Recent events in Iraq’s Nineveh Province demonstrate the apparent helplessness of the Iraqi government in the face of Iran-backed Shia militias.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s July 1 decree ordering the full integration of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) militias into the state security forces was not the first of its kind. Similar orders in the past, such as executive order 1388, have not been implemented. The integration of the militias into the Iraqi Security Forces is of significance not only for Iraq. Recent statements by militia leaders expressing hostility to the US presence in Iraq, possible involvement of the militias in actions against US targets in Iraq, and alleged Israeli targeting of militia facilities indicate that the continued independent presence of the militias will contribute negatively to hopes for greater stability in Iraq. The Nineveh Plains, where two relatively small PMU Brigades – 30 and 50 – are deployed, have been chosen as a testing ground by the Iraqi government for the integration of the militias. The brigades in question represent the Shebek and Christian ethnoreligious minorities, respectively. An order was given in mid-July to redeploy these brigades. Efforts at integration led to militia-organized demonstrations and disruption, and as of now, no change in the status quo has taken place. Both these brigades are associated with the IRGC-linked Badr organization. Arabic media reports suggest that the de facto area of control which they maintain contains an active IRGC and Lebanese Hizballah presence. Thus, the apparent inability of the Iraqi central government to act against the militias has implications for Israel. It means that a kind of ‘Lebanonization’ process in Iraq has already reached an advanced stage, whereby the Iranian interest can act independently of the wishes of the government in Baghdad.
On July 1, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi issued a decree ordering the full integration of the militias of the Popular Mobilization Units (Hashd al-Shaabi) into the Iraqi state security forces. According to the decree, ‘All Popular Mobilisation Forces are to operate as an indivisible part of the armed forces and be subject to the same regulations.’ The statement further clarified that headquarters, offices and independent checkpoints maintained by the militias were to be shut down. Militias failing to comply with this directive by July 31, the prime minister’s decree declared, would be considered illegal organizations.
The 150,000 Popular Mobilization Units (PMU)were mobilized in the summer of 2014, following the ‘jihad fatwa’ of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. 40 militias are registered with the PMU Commission, but the PMU is dominated by a small number of forces associated with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Most prominent among these are the Badr Organization, Ktaeb Hizballah, Hizballah al Nujaba and the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia. The PMU is dominated by Shia groups, but includes also some Christian, Sunni and Yezidi formations.
The move by the Iraqi government to integrate the militias followed US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Iraq on May 7. Speaking after the visit, Pompeo said that he had ‘urged the Iraqi government, for its own security, to get all of those forces (the militias) under Iraq central control.”
This is not the first attempt by the Iraqi authorities to bring the militias under their command. On August 2, 2018, as the war against the Islamic State drew to a close in Iraq, then Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi signed executive order 1388. This required the removal of PMU forces from Mosul City and the Nineveh plain, and transfer of PMU forces in Nineveh to the operational and administrative control of the Iraqi army-led Nineveh Operations Command. This order was never implemented.
It is not yet clear if Abdul-Mahdi’s latest decree will go the same way as order 1388. Already, the original deadline of July 31 has been extended by two months.
The prime minister’s decree comes against a background of renewed security tensions in Iraq, in which the Shia militias of the PMU are center stage.
A useful gauge as to the current progress in implementing the Prime Minister’s decree, and the implications this may have regarding the period ahead may be found in the close observation of events in one Iraqi province where an early attempt at redeploying two PMU militia brigades has taken place. This article will focus on recent events in Nineveh Province where efforts have been made to redeploy two PMU affiliated brigades – 30 and 50. The article will also consider the implications of these events for Israel.
Nineveh Province and the PMU
Nineveh Province, (Pop: 3,270000) is an ethnically diverse area located in Iraq’s north west. It is of strategic significance in that it is situated between the area of Iraq controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government and the border with Syria and contains the city of Mosul. Taken in its entirety by the Islamic State in 2014, the province was liberated by early September 2017. Controlled by the Kurdish Peshmerga forces prior to 2014, it subsequently reverted to the control of the Iraqi central authorities and the PMU.
Since the defeat of IS, several PMU Brigades have remained active in the area. The most significant units are Brigade 30, and Brigade 50. In an interview on August 9, Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi revealed in conversation with Iraqi and western media representatives that the implementation of his July 1 decree would take place gradually and in stages. “All of the illegal checkpoints and PMU offices will be closed gradually,” the prime minister told the reporters and added that he had ordered all PMU factions to leave the Nineveh Plains.
