(CNSNews.com) – State Department spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday that the “vast majority” of Shi’a militias involved in the anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq have no connection with Iran or Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
“This idea that every Shi’a militia – or Popular Mobilization Force, that is another way they’re talked about – is controlled by Tehran and is therefore nefarious in nature, is just false,” he told a briefing.
“In fact, the vast majority of them have no connections to Tehran or to the IRGC,” Kirby added. “And many of them are in the fight against Da’esh [ISIS]. So it’s not, it’s not the monolith that I think some people think it is, these Shi’a militias.”
Kirby was asked about reports that the U.S. has asked Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government to shut down the umbrella of mostly Shi’a militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).
He said he had no information to that effect and would find it unlikely that such a request was made.
“I’m not aware of any request that was made to Prime Minister Abadi by us or by anybody else in the coalition to disband them,” Kirby said.
The PMF was established in 2014, in response to a fatwa by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shi’a cleric in Iraq, for all Iraqi citizens to defend their homeland against rampaging Sunni ISIS jihadists.
According to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal, Iran-backed militia dominate the PMF, and have played a key role in pushing back ISIS jihadists in several parts of Iraq, including Tikrit.
They include Khata’ib Hezbollah (“Hezbollah Brigades”), a group designated by the U.S. government in 2009 as a foreign terrorist organization, accusing it of posing a threat to stability in Iraq.
The U.S. Treasury Department at the same time listed a senior Khata’ib Hezbollah figure, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (aka Jamal Ibrahimi) as a “specially designated global terrorist,” for allegedly committing, directing or supporting acts of violence against coalition and Iraqi forces. It noted that al-Muhandis serves as “an advisor” to Iran’s IRGC Qods Force commander, Major General Qassem Soleimani.
Al-Muhandis is a top military leader in the PMF. In a statement from Abadi’s office last week about a meeting between the prime minister and senior PMF figures, al-Muhandis was described as one of two deputies to overall PMF chairman, national security advisor Faleh al-Fayad.
(The other deputy is a retired Iraqi army general, Mohsen al-Kaabi, who some Shi’a news outlets say has been brought in by Abadi in a bid to reinforce the PMF’s accountability to the commander-in-chief.)
Other prominent Iran-backed militia in the PMF is Asa’ib al-Haq (“League of the Righteous”), another group with close ties to the IRGC Qods Force, and held responsible for thousands of attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces during the Iraq war.
(As recently as last June the State Department warned American citizens in Iraq that Khata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib al-Haq could present a security threat.)
Still other Iran-backed PMF members include the Imam Ali Brigades, Saraya al-Salam (“Peace Companies”) – the revival of extremist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia – and the Badr Organization, a militia created by Iran and trained by the IRGC in the 1980s.
The Shi’a-dominated government in Baghdad has bristled at allegations, coming mostly from Sunni Gulf states – and some U.S. lawmakers – that Iran is using the fight against ISIS to expand its influence in Iraq. Some critics have even compared the Shi’a militia – some of whom are also fighting in support of the Assad regime in Syria – to ISIS.
Bahrain’s foreign minister has called for the PMF to be dissolved, while the Saudi ambassador to Baghdad, Thamer Sabhan, caused a stir in a television interview in January by accusing Iran of “blatantly interfering in the Iraqi internal affairs and of forming armed militias.”
Sabhan’s suggestion that the PMF leave the fight against ISIS to the Iraqi national army so as not to further enflame sectarian tensions brought an official rebuke from the foreign ministry in Baghdad.
Emirati foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan said during a visit to Moscow on Friday there was no difference between ISIS, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, and Iran-backed groups fighting in Iraq and Syria, including the PMF.
In response, the Iraqi foreign ministry in a formal protest to the UAE government defended the PMF, saying that without it, “Da’esh and al-Qaeda would have engulfed the whole region.”
It called the UAE statement “a flagrant intervention into the Iraqi affairs,” and reiterated that the PMF falls under the command of Abadi as commander-in-chief.