US-Iran tensions and protests in Iraq, as well as other issues that lead to instability have enabled ISIS cells to continue to function.
The Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), a paramilitary group of the Iraqi security forces which also tend to be pro-Iranian, have continued to play a central role in operations on Iraq’s borders, according to Iranian media. An operation to clear ISIS cells from Anbar province on the Syrian border was conducted over the weekend. It is the second of similar operations this month to clear border areas.
In the current operation, according to Tasnim News, the PMU had sent its Anbar operations command on pre-emptive raids to strike ISIS cells. The PMU was also continuing operations to find mines and improvised explosive devices. ISIS has continued to operate in Iraq more than two years after it was mostly defeated. With the coronavirus pandemic and drawdown of US-led Coalition forces there are concerns ISIS could increase its foothold. In addition US-Iran tensions have led to US airstrikes on the PMU after units within the PMU fired rockets at bases where US troops were located.
Another article on April 10 noted that the PMU was continuing to “clear the Iraqi border with Jordan and Saudi Arabia.” These two articles illustrate the large role the PMU – which were formerly Shi’ite militias and still retain their own allegiance to various clerics and political leaders – plays along Iraq’s borders. The PMU was raised to fight ISIS and is based on older pro-Iranian groups, such as the Badr Organization, Harakat Hezbollah, Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Some of the leaders of these groups served with Iran’s IRGC in the 1980s and fought against Saddam Hussein. Others also fought the US between 2005 and 2009. The US has sanctioned parts of the PMU as terrorist groups.
The PMU’s Badr members say they are keeping an eye on the US in Anbar. The US has withdrawn from Iraqi bases but the PMU and Iranian media spread rumors that the US left behind “extremists” as it left. This is part of a narrative by Iranian media that argues the US “supports ISIS” and that the US also trains “extremists” across the border in Syria. In contrast Al-Ain media in the UAE accuse the PMU of aiding ISIS members by transferring them from Syria to attack areas in Kirkuk and elsewhere in Iraq. The real story is probably more complex. Neither the US or Iran or the PMU aid ISIS, but ISIS thrives when there is a vacuum in power. US-Iran tensions and protests in Iraq, as well as other issues that lead to instability have enabled ISIS cells to continue to function.
The important message Iran and the PMU are sending through their operations on the borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia is that they will run the border and not the Iraqi army or other Iraqi units. This enables them to help Iran transfer munitions to Syria via the Al-Qaim crossing to the Iranian base called Imam Ali near Al Bukamal. Media reports indicate Iran sent ballistic missiles to the PMU in 2018 and 2019. The reduction of the Iraqi army presence and outsourcing of border security and raids to the PMU has the result of enabling sectarian militias to run the borders of Iraq, as opposed to the more unifying aspects of the Iraqi army. Despite years of training the Iraqi army to conduct anti-ISIS operations, it appears the PMU wants to keep the lion’s share of these operations to themselves, controlling rural areas and using the control to further political and economic goals.