Ramadi's Dirty Little Secret in the War Against ISIS

Members of Shiite paramilitaries and the Iraqi army ride on a tank from Lake Tharthar toward Ramadi, Iraq, to fight against ISIS militants on May 27. REUTERS/Stringer

American commanders have been hailing the advance of the retrained Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) on Ramadi, the key city where they were easily routed some 18 months ago by marauding fighters of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

But what they aren't saying—and are loath to concede, according to well-informed military sources in Washington—is that the security forces of the Iran-backed regime in Baghdad largely consist of Shiite fighters in league with murderous militias that have slaughtered innocent Sunnis after ousting ISIS militants from Tikrit and other battlegrounds in the past year. Ramadi is the capital of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province, and the Shiites are ready to pounce.

"We are not calling a spade a spade," says Derek Harvey, a retired U.S. Army intelligence colonel who's been dealing with Iraq for over 25 years, including as intelligence adviser to both General David Petraeus, the U.S.-led coalition forces commander in Baghdad during 2007 and 2008, and his successor, General Charles Jacoby.

"My sources on the ground say they [Shiite militias and sectarian fighters] are very much involved" in the offensive at Ramadi. "Some say they are not involved, because they are wearing MOI [Ministry of Interior] uniforms with MOI patches."

But their vehicles, Harvey adds, fly Shiite militia banners, "and the people who are commanding them are still Shiite militia leaders."

"Just because you put on a different uniform doesn't mean you aren't who you are, who their group identity is and who they're committed to," he says.

The Iraqi Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication, and the Obama administration denies any suggestion that Shiite militias are playing an important role in the Ramadi offensive. But the grumbling about an alleged presence of Shiite militias at Ramadi has grown louder in recent days.

Another retired U.S. Army intelligence officer, Michael Pregent, who became an expert on Shiite militias while imbedded as an adviser with the Iraqi army in 2005 and 2006, has been posting acidic comments and photos on Twitter of Shiite militia leaders who he says are in Ramadi. One purports to show "Iran-backed militia Saraya al-Jihad using crude artillery pieces launching unguided bombs on Ramadi" to carry out the "indiscriminate targeting of" civilians. Paired with it is a picture of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a U.S.-designated terrorist, the leader of the Shiite group Kataib Hezbollah and a close confidant of General Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran's elite Quds force.

The U.S. Defense and State departments, Pregent says, "are doing everything they can to deny they are there," he says. "They are there. They are also in Fallujah, Taqaddum, Karmah, Baghdad, everywhere.... But they [U.S. commanders] have to say they are not in Ramadi, because it would show that the Iraqi military cannot do it by themselves."

Iran-backed militia Saraya al-Jihad using barrel-bomb cannons in Ramadi Operation - indiscriminate targeting of Civs pic.twitter.com/1F7pKk4xEY

— Michael P Pregent (@MPPregent) December 16, 2015

A key Shiite actor in the campaign across Anbar has been the Popular Mobilization Units, or PMU, also known as Al-Hashd al-Shaabi—or just Hashd. Recognized as an official state-supported organization by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in September 2015, Al-Hashd is an umbrella group composed of followers of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric, as well as Iran-backed Islamist militias that do not report directly to Sistani or, for that matter, have any particular loyalty to the prime minister.

"I can tell you for sure that the Hashd/PMU has been deeply involved in the Ramadi campaign, and they have done some deals with the local tribes," says Norman Ricklefs, who worked with the U.S. and Australian governments in Iraq between 2005 and 2010 and whose company, the Iraq Advisory Group, advises business clients there now. But Ricklefs, who also held senior advisory posts at the Iraqi ministries of Defense and Interior during those five years, adds that "the Hashd is still operating independently, but in coordination with the Iraqi Security Forces." It's "a step in the right direction," he says.

It's the degree of separation that experts quibble about—and the Obama administration is quibbling loudly about any suggestions that the Shiite militias are involved in a meaningful way in the Ramadi offensive.

