Middle East

Iraq militia leader: U.S. not serious about fighting ISIS

NAJAF, Iraq: The head of one of Iraq’s fiercest Shiite militias called the U.S.-led coalition’s campaign against ISIS ineffective and accused Washington of lacking the will to uproot radical Sunni militants controlling large swaths of Iraq and Syria.

Qais al-Khazali, leader of Iranian-backed paramilitary group Asaib Ahl al-Haqq, said the anti-ISIS campaign had failed because of an American agenda to redraw the map of the Middle East along new borders.

“We believe the United States of America does not want to resolve the crisis but rather wants to manage the crisis,” he told Reuters in an interview. “It does not want to end ISIS. It wants to exploit ISIS to achieve its projects in Iraq and in the region. The American project in Iraq is to repartition the region.”

Khazali said the U.S.-led coalition had failed to ramp up the number of airstrikes over time as he said it had pledged to do.

Asaib, along with the Badr Brigades and Kataib Hezbollah, are at the forefront of the Popular Mobilization forces, the official Iraqi government entity organizing volunteers in the battle against ISIS.

The Popular Mobilization has become the most powerful military force in Iraq since the near collapse of the national army a year ago. Yet many paramilitary groups have come under fire for alleged abuses in Sunni areas reclaimed from ISIS.

Khazali said Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was under U.S. pressure to limit the presence of Shiite fighters in the campaign to retake the mostly Sunni province of Anbar.

“Now the American project is trying at least to limit the presence of the Popular Mobilization forces to the borders of Fallujah and not reach Ramadi. This is the magnitude of the pressure from the American leadership now on the Iraqi prime minister,” he said.

Washington and its Sunni Arab allies fear involving Iraq’s Shiite militias in battles to drive out ISIS militants from Anbar could lead to even more sectarian violence. In the past few months, there have been reports of violations including killings, looting and burning of Sunni homes. Khazali denied the accusations.

“Despite the media whirlwind and exaggeration, no media outlet has been able to accuse the Shiite Popular Mobilization forces of one [act of] genocide or of killing one innocent citizen,” he said.

Khazali was among thousands of militia fighters, armed and wearing green camouflage military fatigues, who flocked to northern Iraq to battle ISIS last June after it seized swathes of territory across Syria and Iraq. The 41-year-old Iraqi donned the robe and white turban of a cleric when he spoke to Reuters in the holy Shiite city of Najaf. His militia started as a splinter group of the Mahdi Army, a paramilitary force formed by Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr during the U.S. occupation. Under his leadership, it gained notoriety for its attacks against U.S. forces.

In 2007, Khazali was arrested by American forces for his alleged role in an attack on an Iraqi government compound in Karbala in the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq, which left five American soldiers dead.

He is now one of the most feared and respected Shiite militia leaders in Iraq, and one of Iran’s most important allies in the country.

Khazali said mutual mistrust made it impossible for his group to coordinate with the U.S. “We do not agree to participate in any area where there are American strikes. We will place full responsibility on the American administration for any strike that happens under the guise of being a mistake,” he said.

“The Americans do not trust us because we resisted them during the occupation. There is no prospect [for cooperation].”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 30, 2015, on page 8.

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