by Pepe Escobar of the Asia Times (cross-posted by special agreement with the author)
BAGHDAD – On a sandstorm-swept morning in Baghdad earlier last week, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, the legendary deputy leader of Hashd al-Shaabi, a.k.a. People Mobilization Units (PMUs) and the actual mastermind of numerous ground battles against ISIS/Daesh, met a small number of independent foreign journalists and analysts.
This was a game-changing moment in more ways than one. It was the first detailed interview granted by Mohandes since the fatwa issued by Grand Ayatollah Sistani – the immensely respected marja (source of emulation) and top clerical authority in Iraq – in June 2014, when Daesh stormed across the border from Syria. The fatwa, loosely translated, reads, “It is upon every Iraqi capable of carrying guns to volunteer with the Iraqi Armed Forces to defend the sanctities of the nation.”
Mohandes took time out of the battlefield especially for the meeting, and then left straight for al-Qaim. He was sure “al-Qaim will be taken in a matter of days” – a reference to the crucial Daesh-held Iraqi border town connecting to Daesh stronghold Abu Kamal in Syria.
That’s exactly what happened only four days later; Iraqi forces immediately started a mop up operation and prepared to meet advancing Syrian forces at the border – yet more evidence that the recomposition of the territorial integrity of both Iraq and Syria is a (fast) work in progress.
The meeting with Mohandes was held in a compound inside the massively fortified Green Zone – an American-concocted bubble kept totally insulated from ultra-volatile red zone Baghdad with multiple checkpoints and sniffer dogs manned by US contractors.
Adding to the drama, the US State Department describes Mohandes as a “terrorist”. That amounts in practice to criminalizing the Iraqi government in Baghdad – which duly released an official statement furiously refuting the characterization.
The PMUs are an official body with tens of thousands of volunteers linked to the office of the Commander in Chief of the Iraqi Armed Forces. The Iraqi Parliament fully legalized the PMUs in November 2016 via resolution 91 (item number 4, for instance, states that “the PMU and its affiliates are subject to military regulations that are enforced from all angles.”)
Its 25 combat brigades – comprising Shi’ites, Sunnis, Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen, Shabak and Kurds – have been absolutely crucial in the fight against Daesh in Samarra, Amerli, Jalawla, Balad, Salahuddin, Fallujah (35 different battles), Shirqat and Mosul (especially over the western axis from Qayarah base to the Iraq-Syrian border, cutting off supply chains and sealing Mosul from an attempted Daesh escape to Syria).
Retaking Kirkuk “in a matter of hours”
Mohandes describes the PMUs as “an official military force” which plays a “complementary role” to the Iraqi Army. The initial plan was for the PMUs to become a national guard – which in fact they are now; “We have recon drones and engineering units that the Army does not have. We don’t mind if we are called gendarmes.” He’s proud the PMUs are fighting an “unconventional war”, holding the high ground “militarily and morally” with “victories achieved in record time”. And “contrary to Syria”, with no direct Russian support.
Mohandes is clear that Iran was the only nation supporting Iraq’s fight against Daesh. Iraq reciprocated by helping Syria, “facilitating over flights by Iranian planes.” With no Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Washington and Baghdad, “the Americans withdrew companies that maintain Abrams tanks.” In 2014 “we didn’t even have AK-47s. Iran gave them to us. The US embassy had 12 Apache helicopters ready to transport diplomats if Baghdad fell to Daesh”.
One year later, “Baghdad would have been occupied” were not for the PMUs; “It’s like you’re in a hospital and you need blood. The Americans would show up with the transfusion when it was too late.” He is adamant “the US did not provide a single bullet” in the overall fight against Daesh. And yet, Mohandes clarifies that the “US may stay in Iraq should the Iraqi government decide it. My personal opinion is well known.”
Mohandes considers the [Western] “media war waged against Hashd al-Shaabi” as “normal from the beginning”; “Countries that supported terrorism would not perceive that a popular force would emerge, and did not recognize the new political system in Iraq.” On that note, he added ruefully, “you can smell petrol”.
Mohandes was personally wounded in Halabja and also in Anfal – Saddam Hussein’s anti-Kurdish operations. He was “pleased to see Kurdistan saved after 1991”; stresses “we had martyrs who fell in Kurdistan defending them”; and considers himself a friend of the Kurds, keeping good relations with their leaders. Iranian advisors, alongside the Iraqi Army and the PMUs, also “prevented Daesh from conquering Erbil.”
