By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Two Shi’ite militia leaders spoke out over the weekend, with one threatening the US and the other demanding US troops leave Iraq. Hashim al-Mousawi, spokesman of Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba slammed the US and Israel after the US designated it as a terrorist threat last week. Hadi al-Amiri also said he was looking forward to a visit by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and said he opposes the continued US present in Iraq.
Iraq prepares for major Iranian visit
This is important because it comes as Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is arriving in Iraq. He is preparing Rouhani’s visit. “I’m certain that Rouhani’s visit will show once again that these two nations are the throbbing heart of this region,” Zarif added on Saturday. “Without Iran and Iraq the region won’t be safe and stable. Iraq and Iraq are the two pillars of the security in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East,” he recently said.
Zarif praises the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Units as a “symbol of unity” between Iraq and Iran. He even referenced the 1980s as part of that unity, when those units like Badr fought against Iraq with the IRGC. He asserted that “those who were looking to create a rival Iraqi government and turn that country into a danger for all the Islamic world missed their target.” Despite his claims there have been protests in Basra and other areas against the PMU and some resentment of Iran’s growing influence and the way in which it appears to use Iraq as its near abroad. But Iran thinks it is on a victory lap in the region.
US designated Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba
The US is non-plussed with this development. On March 5 the US Treasury Department designated Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba under its Office of Foreign Assets Control, labelling it with a counter-terrorism designation. The US pointed to the organization itself and its leader as a threat, saying that it has “committed, or pose a significant risk of committing acts of terrorism.” The group, which is closely linked to Iran, said in 2017 that US troops are a legitimate target. In February 2018 the group vowed to support Hezbollah in Lebanon in a war against Israel. Last year Iraqi MP Karim Alawi said the US was spying on Shi’ite militias in Iraq. Iran’s PressTV sought to argue that the move was dangerous and that Harakat Hezbollah had played a key role in the war on ISIS.
Mousawi threatens US in Fars News interview
Mousawi told Fars News that the region faces a a variety of US-driven plots, including a push for normalization with the “Zionist regime” and economic pressure on Iran. He argued that the Iranian backed “axis of resistance” of which Harakat Hezbollah is a part, has defeated these plots, including attempts by the US to loot Syrian resources. “Hezbollah [in Lebanon] today represents a large part of the Lebanese people and an integral part of Lebanon,” he boasted. He said that the commanders of Harakat Hezbollah are prepared for a confrontation with the US. “We will not retreat in the face of any country that violates Iraqi sovereignty.” He said the group would use parliamentary means first but that it viewed this as a regional struggle. He made a point of condemning the US role in the Gulf and that the group had its own “Golan unit” to fight against Israel.
The rise of the Hashd
The presence of Shi’ite militias in Iraq, some of which fought the US after the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein, and most of which are closely linked to Iran, raises questions about the continued US presence in Iraq. US forces returned to Iraq to help fight ISIS in 2014. Initially that footprint was small, but it had grown with the war on ISIS and to provide logistic support for US forces in Syria. When US President Donald Trump said the US would withdraw from Syria in December 2017 he also told US forces in AL-Asad base in Iraq that the US would pull forces back to Iraq and “watch” Iran. This comes in the context of a US push against Iran’s role in the region and new sanctions rolled out last year.
Iraqi officials have rejected the US using Iraq to “watch” Iran. Iraqi President Barham Salih has said at least three times in the last two months that Iraq must not become a center of Iran-US power struggle. He and other Iraqi officials reiterated this statement at the Sulaimani Forum last week. Iraqi officials have said it is up to parliament to decide if US forces will stay. Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Fatah Alliance, the second largest party in parliament, has indicated he opposes the US presence in Iraq. A former fighter alongside the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, he is head of the Badr Organization, one of the largest of the Shi’ite militias that became part of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in 2014.
The PMU helped defeat ISIS and became an official Iraq paramilitary group in 2016. In 2017 US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson caused controversy in Iraq when he said the Shi’ite-dominated PMU should “go home” now that the war on ISIS was over. Haider al-Abadi, then Prime Minister of Iraq, told Tillerson the PMU are the hope for the future of Iraq and the region. Their regional role has been on display as many of these Shi’ite units are not only closely allied to Iran, but also to Hezbollah. Qais Khazali of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq visited the Lebanese border near Israel and indicated he would support Hezbollah in a war with Israel. This is part of Iran’s plan to create a “road to the sea” or network of allied groups in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon that are either part of the state or work as a parallel state supporting Iran and local armed groups. The US sees this as a threat but doesn’t know how to confront it. US officials such as National Security Advisor John Bolton have called for the US to stay in Syria to counterbalance these Iranian-allied groups. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to Lebanon this month, according to reports. This will raise tensions with Hezbollah.
The issue of US bases in Iraq is also coming to a head this year. Amiri was quoted in Tasnim News over the weekend saying he disagreed with any US presence. He also said he welcomed the visit of Iran’s president to Iraq.
The overall picture in Iraq is one in which the US faces an uphill struggle to maintain its presence as ISIS is defeated. The pro-Iranian parties sense that they are in control. Although the Kurdistan autonomous region has tended to support the US staying in Iraq to help fight ISIS remnants, the tensions with pro-Iranian Shi’ite parties and armed groups is growing. Some Shi’ite militias have attempted to interrupt US patrols in Anbar province and Mosul in recent months. US Inspector General reports at the Defense Department also frequently mention these pro-Iranian groups as a threat in Iraq. That the leaders of the groups say they will use parliament for now to oppose the US presence means they seek a political solution at the moment, and are wary of an armed confrontation.