Iraq struggling to contain its militia activity in Syria
Controversy over Iraqi Shia militias fighting inside Syria resurfaced following allegations by one of the armed groups that dozens of its fighters were killed by US artillery fire, a charge the United Sates denied.
The Iran-backed Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada militia said approximately 40 of its fighters near Al- Tanf in Syria were killed by US artillery fire from Iraq. The group vowed to hold the US Army responsible.
The group said several of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps members were killed in the attack, which wounded 75 Iraqi fighters. “This act will not pass without punishment,” the group said.
Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada is among Iraq’s numerous predominately Shia militias grouped under the umbrella of the state-sanctioned Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) fighting the Islamic State (ISIS).
ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack in an online statement, saying that it had killed more than 60 Shia militiamen in Syria.
US Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the anti-ISIS coalition, said on Twitter that the Iraqi militia allegations were “inaccurate” and denied US military involvement in the area at the time.
The United States had attacked Iranian-backed militias in Syria on two occasions, arguing that it had warned the groups not to approach US bases that housed anti-ISIS Syrian forces.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi said an initial investigation pointed to ISIS carrying out “a breach using artillery and car bombs” inside Syria.
In a statement on its Facebook page, the US Embassy in Baghdad said it “confirms what the government of Iraq and other spokespeople have already said clearly. There was no US or coalition involvement in any attack on PMF forces.”
One day following the incident, the US Embassy posted on its Facebook page that it “is aware of reports of threats to target US government officials and other civilians for kidnapping. In response, the US Embassy has temporarily restricted movement of its employees outside of the international zone in Baghdad, as well as outside of US Consulate Basra.”
Abu Ala Welayi, leader of Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, and his deputy Ahmed al-Maksousi suggested on two separate occasions that the United States and ISIS coordinated attacks against the Shia group. Similar allegations have frequently been made by Iraqi militia leaders.
The group boasted that, before its founding, some of its members were involved in attacks against the US military in Iraq prior to 2011. Since 2013, the militia had been heavily involved in the fighting in Syria’s civil war, supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad. The militia is accused of carrying out sectarian killings against Sunni civilians in Iraq and Syria.
In October 2014, the group threatened to attack Saudi Arabia after Riyadh executed dissident cleric Nimr al-Nimr. “Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada considers anything of Saudi origin on the level of building or person a target for it and will not hold back capability in burning or destroying anything tied to this tyrannical kingdom if these authorities do not review this unjust execution decision,” the group said.
The presence of such groups as part of the PMF has caused embarrassment to the Iraqi government, which is looking for further US support in the fight against ISIS. There are five Iraqi towns still under the control of ISIS, which has access to desert areas in Anbar province.
Iraqi forces, with help of the PMF, are poised to attack the ISIS-held town of Tal Afar near Mosul in Nineveh province. An Iraqi official said US military reinforcement is on its way to help Iraqi forces recapture Tal Afar.
The PMF previously benefited from US air cover in the fight against ISIS and American-supplied weapons have made their way to the umbrella group via the Iraqi government, which appears to be struggling to maintain control of the militias.
In a news conference, Abadi stressed that the militias’ activities outside Iraq are not carried out under the PMF banner. “We have no PMF outside Iraq, so let us be clear. The PMF is an official body (when it is) inside Iraq. If it goes out of Iraq then it is no longer (considered as) PMF,” he said.
Abadi said the PMF is “funded by the Iraqi treasury, linked to the general commander (of the armed forces), its work is inside Iraq and it is committed to Iraqi law,” which bans Iraqi militias from fighting outside the country’s borders.
It is unlikely, however, that Abadi can control the PMF’s actions. “Inside Syria, I call on all Iraqi sides… that they don’t involve Iraqi issues and don’t involve the PMF in a matter that the [Iraqi authorities] have not permitted,” said Abadi.
“Our decision is not to be involved in the Syria dossier altogether, nor any other dossier outside Iraq. This is Iraq’s final decision, and we call on all sides not to involve Iraq in issues outside its borders.”