Thus, the Nineveh Plains area outside Mosul city and located between Mosul and the Kurdish capital appear to have been selected as a kind of testing ground for the implementation of the July 1 decree. Before going on to look at events in this area since the PM’s statement, we will focus on the key PMU units in the area.
Known as the Liwa al-Shabak/Quwaat Sahl Nineveh (Shabak brigade/Nineveh Plains Forces) Brigade 30 recruits from among the Shabak people, a non-Arab ethnic minority native to the Nineveh Plains. The brigade consists of 1-1500 fighters.
The Shabak are Shia by religion, and Brigade 30 is held by many informed analysts to be affiliated with the Iran-linked Badr Organization. While this affiliation is not officially acknowledged by the Brigade, the author observed in a visit to the Bartella area controlled by the 30 Brigade in late 2017 that signs and posters of the Badr Brigade and including pictures of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei were displayed in the area. The author also observed 30 Brigade fighters wearing Badr Brigade insignia. Speaking to the author at that time, residents of the traditionally Christian town of Bartella accused the Brigade of sectarian abuses, and specifically of seeking to prevent the return of Christian Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) to Bartella in order to ensure its transformation into a Shia town.
Waas Qado, Brigade 30’s commander, has since been made the subject of US sanctions. Qado is a local man, a Shebek from the city of Mosul. According to the US Treasury Department statement announcing sanctions against the Brigade 30 commander, ‘“Members of the local population allege that the 30th Brigade has been responsible for egregious offenses, including physical intimidation, extortion, robbery, kidnapping, and rape.’
Brigade 30 derives a large income from the maintenance of checkpoints along the Mosul-Erbil highway. This is the main artery for goods and reconstruction materials travelling into Mosul. The Brigade have established a headquarters inside Bartella (a matter of particular concern as expressed by Bartella Christians to the author, since they see it as evidence that the Brigade intend to convert the area into a Shebek and Shia town). The Brigade is also involved in the scrap metal business in eastern Mosul (a major source of income because of reconstruction).
Knows as the Ktaib Babilyun (Babylonian Brigade), Brigade 50 is commanded by Rayan al-Haldani, a Christian from Baghdad and a known close associate of IRGC Qods Force commander General Qassem Soleimani. A supporter of Iran, Haldani took part in sectarian battles in Baghdad. Though nominally a force intended to mobilize Christians from the Nineveh Plains area, the brigade in fact consists largely of Iraqi Shia Arabs not hailing from the local area, but rather from Baghdad’s Sadr city, Muthana and Dhi Qar.
According to the Treasury Department statement sanctioning al-Haldani, “The 50th Brigade is reportedly the primary impediment to the return of internally displaced persons to the Nineveh Plain…it has illegally seized and sold agricultural land…the local population has accused the group of intimidation, extortion, and harassment of women.” Brigade 50 also numbers 1-1500 fighters. Like Brigade 30, Brigade 50 is closely associated with the Badr Organization.
Some sources characterize the relationship of both these brigades with Badr as one of direct command. While these claims cannot be verified with certainty, in light of the visible evidence of Badr allegiances among Brigade 30, and the close association of Rayan Haldani with the IRGC and pro-Iranian elements in Iraq are not in dispute, and as such, this is a reasonable assumption. Badr, headed by Hadi al-Ameri, is the most established and largest of Iraq’s pro-Iranian militias. Ameri is a close associate of Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani, who himself is directly answerable to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
In this regard, an article published on August 15 at the Arabic language al-Ain website placed this issue in a larger context. The article, by Baghdad-based reporter Dilshad al-Dawali (who was the first to report on the alleged Israeli raids on Amerli and Camp Ashraf in August, 2019), depicted an extensive infrastructure in the Nineveh area controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
Al-Dawali quoted Muzahim al-Hwait, spokesman for Arab tribes in the disputed areas between Erbil and Baghdad: “There are more than five large military bases belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Nineveh Plain region, along with the Brigade 30 militia led by Waad Mahmoud Al-Qado and the 50th Brigade, led by Rayan al-Chaldani, there are officers from the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards’ wing, Iranian missile experts and members of the Lebanese Hezbollah militia…There is an official office of Iranian leader Ali Khamenei in the Nineveh Plain, run by a leader in the PMU named Sheikh Hassan Shabaky, and assisted by Qusay Abbas, a commander of the Shebek militia and a deputy in the Iraqi Council of Representatives.
