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December 28, 2018
In Iraq, Iranian backed militias a source of concern for Trump administration

By Joseph Hammond

President Trump’s surprise visit to Iraq that day after Christmas came amidst growing U.S. concerns regarding Iranian influence in the country.

While many media outlets focused on the Make America Great Again hats Trump signed for troops, less attention was paid to the president’s declaration that he has no plans to reduce to reduce U.S. forces in Iraq. The President also revealed that U.S. forces could be deployed from bases in Iraq to fight Da’esh/ISIS forces elsewhere in the region.

This commitment was seen as important following the president recent decision to withdraw some 2,000 American soldiers from Syria.

But it did not address the growing tension with Iraq where American officials are concerned about growing Iranian influence. The Trump administration listed a reduction of Iranian influence in Iraq as one of the precursors to lifting new sanctions placed on Iran in November.

Trump cancelled a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi over apparent security concerns. One possible concern – the growing Iranian influence in Iraq and in particular over of Iranian-backed Shia militias units in Iraq known in Arabic as al Hashd al Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Forces — though often shortened to Al Hashd.

First formed in 2014 following pubic appeal for Iraqi men to fight Da’esh, the Al Hashd forces spearheaded Iraq’s fight against Da’esh. After largely defeating Da’esh in Iraq some Al Hashd forces have crossed the border to support the Syrian regime of Bashar Al Assad and fight Da’esh there.

Some of the most influential of these units have received direct support from Iran. There are some 150,000 militia members within various Hashd units. Many of them are Iraqi Shia from Southern Iraq who volunteered to fight terrorists in Northern Iraq.

On Christmas Day, Hashd forces clashed with a Yezidi militia unit in Northern Iraq. Elsewhere the groups have been accused of forming parallel government institutions. Though Hashd forces played a key role in liberating Mosul from ISIS forces, their continued presence in the city has been the source of tensions. Earlier this month an al Hashd force was accused of taking over a historic mosque in the city for use as a temporary headquarters.

“The more the United States presses Iran on economic sanctions and threats, the more stubborn these militias stand with Iran,” said retired Iraqi general Major Kaisi. Kaisi, who led Iraqi military intelligence among other roles before retiring from active service in 2016, said “the United States must find new approaches regarding Al Hashd forces.”

Trump’s decision not to meet with Abdul-Mahdi maybe part of that new approach. While President Trump received much flak on social media for failing to meet with the Iraqi leader neither President George W. Bush nor President Obama met with their Iraqi counterpart on every visit to the troops in Iraqi according to Kaisi.

The Trump administration is increasingly concerned with the growing influence of Iranian-backed Shia militias units in Iraq as well as their role in increasing corruption in Iraq.

The United States and other NATO allies such as France have repeatedly called for the Al Hashd units to be disbanded in the past two years. The influence of the Al Hashd units has only grown with Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi‘s government agreeing to pay militia units the same salary as regular Iraqi security forces. Humans Rights Watch and other NGOs have accused the backed Iranian forces of human rights violations. They have also earned occasional praise even from United States government officials for their dogged determination in fighting Da’esh terrorists.

NATO is set to begin a training mission to the Iraqi military mission early in the new year to better train the Iraqi military to deal with IEDs and to improve other capacities.

Lincoln Bloomfield, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs told the author that Washington is watching developments in Iraq closely in an interview earlier this year. He said efforts including the NATO training mission “should be helpful to the creation of a functioning Republic under a constitution and also serving to reduce corruption at both the national level.”

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