"We have seen the allegations of abuse by the Shia militia in other locations...and we have raised our concerns both publicly and privately with the government of Iraq," a spokesman for Brett McGurk, the administration's special envoy on Iraq and the ISIS fight, tells Newsweek. "But we have not seen this in the Ramadi offensive or any other evidence of wide-scale abuse."

"We absolutely would not be conducting these airstrikes if the battle in Ramadi were being run by elements who the United States would not work with, including Iranian-backed militias," says an administration official on the condition of anonymity in exchange for speaking freely about the sensitive topic. Plus, the official says, a key element in Iraq's war effort in Ramadi is an elite, U.S.-created and -trained Counter Terrorism Service, which operates independently of the Shiite-run Defense and Interior ministries. This unit "retained its cohesion and effectiveness while other Iraqi Security Forces have collapsed," the Brookings Institution said in a May 2015 study.

But Harvey would not give ground about the role of the Shiite militias. "They are in denial," he says of the administration's pronouncement. But he adds that since "U.S. military reporting depends on ISF reports, it does not surprise me." The ISF, which include army, police and Ministry of Interior units, "are nearly wholly owned by Shia loyalists, whether PMU now as part of MOI or as Shia loyalists in the Army," he says.

The Ministry of Interior, Harvey and others say, is a creature of the Badr political party, which originated in 1982 as an Iran-backed Iraqi exile group headquartered in Tehran. With the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, it moved inside the country, and its members infiltrated the army and police. In 2014, the stand-alone Badr Brigade, led by Iranian officers, was basically the only force standing in the way of an ISIS takeover of Baghdad, according to news accounts. And recently, under pressure from Iran, Prime Minister al-Abadi rejected a U.S. offer of Apache attack helicopters for the Ramadi campaign.

U.S. intelligence doesn't really know what's going on today inside Baghdad's security forces and the Shiite militias, maintains Harvey (whose experience with Iraq dates back to 1989), because it's not focusing on them. "Our focus is going after ISIS and high-value targets and not discerning what's going on in the ISF or MOI particularly," he says. It's not even eavesdropping on their communications, and even if it did, he adds, there aren't enough "experienced and knowledgeable enough" analysts around to wade through and make sense of it.

"We have an enemy-centric approach," he says, meaning concentrating on ISIS. "And we are not defining the enemy as those who are pursuing ways, means and ends that are at variance with what is our national interest." And that, he maintains, should include the Shiite forces who are loyal or beholden to Iran and which, in the long run, have no interest in helping the United States.

But the United States has repeatedly airbrushed the brutal excesses of the Shiite militias, which have included "looting, abductions and murder," according to a special Reuters investigation published in December. "Washington, seeking to defeat Sunni jihadists and stabilize Iraq, has consistently overlooked excesses by Shi'ite militias sponsored by the Iraqi government," the report says. "The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have both worked with Badr and its powerful leader, Hadi al-Amiri, whom many Sunnis continue to accuse of human rights abuses."

Baghdad's rebranded security forces, supported by U.S. airstrikes, may indeed retake Ramadi, the first stop in retaking Mosul, Iraq's second largest city. But will they be able to keep it? Not easily, say these experts with long experience in the Iraq wars. The Baghdad regime has shown few signs of giving the Sunni tribes who have not aligned with ISIS any real parity in the country or a role in its future. Thus, the territory beyond Ramadi, in Sunni-dominated western Anbar, will not easily be pried from ISIS's hands.

ISF & volunteers from Shia led Hashed Al-Sha'abi raise the Iraqi flag over Anbar Operations Command centre #Ramadi pic.twitter.com/vwQBg9criD

— 🇮🇶Iraq & Middle East Updates (@IraqLiveUpdate) December 10, 2015

Back in Ramadi, a pro-Hashd Twitter feed this week appears to tell the story. One tweet crows that "ISF & volunteers from Shia-led Hashed Al-Sha'abi raise the Iraqi flag over Anbar Operations Command center." And there were pictures to show it. Some fear the death squads may not be far behind.