia leaders agreed to have up to 900 new fighters trained to help expand their ranks and hold cities once they are cleared of Islamic State militants.
The Shiite militias have been accused by the U.S.-led military coalition of committing sectarian-driven crimes against Sunni populations in the areas under their control.
The Shiite Popular Mobilization Units, known in Arabic as Hashd al Shaabi, were later accused of destroying hundreds of homes and businesses during the offensive, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.
In October, Amnesty International documented allegations the militias had abused and killed Sunnis during the spring offensive to recapture the city of Fallujah.
Last month, during the Mosul offensive, Human Rights Watch reported that some Popular Mobilization Units detained and beat shepherds from a village near Mosul whom they suspected of being Daesh militants.