A history of bad blood between Iraq's Shiite militias, US troops

Iraqis attend a prayer service at the Kadhimiya Shrine in Baghdad, Iraq, on July 2, 2004, and show support for Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.


By ROBERT H. REID | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 27, 2015

WASHINGTON — A long, bloody history of conflict, double-crosses and American blood lies behind the U.S. military’s refusal to cooperate with Iraq’s Shiite militias — even if both sides now face a common enemy in the Islamic State.

Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of the U.S. Central Command, bluntly laid out the reasons why the military was loath to launch airstrikes to help the stalled Iraqi government offensive against Islamic State fighters in Tikrit until Iranian-backed Shiite militias pulled back from the frontlines.

“Once those conditions were met, which included Shiite militias not being involved, then we were able to proceed,” Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. “[After] three tours in Iraq commanding [U.S.] troops who were brutalized by some of these Shiite militias, I will not, and I hope we never will, coordinate or cooperate with Shiite militias.”

Until the U.S. launched airstrikes late Wednesday, critics had accused the Obama administration of sitting on the sidelines, allowing the Iranians and their Shiite militia clients to exploit the campaign against Tikrit to expand their influence in Iraq, where nearly 4,500 American servicemembers died.

Others, including former Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus, had warned that as long as militias made up the bulk of the pro-government forces besieging Tikrit, a Sunni city, the U.S. ran the risk of being seen by Sunnis as the “Shiite air force.”

Aside from the political risks, cooperation with the Shiite militias would be a bitter pill for Americans who fought many of those same militiamen only a few years ago. Some of those militia leaders rose in stature in the Shiite-dominated Iraq that the U.S. left behind when the last American troops left in December 2011.


[After] three tours in Iraq commanding [U.S.] troops who were brutalized by some of these Shiite militias, I will not, and I hope we never will, coordinate or cooperate with Shiite militias.
— Gen. Llyod Austin


For Americans who never served in Iraq, the image of the war promoted in such Hollywood productions as “American Sniper” has focused on the fight against Sunni insurgents from al-Qaida in Iraq, the forerunner of the Islamic State.

But much of the fighting, especially in the Baghdad area, was waged against Iranian-backed Shiite groups, some which are now part of the “popular mobilization units.” Since the Iraqi army collapsed last summer, the government has sent those militiamen to the front lines against the Islamic State, not only in Tikrit but in the old battlefields of Diyala, Salaheddin and Babil provinces where they once fought the Americans.

Those Shiite groups include the “Peace Brigades,” the rebranded Mahdi army of Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers battled U.S. troops in Sadr City, Najaf, Basra and elsewhere, as well as two other groups — Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, which were largely seen as proxies for Iran.

During the war, Kataib Hezbollah and the League were often described by the U.S. military as the “Special Groups” — shadowy militants responsible for rocket attacks on the Green Zone, kidnappings and ambushes in mostly Shiite areas of Baghdad and elsewhere.

The “Special Groups’” signature weapon was the notorious EFP, or explosively formed penetrator, a lethal IED that could fire an explosive charge through all but the most heavily armored vehicles. In the last years of the war, EFPs were believed to have accounted for as many as 80 percent of the U.S. casualties.

The EFPs were so well-made that U.S. intelligence was convinced they were manufactured in Iran and smuggled into Iraq by a network controlled by the League.

The League claimed more than 6,000 attacks against U.S. troops, including EFP and rocket attacks. After the U.S. routed al-Qaida in Iraq in 2008, the U.S. military identified the League as the biggest single threat to American forces in the final three years of the war.

Those Special Groups were also was believed responsible for the Jan. 20, 2007, raid on the Joint Security Station in Karbala, which left five American soldiers dead and three wounded. The raid was among the boldest and most sophisticated attacks against American troops during the war.

It was carried out by up to a dozen Shiite militants, dressed in American uniforms and carrying American weapons, who drove to the station in vehicles similar to those used by U.S. civilian convoys. They bluffed their way through Iraqi checkpoints and stormed a building used by the Americans, killing one U.S. soldier and capturing four others before fleeing with their prisoners.

Three of the Americans were found shot to death near the compound. A fourth was found alive but died soon afterward of his wounds.

Two months after the raid, American troops captured the leader of League, Qais al-Khazali. He was released in 2010 under an Iraqi-negotiated deal in exchange for a British computer contractor who had been kidnapped by Shiite militants.

Al-Khazali ended up rehabilitated and elevated to hero status by the government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who needed political support from his fellow Shiites as the Americans were preparing to leave the country. Al-Khazali’s followers are among Shiite militias now fighting the Islamic State.

He wasn’t the only Special Groups leader to escape punishment thanks to Iraq’s murky sectarian politics.

Ali Mussa Daqduq, a Lebanese citizen who was sent by Hezbollah and the Iranians to train Shiite militias, was also captured by the U.S. in March 2007 and accused of a role in the Karbala raid.

With al-Khazali having escaped punishment, the U.S. was determined to see Daqduq held accountable for the five American deaths in Karbala. As with al-Khazali, however, the Iraqi government didn’t want to take the political risk of punishing a popular figure.

To add to the problem, Daqduq became the center of an internal political battle in Washington. The Obama administration wanted to extradite him to the U.S. to stand trial. Republicans in Congress demanded that he be sent to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. But the White House wanted to close the Guantanamo prison and refused.

Instead, the administration decided to hand him over to the Iraqis and formally ask them for his extradition. The Iraqis refused the request and put him on trial. But the courts threw out the charges.

After months of high-level wrangling and U.S. pressure, in July 2012 — five months after the last American troops left Iraq — the Iraqi central criminal court ordered his release, signaling that as far as Baghdad was concerned, the case was closed. Daqduq was free.

Robert H. Reid reported from Iraq as a journalist from 2003 until 2009.

Twitter: @rhreid

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