Center for Security Policy, by June 30, 2015:
Last week, news reports surfaced that US troops in Iraq have been sharing the Taqqadum military base with Iranian-backed Shia militias, some of which have killed US troops in the past. The Pentagon said that US forces are separated from the militias, which are operating on a different part of the base, though liaisons that are members of the militias have been working with the US and Iraq.
Iran has been a key contributor to the Iraqi fight against the Islamic State (IS), and this fact has been acknowledged by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. In recent a conversation with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Abadi told Khamenei that Iran’s support of Shia militias fighting IS is essential to defeating the organization.
Iraq has also greatly benefited from US involvement in the fight against IS, as the US has been providing training and supplies to Iraqi and Kurdish forces. In March, the US officially began to provide more concrete support, beyond simply training Iraqi troops, for the offensive against IS in Tikrit. The US began providing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance at the request of the Iraqi government.
Throughout the fight against IS, the US has maintained a military presence of 3,100 troops in Iraq. After the fall of Ramadi, the US decided to deploy approximately 400 more troops, signifying its investment in staying involved in the fight. Along with these additional troops to supplement those already in Iraq, senior members of the military have advised expanding the operational capacities of the US troops to allow them to conduct on-the-ground missions.
An escalation of US involvement in Iraq, coinciding with increased coexistence and cooperation between US and Iranian-backed Shia militias, raises some questions.
The first issue that must be addressed is that of the safety of US forces sharing space with the Shia militias. According to the Pentagon, Shia militias left the base before the US troops arrived. However, they are actually staying in a different area on the base, though the base is reportedly very large (larger than Vienna, VA, a town in the Washington, D.C. suburbs). Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), an Iraq War veteran, is apprehensive of the arrangement because many Americans were killed in Iraq as a result of bombs supplied by Iran. Adding to this concern, the militias are headed by the leader of Hezbollah in Iraq, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and include the League of the Righteous, which still boasts about a roadside execution of five US soldiers near Karbala in 2007. US troops have not clashed with the militias in the 11 months that US special operations forces will be in Iraq, but a senior administration official said that “there’s no real command and control from the central government. Even if these guys don’t attack us … Iran is ushering in a new Hezbollah era in Iraq, and we will have aided and abetted it.”
The second issue regards the potential for an armed offensive jointly led by US, Iraqi, and Iranian-backed forces. The US gives weapons to the Iraqi government only, but knows that many end up being used by the Shia militias. Additionally, some militia commanders have been allowed to be present at US military and intelligence briefings for the Iraqi government-controlled Iraqi Security Forces. As previously stated, the Shia militias have a history of violence toward US troops, which could prove disastrous if they turn on the US on the battlefield.
Additionally, the US is still engaged in nuclear negotiations with Iran. A short-term military alliance between the US and Iranian-backed forces in Iraq could lead to US officials developing a false sense of security over the veracity of Iran’s commitment to peace.
In reality, Iran will almost certainly use the nuclear capabilities it will gain in the deal with the US for military purposes while continuing to spread weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah, terrorizing the Middle East and the world. Iran views itself as a lostempire and the leader of a global Islamic revolution. The Iranian regime seeks to seize territories formerly controlled by the Persian empire, including Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. Iran recently trumpeted its control of four Arab capitals, including Baghdad, San’aa, Damascus and Beirut.
A battlefield alliance with US forces gives an unacceptable appearance of legitimacy to all of Iran’s military and foreign policy goals. The United States must find a strategy to advance its efforts against the Islamic State without empowering Iran’s Islamic revolution.
- Making Civilians Less Safe on the Battlefield (centerforsecuritypolicy.org)