Miles O’Brien: The long fight against ISIS in Iraq is now all but over. Claiming victory? An American-led coalition of Iraqi government forces and Kurdish troops, joined by tens of thousands of militia fighters backed by Iran.
And it is the Iranian support for that force that is causing great concern in Washington.
We return to our series Iran Rising in Iraq.
And again, in a partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, special correspondent Reza Sayah reports.
Reza Sayah: At a training camp just outside of the city of Kirkuk, a rare glimpse of America’s newest problem in Iraq, the Popular Mobilization Forces, PMF, for short, Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic, an armed militia more than 100,000 fighters strong who helped crush ISIS in Iraq, many armed, funded, and trained by America’s longtime foe the Islamic Republic of Iran, with no plans to disband.
Abu Ali Beyk (through Interpreter): The PMF has reached a place where no one can stop it, and this is a blow to U.S. interests in the Middle East.
Reza Sayah: Abu Ali Beyk is the face of America’s newest problem, a battle-scarred PMF commander committed to God and driven by duty, and in no small measure, revenge.
When Beyk was a child, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, executed his Shia father. Beyk and his family fled to neighboring Iran, the leading Shia power in the region, where they lived for more than a decade. Twenty years later, he was back in Iraq fighting ISIS, a terrorist organization many here believe was made up of Sunni remnants of Saddam Hussein’s forces, and supported, Beyk says, by Washington’s Sunni Arab allies.
Abu Ali Beyk (through Interpreter): Everyone knows ISIS was manufactured by America’s allies in the region. The PMF, backed by Iran, defeated ISIS, so those American allies are not happy.
Reza Sayah: It was the threat of ISIS in Iraq that spawned the PMF in 2014. With most U.S. forces gone and Iraqi forces too weak to take on ISIS, the Iraqi government called on Iran for help, and Iraq’s highest religious authority, Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani, called for volunteer fighters.
Within weeks, armed militias mobilized, backed by Iran.
Abu Ali Beyk (through Interpreter): While the whole world watched as Iraq was collapsing, in fact, it was only Iran that stood with us by providing us moral and material support.
Reza Sayah: The PMF acknowledged support from Iran. Many fighters say they have traveled there. We heard several speak the Iranian language of Farsi.
Haji Jawdat Assaf: We love Iranians.
Reza Sayah: But PMF spokesman Haji Jawdat Assaf insists they’re not beholden to Iran, and never use Iranian soldiers.
Haji Jawdat Assaf: I think most people in Europe or in America must not believe these lies. There’s no Iranians in Hashd al-Shaabi. There’s advisers, Iranian advisers.
Reza Sayah: No Iranian adviser is more revered among the PMF than Major General Qasem Soleimani, a senior commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and chief strategist of operations outside Iran’s borders.
Washington calls him a terrorist whose Shia militias killed American soldiers in Iraq during the U.S. occupation. The PMF says he’s a hero, a brilliant tactician who helped save Iraq.
What is it about Major Qasem Soleimani that inspires you and so many other people?
Haji Jawdat Assaf: When we see him — because he is brave. We go to the fight, one of us fights like 1,000 soldiers.
Reza Sayah: It was Soleimani who led many of the PMF brigades in a three-year ground campaign that overpowered ISIS and eventually set the stage for Iraqi forces to defeat the extremist group in Mosul, its last major stronghold in Iraq.
This is the town of Qayyarah just south of Mosul, the former ISIS stronghold in Northern Iraq. Before U.S.-backed Iraqi forces launched an operation to take back Mosul from ISIS, it was the PMF that cleared out ISIS from Qayyarah and many other towns and villages on the outskirts of Mosul.
U.S. artillery units positioned on the outskirts of the city pounded ISIS-held areas in Mosul, while U.S. fighter jets provided air support. But PMF Leaders say their estimated 20,000 casualties, whose pictures line many Iraqi streets, show who did the real fighting.
Abu Ali Beyk (through Interpreter): The places we liberated were liberated by Iraqi forces. The Americans didn’t back up the PMF anywhere. They supported some Iraqi special forces by air, but most of the areas were liberated by the PMF.
Reza Sayah: Today, it’s the Iranian-backed militias that patrol many key towns in Northern Iraq, seemingly securing what Iran’s critics fear most: The Iraqi government credits all members of the coalition with defeating ISIS. But the so-called Shia Crescent, an Iranian sphere of influence stretching to the Mediterranean.
Mazin Al-eshaiker: I personally don’t think the country needs more than one army.
Reza Sayah: Mazin Al-Eshaiker is an anti-Iranian Iraqi politician and staunch supporter of President Donald Trump. Al-Eshaiker says the PMF should disband. Otherwise, Iran has a powerful security presence that keeps Iraq weak and under Iran’s control, an accusation Iran denies.
Mazin Al-eshaiker: I think they would like to have a mirror image of the Revolutionary Guards in Iran, or a mirror image of the Hezbollah in Lebanon. Both of them are very popular in their respective countries.
Reza Sayah: Are they getting there? Are they achieving it?
Mazin Al-eshaiker: I think we are already there.
Reza Sayah: One of Iraq’s top military officials disagrees.
Major General Ghais Al-Hamdawi says what Iran wants is a secure border and a stable neighbor free of extremism, not a building block in a Shia crescent.
Maj. Gen. Ghais Al-hamdawi (through Interpreter): But this doesn’t mean they interfere in politics and sovereignty. It doesn’t mean they interfere in domestic affairs. We are very careful to make our relationship with Iran in accordance to the law, and with respect to the state, just like we do with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan, and the West as well.
Reza Sayah: Al-Hamdawi says the many powerful factions of the PMF who oppose the Iranian government, led by powerful clerics like Ayatollah Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr, serve as a barrier to any attempt by Iran to dominate Iraq.
Al-Hamdawi is convinced ISIS would still be here if it wasn’t for the PMF and Iran’s support.
Maj. Gen. Ghais Al-hamdawi (through Interpreter): Iran stood by the people of Iraq during complicated circumstances. I believe, without the help of Iran, ISIS would be standing on the doorsteps of Baghdad. Iraq went through very difficult times. In fact, the PMF was one of the most important factors to the protection of Iraq.
Reza Sayah: The U.S. government says otherwise. Last month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explicitly called the PMF an Iranian militia and demanded they leave. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said no, calling PMF fighters Iraqi nationals and the hope of the region.
But the U.S. is pushing back, intensifying Tehran and Washington’s longstanding proxy conflict in Iraq.
For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Reza Sayah in Kirkuk.
Miles O’Brien: In Reza Sayah’s final report tomorrow, he will look at the tacit partnership between the U.S. and Iran to defeat ISIS in Iraq, and where that common goal ends.