Yet after a “unilateral referendum, Iraq had to assert the authority of the state”. Retaking Kirkuk – largely a PMU operation – was “a matter of hours”; the PMUs “avoided fighting and stayed only in the outskirts of Kirkuk”. Mohandes previously discussed operational details with the Peshmerga, and there was full coordination with both Iran and Turkey; “It’s a misconception that Kurdish leaders could rely on Turkey.”
Fallujah, finally secured
The PMUs absolutely insist on their protection of ethnic minorities, referring to thousands of Sabak, Yazidi and Turkmen – among at least 120,000 families – forced by Daesh rule into becoming IDPs. After liberation battles were won, the PMUs provided these families with food, clothing, toys, generators and fuel. I confirmed that many of these donations came from families of PMU fighters all across the country. PMU priorities include combat engineering teams bringing families back to their areas after clearing mines and explosives, and then reopening hospitals and schools. For instance, 67,000 families were resettled into their homes in Salahuddin and 35,000 families in Diyala.
Mohandes stresses that, “in the fight against Daesh in Salahuddin and Hawija, the brigade commanders were Sunnis”. The PMUs feature a Christian Babylon brigade, a Yazidi brigade, and a Turkmen brigade; “When Yazidis were under siege in Sinjar we freed at least 300,000 people.”
Overall, the PMUs include over 20,000 Sunni fighters. Compare it with the fact that 50 per cent of Daesh’s suicide bombers in Iraq have been Saudi nationals. I confirmed with Sheikh Muhammad al-Nouri, leader of the Sunni scholars in Fallujah, “this is an ideological battle against Wahhabi ideology. We need to get away from the Wahhabi school and redirect our knowledge to other Sunni schools.” He explained how that worked on the ground in Haditha (“we were able to control mosques”) and motivated people in Fallujah, 30 minutes away; “Fallujah is an Iraqi city. We believe in coexistence.”
After 14 years in which Fallujah was not secure, and with the Haditha experience fast expanding, Sheikh Muhammad is convinced “Iraq will declare a different war on terror.”
The inclusive approach was also confirmed by Yezen Meshaan al-Jebouri, the head of the Salahuddin PMU brigade. This is crucial because he’s a member of the very prominent Sunni Jebouri family, which was historically inimical to Saddam Hussein; his father is the current governor of Tikrit. Al-Jebouri decries “the state corruption in Sunni regions”, an “impression of injustice” and the fact that for Daesh, “Sunnis who did not follow them should also be killed.” He’s worried about “the Saudi accumulation of developed weapons. Who guarantees these won’t be used against the region?” And he refuses the notion that “we are looked upon by the West as part of the Iranian project.”
Military victory meets political victory
Far from the stereotyped “terrorist”, Mohandes is disarmingly smart, witty and candid. And a full-blooded Iraqi patriot; “Iraq now reinstates its position because of the blood of its sons. We needed to have a military force capable of fighting an internal threat. We are accomplishing a religious national and humanitarian duty.” Soldiers apart, thousands of extra PMU volunteers do not receive salaries. Members of Parliament and even Ministers were active in the battlefield. Mohandes is proud that “we have a chain of command just like the army”; that the PMUs harbor “thousands of people with college degrees”; that they run “dozens of field hospitals, intensive care units” and have “the strongest intel body in Iraq.”
In Baghdad, I personally confirmed the narrative accusing the PMUs of being Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s private army is nonsense. If that was the case, Grand Ayatollah Sistani should take the blame, as he conceptually is the father of the PMUs. Hadi al-Amiri, the secretary-general of the powerful Badr organization, also extremely active in the fight against Daesh, stressed to me the PMUs are “part of the security system, integrated with the Ministry of Defense”. But now “we need universities and emphasis on education.”
Pakistani Prof. Hassan Abbas, from the College of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University in Washington, went even further, as we extensively discussed not only Iraq and Syria but also Afghanistan and Pakistan; “Iraq is now in a unique position heading towards a democratic, pluralistic society”, proving that “the best answer to sectarianism is religious harmony.” This “inclusiveness against Takfirism” must now connect in the streets “with the rule of law and a fair justice system”. Abbas points out that the base for Iraq to build up is law enforcement via scientific investigation; “Policing is the first line of defense”.
