Iran-linked armed groups have over the past year tightened and consolidated their grip on a key border area between Iraq and Syria, preventing journalists from entering and local residents from farming their land.
Roughly a dozen young men in black, olive green and camouflage mull around below the arches of the Sheikh Haidar checkpoint between the town of al-Obeidi and the border city of Qaim.
Arches curve over both sides of the checkpoint while a large poster of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a senior Iraqi security commander from Kataib Hezbollah killed in a US drone strike near Baghdad in January 2020, draws the attention of anyone passing through.
The checkpoint is named after a member of the Shiite-led Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) killed in the war against the Islamic State (IS) in this Sunni-dominant region.
Qaim residents say Kataib Hezbollah and other nonstate armed groups have tightened their grip in the Iraqi-Syrian border area despite measures taken over the past year to reduce the influence of nonstate armed groups across the country.
A Feb. 25 airstrike by the US military on positions held by Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada in the Albu Kamal area of Syria just across the border from Qaim was the first known offensive military action taken by the Joe Biden administration, which took office in late January. The airstrike was carried out in retaliation for rocket attacks on bases hosting international forces.
Kataib Hezbollah claimed that only one of its fighters had been killed in the attack, though other sources and media outlets cited much higher figures. On Feb. 28, Kataib Hezbollah spokesman Mohamed Mohi claimed in a message to this reporter that there had been airstrikes in both Syria and Iraq, but both officials and Qaim residents deny this. Kataib Hezbollah issued a statement claiming the airstrike was an “insult to Iraqi sovereignty.”
Kataib Hezbollah has three brigades within the government-salaried PMU, two of which are deployed in western Anbar. This part of the group officially answers to the central government. However, Kataib Hezbollah as a whole operates outside of Iraqi government control and most analysts say it is linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. It is part of the Shiite “muqawama,” or Iran-linked ‘resistance’ factions, and was designated a terrorist group by the United States in 2009.
A Washington Institute profile published earlier this month stated, “In practice, KH PMF (PMU) Brigades frequently disobey the GoI (Government of Iraq) chain of command while remaining legally organs of the Iraqi state.”
Several Iran-linked Shiite armed groups have been crossing the Iraqi-Syrian border nearby since the area was retaken from IS in late 2017. Many have been accused of smuggling for profit and not just transporting weapons and men “for the fight against IS,” as is often claimed.
A local security official in Qaim told this reporter on a visit to the district in early April that PMU fighters had gone around the residential areas near the border and demanded to search the call logs of locals’ cellphones after the February airstrike, and that Kataib Hezbollah had set up their own video surveillance network in the city’s markets.
The district of Qaim includes the main city with the town council buildings and hospital, as well as the Husaybah border area, al-Obeidi further east and Roumana, north of the Euphrates River and linked by a bridge now controlled by the PMU.
Local dignitaries who in early 2020 had spoken more openly about the situation to Al-Monitor were in early April wary of speaking about the PMU and other nonstate actors operating in the area.
“It isn’t useful,” Sheikh Sabah, the top sheikh of the Albu Mahal tribe, one of the largest in the area, told Al-Monitor during an interview in al-Obeidi. “We want to speak about what we need. And we need everything. Services. We don’t have enough water, electricity. We need more support for agriculture. Jobs. Everything.”
Next to his relatively simple diwan stands the ruins of his former, palatial home destroyed by al-Qaeda in Iraq in previous years after his tribe rose up against it.
Others close to the top Albu Mahal sheikh say he and many others have land that had previously been used for agriculture south of the main road running from Ramadi to Qaim in an area now “occupied by the PMU.”
“There will be problems with them [PMU] in the future,” many locals say. But, for now, they just want to survive and recover. For that, they say, abiding by the rules of the dominant military forces is essential: in this case, apparently, the PMU.
Abu Aya, a former Qaim Swat commander and current commander of the local tribal PMU Kataib al-Hamza — which was initially formed in the post-2003 years to fight the US ‘occupation’ but later collaborated with the United States in fighting al-Qaeda and was reformed to fight IS — told Al-Monitor in an April 8 interview that though there were other PMU brigades operating in the area, Kataib Hezbollah was in control and that they were preventing local residents from returning to farm thousands of plots of land south of Qaim “for security reasons.”
During a visit to the Qaim district in early April, Al-Monitor was denied access at the final checkpoint to the city by the nonlocal PMU manning it.
Al-Monitor had authorization from the Joint Operations Command (JOC) to access all of western Anbar for reporting purposes. This reporter had previously made several trips to the area since accompanying the Iraqi army in the operations to retake the area from IS in late 2017, and has accompanied various Iraqi forces on frontlines over the years, including several PMU.
Local sheikhs, security forces and the army all tried unsuccessfully to gain permission for this reporter to cross the checkpoint from the PMU. The response was simply that people “higher up” in the PMU had rejected the request.
Nonlocal PMU including muqawama groups, such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, took part in the battle for Qaim on the border but not Rawa, which lies further east and north along the Euphrates River. Rawa is not as strategic for controlling the border between Iraq and Syria.
Nonlocal PMU are officially supposed to stay out of Qaim and only guard areas outside of it, Al-Monitor was told by local security forces. They added that this agreement had been reached in previous years after much pressure from the local community and tribes. Nonetheless, many Iran-linked armed groups continue to circulate there, locals say, and now “control all access points.”
Compared with previous visits by Al-Monitor, two more checkpoints for key access points to the city had changed hands from the army to the nonlocal PMU, several local security sources told Al-Monitor.
A Kataib Hezbollah spokesman had not responded by the time of publication to an April 15 request for comment.
In referring to the PMU, a member of the local security forces told Al-Monitor, “They say we are haram and they are halal. That all foreigners — except the Lebanese and Iranians — are enemies. They are the same as IS,” presumably referring to the armed groups’ “occupation” of land and religious “jihad” being their stated aim for fighting.
“Go on the road they control between here and Akashat and you’ll see what they are like,” he said.
Akashat is south of the city, between Qaim and Rutba, on a road controlled by nonlocal PMU.
“Write that but don’t use my name,” he added. “We have to live here even after you are gone.