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The Shiite militias played a key role in the fight against ISIS, such as when they helped recapture the city of Tikrit in 2015, and suffered heavy losses. But they also claimed credit for victories largely won by government troops, and were accused of massacres, torture, and other abuses against Sunni civilians at a rate that far outpaced similar accusations against other forces. During the Mosul offensive, civilians regularly listed the militias among their foremost concerns in Sunni-majority areas freed from ISIS.
During the anti-ISIS campaign, U.S. military planners were wary of inadvertently providing air cover for the militias when they advanced in concert with the Iraqi army, worried about aiding forces that worked so closely with Iran. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps advisers were often on the front lines with the militia groups they supported, and Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force, was occasionally photographed on the battlefield. (This wasn’t the first time the U.S. military found itself in an unlikely alliance in Iraq: During the Iraq War, it teamed up with some hard-line Sunni groups as part of its campaign to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s predecessor.)
Even before the warship move, the Trump administration had designated the IRGC a terrorist group, prompting the Iranians to respond by declaring U.S. forces in the region a terrorist group too. Yet 5,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, in close proximity to Iran-backed forces.
After Bolton’s announcement, I spoke with U.S. military officers who served in the country during the fight against ISIS, and they made two points. The first is that the risk the militias pose to U.S. troops in Iraq has been there since the anti-ISIS campaign began in 2014—and so, in a sense, the threats U.S. officials are discussing are nothing new. The second is that while they considered the threats to be manageable, they were real causes for concern.
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“The Shiite militias definitely kept some of us up at night,” one officer, who has since retired from the military, told me, recalling the feeling of living and working around the groups even as some continued with “very clear anti-U.S. rhetoric.”
“They were a wild card that we always had to keep an eye on.”
Another recently retired officer noted an instance in which he suspected that U.S. troops already had been targeted by militias: A roadside bomb killed a U.S. service member in October 2017, an incident for which the U.S. military has not assigned blame. Last year, the State Department evacuated the U.S. consulate in the Iraqi city of Basra, citing attacks by Iran-backed militias. “That’s always been there,” he said. “When I hear [U.S. claims of new threats], I’m like, ‘Really, there’s a new threat from Iran-backed militia?’ I remember back in 2004 when we were fighting Iran-backed militias in Iraq. It’s an existing threat that’s been there for years, but it’s up to Iran to dial it up or dial it down depending on the political end state they want to achieve.”