Baghdad has been able, almost simultaneously, to pull off two major game-changers; a military victory in Mosul and a political victory in Kirkuk. If Iraq stabilizes, erasing the Daesh death cult, so will Syria. As al-Jebouri notes, “now every community must have a cut of the cake.” At least 7 million jobs and pensions are paid by Baghdad. People want the return of regularly paid salaries. That starts with decent security all over the country. Mohandes was the engineer – his actual profession – of key battles against Daesh. There’s a wide consensus in Baghdad that without him Daesh would be firmly installed in the Green Zone.
Hashd al-Shaabi is already an Iraqi pop phenomenon, reflected in this huge hit by superstar Ali al-Delfi. From pop to politics is another matter entirely. Mohandes is adamant the PMUs won’t get involved in politics, “and directly won’t contest elections. If someone does, and many individuals are now very popular, they have to leave Hashd.”
From hybrid warfare to national renewal
After days talking to Hashd al-Shaabi personnel and observing how they operate a complex hybrid warfare battlefield coupled with an active recruitment process and heavy presence in social media, it’s clear the PMUs are now firmly established as a backbone underpinning Iraqi state security, an array of stabilization programs – including much needed medical services – and most of all, introducing a measure of efficiency Iraq was totally unfamiliar for almost three decades.
It’s a sort of state-building mechanism springing out of a resistance ethic. As if the ominous Daesh threat, which may have led to as many as 3.1 million IDPs, shook up the collective Iraqi subconscious, awakened the Iraqi Shi’ite proletariat/disenfranchised masses, and accelerated cultural decolonization. And this complex development couldn’t be further from religious bigotry.
Amid Wilsonian eulogies and references to the Marshall Plan, Foreign Minister Ebrahim al-Jaafari is also a staunch defender of the PMUs, stressing it as “an experiment to be studied”, a “new phenomenon with a humane basis operating on a legal framework”, and “able to break the siege of solitude Iraq has suffered for years.”
Referring to the Daesh offensive, Jaafari insisted “Iraq did not commit a crime” in the first place, but hopefully there’s “a new generation of youth capable of reinforcing the experiment”. The emphasis now, following reconciliation, is on “an era of national participation”. He’s adamant that “families of Daesh members should not pay for their mistakes.” Daesh informers will be duly put on trial.
I asked the Foreign Minister if Baghdad did not fear being caught in a lethal crossfire between Washington and Tehran. His response was carefully measured. He said he had enough experience of dealing with “radical” neocons in D.C. And at the same time he was fully aware of the role of the PMUs as well as Iran in Iraq’s reassertion of sovereignty. His warm smile highlighted the conviction that out of the ashes of a cultish black death, the Iraqi renaissance was fully in effect.
It will take time yet, but the ME will heal from these wounds. The hegemon will wind down in dying gasps, denying all the while it is no longer powerful. The Iraqis and Syrians and Iranians will send the US packing.
Too bad the MSM will continue its charade, hoping to deny US citizens the knowledge of what is really transpiring. Such a shame that more people can’t share in the celebration of the coming out party in the ME.
Dennis Kucinich Exposes “The Permanent Government” Behind US Foreign Intervention
Saying we need to look beyond the personalities of the succession of US presidents from George W. Bush to Barack Obama to Donald Trump, Kucinich recommends we “look at the foreign policy establishment of the United States of America” that, he explains, includes people in the State Department who have a neoconservative ideology, in the Pentagon who are dedicated to the military-industrial complex, and in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who can “conjure conflicts” and “try to justify the further involvement of the military and the State Department.”
Well, neutralize the zionazi influence network and the battle will be half won, with the remaining half in disarray.
this was written before the earthquake yesterday – over 400 dead – probably alot of soldiers – sickening.
This is a pretty good report on the Iraqi PMU forces.
How refreshing to read an article expressing optimism for Iraq and for the ME in general. If Iraqis can truly accomplish an internal reconciliation and build an inclusive society after what they have been through it will be a monumental human achievement. And if that can be done in the context of constructive and respectful relations with other nations in the region we could see a true renaissance in the ME. Mohandes sounds confident so good luck to him.
Sir Walter Scott wrote in ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel’; ‘Breathe there a man with soul so dead, who never of his country said’ etc. Was Scott referring to the Iraqis, the Syrians, the Iranians of today? I believe so, after all are they not men?
Since the ‘War on Terror’ was initiated and innocent countries attacked, invaded and ruined, the negatives have been great, but if those negatives have been great then so have the potentials for the future and this is what we are seeing today, Iraqis uniting in a common cause for ‘their’ country’s good. It is so good to hear, so thanks to the minstrel, for giving us this song of joy.