The purpose of this office, according to al-Hwait, is to “oversee secret prisons in the Nineveh plain, where the militias imprison innocent Iraqis who are subjected to various forms of torture by Iranian militias and officers, as well as manage the recruitment of children and youth in militia ranks and oversee the command of military bases.”
The allegation that the PMU maintain a private jail in the Nineveh Plains area was also made to Iraqi reporter Karim Botane during his reporting mission to the area in mid-August 2019, as he revealed in conversation with the author.
The Attempt to Redeploy the PMU from Nineveh Plain
In mid- July, orders were given to Brigade 30 to withdraw from Hamdaniyeh district in the town of Bartella, and hand over control of checkpoints on the Mosul-Erbil highway, and to Brigade 50 to pull out of Tel Keppe District. These orders were ignored. On July 19, the US Treasury Department announced sanctions against the leadership of both brigades.
On August 5, demonstrators supporting Brigade 30 numbering in the hundreds blocked the road from Mosul to Erbil, forming human barriers and also piling dirt in the road and using vehicles to block the path of traffic. Among the demonstrators were fighters of Brigade 30 in civilian clothes. The demonstrators clashed with Iraqi Army soldiers who attempted to clear the road.
The following day, on August 6, senior PMU commanders including Falah al-Fayad, head of the PMU Commission, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy head of the Commission and commander of the powerful Ktaeb Hizballah militia, visited Mosul, in an attempt to find a solution to the issue. Some reports indicated that an agreement was reached according to which the checkpoints on the Mosul-Erbil road would be jointly manned by Brigade 30 along with Iraqi army and local police personnel. This was denied by Brigade 30 officers, however. As of now, no change in the previous deployment regarding the checkpoints has taken place.
Saad Mahmoud Ahmed al-Qado, (Abu Ali), deputy commander of Brigade 30 and commander of PMU Checkpoints in Nineveh Plains, in conversation with Iraqi journalist Karim Botane, denied that any order had been given for the redeployment of the brigade.
‘There is no formal decision regarding withdrawing the Hashd al-Shaabi in the Nineveh Plains. There is just media rumors.’ Al-Qado said. ‘We didn’t receive any official order of the Hashd al-Shaabi. There was an oral order to leave the checkpoints to the control of the local police…after this order the people from this area came out from all minorities and ethnicities not only in the Nineveh Plain but also inside Mosul City itself to protest. They all participated in one of the biggest demonstrations against this decision, which talked about withdrawal of the Hashd from this area and exchanging of the checkpoints.’
Brigade 30 operations officer Sami Bekdash, meanwhile, asserted in a slightly different account that the Brigade sought to comply with the prime minister’s decision, but popular demonstrations protesting this decision then prevented this. Speaking to Al Jazeera online, Bekdash noted the fear among the local population of the return of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces as before 2014, and of the human rights violations that these forces, according to Bekdash, would bring with them.
In conversation with residents of Nineveh Plains, including Christians, the author has noted expressions of resentment toward the Kurdish Peshmerga forces that controlled the area prior to 2014. However, Karim Botane, in a recent reporting trip to the area, spoke to refugees in the area and discovered little enthusiasm for the presence of the PMU as a substitute. Rather, the refugees welcomed the decision to withdraw the PMU, in the hope that it would ensure normality and proper procedure for civilians in the area. As one refugee told Botane, in a comment echoed in substance by a number of other refugees whose testimony he recorded and which the author has heard:
‘The Security of Mosul is fragile due to the mixed treatment between PMU and Iraqi forces such as the army and police. It will be much better if PMU withdraws from these areas when it comes to procedures. PMU is not a formal military sector like the Iraqi Army. PMU have weapons and they are not putting any consideration to anyone, whereas the Iraqi Army has discipline and military principles to follow and respects the law.’
The Iraqi Army’s 16th Division is deployed in Nineveh Plains. The Iraqi Federal Police is also present in the area, and both are officially under the Nineveh Operations Command. The regular Iraqi state judicial authorities and the civilian police force are present in the area. Nineveh Plains differs from other areas of Iraq because of the presence of a more heterogenous population, including Christians and ancient local ethno-religious groups such as the Kakai and the Shebek. However, the issue of the independent strength of PMU units vis a vis the official state is one which applies throughout the country.
Conclusion and Implications for Israel
Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi issued an order in mid-July for the PMU to redeploy in the Nineveh Plains and to hand over the checkpoints on the Erbil-Mosul road. At the time of writing (September 2019) this has not yet happened.
