As Iraqi forces come closer to expelling so-called Islamic State from Mosul, a Shi'ite militia aligned with Iran is threatening to turn against the U.S.-led coalition after the city is retaken.
U.S. officials say there won't be a hasty withdrawal of more than 9,000 U.S. and coalition forces after Mosul's capture. And one of the aims is to stabilize a region outside Mosul where more than 25,000 troops, including paramilitary forces made up of Sunni tribal fighters and Shi'ite militiamen, have been clearing IS from villages.
A leader of the grouping of 40 Shi'ite militia known as Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units, or PMF, many linked to Iran, says they will not welcome U.S. forces.
“If American forces refrain from leaving Iraqi territories after the annihilation of IS, the Islamic resistance of Iraq will target them,” Jafar al-Hosseini, a spokesman and a senior commander of the PMF, said in an interview with the Iranian official Islamic Republic News Agency this week.
Al-Hosseini, who currently leads the PMF brigade of the Party of God, accused the United States of attempting to consolidate its influence in the country.
“Americans have increased their activities in Iraq in recent days through their military advisers and air operations in a plot to replace IS,” he told the Iranian news agency.
Al-Hosseini's threats come as the U.S. currently has about 450 advisers, mostly special operations forces, in support of Iraqi government forces on the western side of Mosul. The advisers mainly operate in Qayyarah airfield 64 kilometers south of Mosul, where they play an essential role in softening the IS opposition by calling in airstrikes and training Iraqi partners.
On the western outskirts of Mosul, PMF militia such as the Party of God and Saraya Ashura, are moving swiftly westward, taking control of dozens of desert villages to try to eventually control the Iraqi border with Syria.
The U.S. avoids working with them due to concerns that some of them committed crimes against the Sunni local population and answer to Iran rather than the Iraqi government. Human Rights Watch warned in February that militias are holding men fleeing Mosul in unidentified detention centers where they are cut off from contact with the outside world.
U.S. officials, though, have concentrated their comments about the PMF on its mission of routing IS from Mosul environs, saying the militias are advancing steadily.
“At the moment, there are overlapping and converging interests in that they are both fighting a common enemy which is IS,” said Sarhang Hamasaeed, director of Middle East Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. “At the moment they see a value of the United States presence there.”
Hamasaeed said there have been situations where the U.S. advisers and trainers have found themselves in close proximity to militias.
“But they do not necessarily need to directly interact with each other,” he said. “The Iraqi government is a body through which they can make sure that there is no conflict and there are deconfliction mechanisms in place.”
Displaced Iraqi men, fleeing fighting between Iraqi security forces and Islamic State militants, wait for a security check before being transferred to a camp on the western side of Mosul, Iraq, March 23, 2017.
The U.S.-led coalition said it is focused on one common enemy IS.
“Our main thrust is we have to get rid of IS,” U.S. President Donald Trump said during a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi at the White House on Monday.
Still, the U.S. vows not to cooperate with any forces aligned with Tehran.
“We are certainly aware of Iran's activities within the region, both within Iraq and within Syria,” Marine Maj. Adrian J.T. Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, said during an interview with VOA this week. “U.S. law specifically prohibits us from supporting any group on the ground which basically has any ties with the government of Iran or is tied to a terrorist organization.”
Ultimately, some analysts warn, some PMF groups may turn against the U.S. forces.
“That depends on the relationship between the United States and Iran,” Hamasaeed said. “If it goes into a tense direction, that will increase the likelihood of those forces to be used. If there is a perception that the U.S. will stay in Iraq militarily, and it will have a mission more than just training the Iraqi security forces, then that will increase the incentive for the Shi'ite militias to more directly apply pressure on the United States to leave.”
Iraqi officials plan to work toward putting the PMF under Iraqi government leadership and keep it away from foreign influence. The Iraqi parliament last November passed a bill that recognizes the group as a part of Iraq's security forces.
“We are telling them, ’Look, we reward you, we appreciate what you've done,’” Abadi said in Washington, where he discussed advances against IS and the future of northern Iraq after IS is pushed from Mosul. “This is an organization under the control of the state … If you accept this, you are within this. If you don't accept it, you shouldn't carry arms. Otherwise, you will be outside the law.”
Experts say bringing the militia under full control of the Iraqi government will be challenging for a state deeply divided along sectarian lines and strongly influenced by regional powers.
“The reality of this force and their origin of history would make that objective a difficult one to achieve,” Hamasaeed said. “Even in the best circumstances, it will take a while for the Shi'ite community to fully trust the Iraqi army.”