And may the Iraqis, when all this is over say, “We did this!” and forget the I, for it has all been a collective effort.
The US has no intention of leaving Iraq.
And stabilization will be made an impossibility as Iraq morphs into a source of oil for China and Russia, as all indications are evident.
Future development will be with these two Eurasian giants, not the West, another sore point the US will obstruct.
How can the wealth-strapped US compete with China in this region?
It can’t. Another reason for the US CENTCOM and CIA-Mossad operatives to churn chaos. It won’t be another big Terror War.
Like in Syria, there will be insurgents to keep the nation off-balance. US has bases on both sides of the border of Iraq-Syria. From North to South, they will rock both countries, trying to block oil and Iranian arms from going West.
The imperative for Iraq and for Syria is to get the US out.
Great article, Mr Pepe. Inspiring to read such a positive account from the committed, local perspective.
I am certain that many in Israel wistfully miss Saddam Hussein as they wistfully miss the day before there was a Hezbollah or the days of the Shah of Iran or before there was a Hamas. Ah those were the days.
The intention, obviously, was to have both Syria and Iraq broken up, where proxy armies were used for the task, like the Kurdish militia. It failed. Now the Kurd’s have been shocked to see US support being withdrawn from them, while they themselves have renounced all demands for a Kurdish state in Iraq, as if they had any right to it in the first place. The entire US strategy in the Middle East has failed. I sincerely hope the US will not provoke a military conflict with Iran, either by using Saudi Arabia on it’s own, or else creating an “alliance” of the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel, as such a venture will not find much support in Europe, if any. The time has come for the US to reanalyze it’s foreign policy and abandon it’s imperial ambitions, no doubt launched at the request of Wall Street. The time has come for negotiations. However, that is next to impossible, as Wall Street has seen all of it’s plans collapse, refusing to accept reality. It better accept reality. As things stand now, the international community has more trust in Russia and Putin than in Washington.
Great journalism, Pepe, you are still the man. Cheers!
I highly suggest reading Adam Garrie’s analysis of President Assad’s speech at the Arab Forum for Confronting the Zionist-US Reactionary Alliance and Supporting the Resistance of the Palestinian People in Damascus on the subject of Pan-Arabism, for quite a lot of the idea’s on display within Pepe’s article, http://theduran.com/arabism-for-the-20th-century-syrian-president-bashar-al-assads-most-important-speech/
Note for The Saker: Garrie’s article about Assad’s speech warrants being republished here.
There’s a ***lot*** of ordinary Iraq citizens that would question this laughable assertion- that is if they weren’t ***dead****. But the millions of dead Iraqi are ***silent***- how very considerate for all concerned.
The Iraq invasion, like the Afghan invasion before it, were co-productions of Iran and the USA. Without Iran’s explicit and active participation, America would have sated itself by simply bombing millions of people to death from the air, and never have gone in on the ground. I don’t want an Iran war, but I sure ain’t gonna lie about Iran’s participation with the ‘Great Satan’ in two other obscene wars.
Prior to the invasion of Afghanistan, Iran was engaged in a proxy war with Pakistan there. We all know the history of Iran and Saddam. With America’s help, Iran got a ‘better’ form of stalemate in Afghanistan. Iraq went better as Iran’s Team gradually won control of what was once Saddam’s bulwark against greater Iranian influence.
Now Iraq isn’t perfectly under Iranian control. The Kurds and Sunni bloc make that impossible. But Iran watched as the Deep State turned effective ***secular*** Iraqi sunni groups into islamic terrorist organisations, and felt most satisfied. For the Deep State robbed the sunnis of their political legitimacy in Iraq, and thus completed the fall of Saddam’s hard built system.
Today Iraq suffers from ‘low’ level rates of murderous sectarian terror that journos in the West claim kills more Iraqi civilians each month than in the years immediately after the invasion. Not true of course, since the invasion death rates are commonly downplayed to the level of holocaust denial. But it is true a ***lot*** of innocent Iraqi citizens die each month now. That’s the ‘wonderful’ Iraq of the author’s article- a living hell.
What is true is that Iran has now battered Iraq into war shape- a resource that should prove useful when the Iran war starts. Iran thinks that US money, time, and lives have been expended to turn Iraq into a solidly Iranian asset. Iran sees only the myopic small picture.