Rather, Brigade 30 appears to have mobilized supporters and fighters posing as civilians to justify their defiance of Iraq’s central authorities and for now at least, this defiance appears to have been successful. The combined strength of PMU Brigades 30 and 50 is around 3000 fighters, as noted above.
The apparent failure at least until now of the Iraqi central government to integrate these relatively small brigades into the state security force structures in the Nineveh Plains area is a precedent which does not lead to optimism regarding hopes for the integration of far larger and more prominent, Shia Arab militia groups such as Ktaeb Hizballah, Asaib Ahl al Haq and Hizballah Nujaba.
The complete disbandment of either brigade 30 or 50 would not be practicable, since it would almost certainly be met with open resistance from the fighters. But they could be re-designated as, for example, federal police units and thus integrated formally into the government-controlled security structures in the area.
This, however, would depend on a level of political will on the part of the authorities which appears to be lacking. Recent events in the Nineveh Plains suggest that the militias can defy the wishes of the government, in protection of their own economic interests and independent status. This is of concern for all those who would like to see Iraq progressing to more stable governance. It is also of direct concern to Israel, because of the use made by Iran of areas under its direct control for the storage, transport and/or deployment of missiles aimed at Israel.
A recent article authored by IDF Brigadier General (res.) Assaf Orion and veteran Iraq analyst Michael Knights focused on indications that Iran is making use of its Iraqi militia clients to deploy short range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) in the deserts of western Iraq – with the intention that these could be launched against Israel at a time of Iran’s choosing. This is not the first public airing of Iranian activity in this regard. A Reuters report on August 31, 2018 was the first to note the concerns of US and Israeli intelligence agencies. The article detailed the transfer by the IRGC’s Qods Force of Zelzal, Fateh-110 and Zolfaqar missiles and launchers to western Iraq. The Zolfaqar has a claimed range of 750 km – putting Tel Aviv within its range if it was deployed in this area. The distance from al-Qaim on the Iraqi Syrian border to Tel Aviv is 632 km.
Teheran has also established facilities for missile production in western Iraq and is employing Iraqi citizens to carry out this work. The Reuters article named the areas where production is taking place as ‘al-Zafaraniya, east of Baghdad, and Jurf al-Sakhar, north of Kerbala.It is noted that ‘These Shia proxies have reportedly developed exclusive use of secure bases in the provinces of Diyala (e.g., Camp Ashraf), Salah al-Din (Camp Speicher), Baghdad (Jurf al-Sakhar), Karbala (Razzaza), and Wasit (Suwayrah).’
In Iraqi, US and Israeli intelligence circles it is widely accepted that the ‘militias have developed a line of communication and control to Iran through Diyala, allowing them to import missiles and equipment without government approval or knowledge.’ Nineveh Plains, discussed in detail above, is a further point along this line.
The ability of Iran to operate a de facto contiguous line of control across Iraq, and thence to Syria, Lebanon and the borders with the Golan Heights is thus not under serious doubt. It appears that Teheran has begun to station SRBMs along this route, directed at Israel, and crewed by the Qods force-directed militia franchises – an arrangement intended to provide Iran with deniability in the event of their being used.
Media reports suggest that Israel has already on at least four occasions acted against this Iranian infrastructure on Iraqi soil. The recent incidents in Nineveh Province suggest that within this area, too, a de facto IRGC controlled zone has been established. Recent events also seem to show the relative helplessness of the official Iraqi authorities and their security forces in the face of this. This is of concern to Israeli policymakers. It implies that Israel will need to factor in the need for continued self-reliance in defending its security in the widening sphere of de facto Iranian control, which now takes in large parts of Iraq and appears set to continue to do so. This issue is exacerbated by the apparent desire of the US not to confront at present the issue of Iranian infrastructure building in Iraq, as well as in Syria and Lebanon.
For Israel, the issue is further exacerbated by the presence of 5200 US service personnel in Iraq. The possibility exists that Iran could choose to retaliate against US targets for continued Israeli action. Because of this, it is vital that Israel ensure US knowledge of Israeli actions. At the same time, Israeli policymakers regard the Iranian precision missile program as a key threat facing Israel, so it is likely that in so far as the Shia militias and their areas of control continue to form a way station for the transfer or the stationing of missiles directed at Israel, action against them is likely to continue.
photo: Izzedine [CC BY-SA 3.0]