Iran now has Iraq at a place where it can truly take on organised terror in its borders and in Syria too. The immediate future for terrorist irregulars in this region of the world is bleak- terror will go back to cowardly strikes against soft targets (mostly civilian) by ‘sleeper’ cells. While Iran can reduce such action in its own borders to near zero- it has zero chance of doing the same in Iraq. High profile Iranian figures in Iraq are in imminent danger of assassination by Israel or the USA.
But as I said, with ***zero** conscience, Iran can build expendable proxy armies in Iraq. Cannon fodder to make things a little more difficult for Iran’s more organised military enemies.
Would ***you*** want to live in this Iraq- because I most certainly would not. Our side fails when it forgets its Humanity. Oh for sure in bad times like these, needs must. But to use a word like ‘renaissance’- given the meaning of that word- is deplorable. I doubt if even one of us in these forums lives in a ‘hot spot’. And it is so easy from a position of safety to see only the pieces on the board, and not the hundreds of thousands of lives that each piece represents.
If Iran had not chosen to be a secret but key partner in America’s ‘War on terror’ after 911, the world would be a very different place now. That Iran is now in the firing line explains once again what happens to any who try to make a deal with the devil. Iran could have helped KSA fall after 911, since the official conspiracy theory has most of the particiapants as Saudi citizens closely linked to the Saudi regime. But behind closed doors, Iran struck a deal with KSA, and Iraq was therefore doomed.
Some attack me here for not following the ‘party line’ (see 1984 for why). But our salvation lies in truth not lies. The Russian Bear can yet awaken and take on the role of protector of Greater Humanity against the power of the Demons. But only light can serve our side- it is the devil that says that we can embrace the darkness in the name of ‘good’.
Iran chose to let KSA live, and for that mistake it will pay the greatest price. Today Putin makes the same mistake, and despite KSA’s murdereous rhetoric against all things Russian just a few months ago, promises Russia’s undying support of Saudi Arabia.
There are ‘leaders’ on our side who see things as they are- but way too few. Most are converts- having arrived from the ‘right’. Those from the traditional left continue to see things as the Deep State wants them to be seen.
PS please take a minute to imagine yourself a citizen of one of those now flattened major modern cities in Iraq or Syria. No- don’t just look at images of ruined buildings. Give yourself a ‘real’ history- a life before the destruction. Friends, family, job, ‘future’. Let the war gradually hit you. What happens first. Hope fading. Impossible scenarios becoming ever more commonplace. loss, loss and more loss. The moment when you must choose between satying or giving up. An awareness that everything you had taken for granted had been taken away from you by astonishing levels of organised Human violence. See the devil’s work for what it really is. Drop your blinkers.
Now imagine yourself reading a column by a ‘leftie’ that describes the reorganisation of the male survivors into brutish military brigades, and calls this a ‘renaissance’.
Hope returns when war ends. And war ends when the warring parties sign an ***armistice*** or official victory and surrender documents. This has never happened in the Middle East- where states of war are forever ongoing. No-one has ended the war in Iraq, or Libya, or Afghanistan or Syria. Indeed the major parties claim the right to restart any level of violence if and when required.
Orwell’s 1984 describes the Deep State need for ‘endless war’. He knew the types of leftie that care about only their own futures.
Good people fight for ***peace*** and not for more war, as some on our side would have you believe.
Good people *make* peace which is a complex process and requires a lot of work to maintain. They also begin with themselves.
More thought and less polemic would help.
Dr. Twilight von Doom strikes again, LOL.
I don’t bother reading your posts anymore, but you can keep going, some find your perspective refreshing :D
I’ve enjoyed comments by Twilight before, but this one doesn’t convince.
“If Iran had not chosen to be a secret but key partner in America’s ‘War on terror’ after 911, the world would be a very different place now.”
The US labeling the Daesh-fighter Mohandes a ‘terrorist’ is enough to convince me that Iraq’s PMU’s are not just brutish war thugs, but are doing something good for war-torn Iraq. This isn’t to deny the mayhem.
I’m siding with Pepe.
“Twilight” you ve got it all wrong here! This post undermines credibility to the rest of what you ve written before.
Your glee has turned into mush. Wonder why?
You are right that both USA and Iran are into it together, and for this reason Iran is at IsraHell door!
As per Khomeini the cancer is a page in the history. How true!
This is one of Pepe’s best articles. I knew little about the internal situation in Iraq until I read this piece.
Very encouraging! Sincere wishes and good luck to them!