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How much the US knows about Iraq’s militias

Stunning reports have revealed how US surveillance operations have been gaining insight into the shadowy world of Iraq’s Shia militias, writes Salah Nasrawi

Salah Nasrawi , Tuesday 10 Mar 2020
How much the US  knows about Iraq’s militias
A protester shows empty tear gas canisters during clashes with security forces in Baghdad (photo: AP)
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One night two months ago a group of top leaders from Iraq’s Iran-backed Shia militias met secretly at a farm south of the Iraqi capital Baghdad to hammer out plans to respond to bombings by the United States on a militia post.

Angered by the US airstrikes on Iraq, the militia leaders discussed staging a mass demonstration outside the sprawling complex of the US Embassy in Baghdad as part of a new strategy to force Washington to withdraw its forces from Iraq.

The discussions might have sounded routine, as the Shia militias in Iraq have expanded dramatically and transitioned into formidable political forces that has been mobilised to confront the US and extend Tehran’s regional reach.

Yet, the American big brother was watching the meeting on 30 December, and Washington’s intrusive snooping provided a detailed picture of how US intelligence in Iraq executes the war against the Shia militias.

Two reports issued last week about meetings in Baghdad gave the inside story on how Iran’s network of influence in Iraq has been increasing through the activities of the Iraqi Shia militias.

One report by the US government-owned Al-Hurra TV channel detailed discussions between Deputy-Commander of the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis and leader of the Kataib Hizbullah militia Ahmed Hassan Al-Hemidawi about plans to “attack the US Embassy” in Baghdad.

The meeting was held in a private residence in the upscale Baghdad district of Al-Jadirriyah that hosts many PMF safe houses and offices. It was also attended by Haji Hamdi, a nickname of an Iranian officer in Iran’s Al-Quds Force.

The second article, posted on Shafaak News, a Kurdish news outlet, reported another meeting also held on 30 December by top militia leaders that centred on how to retaliate in the wake of the US attack on Kataib Hizbullah in Qaim a day earlier where several militia members were killed.

Among those who attended this meeting were top leaders of pro-Iran Shia militias in Iraq, including Hadi Al-Amiri, head of the Badr Organisation, Qais Al-Khzaali of Assab Ahlu-Haq, Akram Al-Kabi of the Al-Nujaba militia and Al-Hemidawi of Kataib Hizbullah.

Also present were Falih Al-Fayadh, head of Iraq’s PMF, which is a state-organised umbrella for the militias, his deputy Al-Muhandis, and several PMF top officials.

According to Shafaak News, two Iranian security officials, Ali Akbar Muhamadi and Agha Shahin, also attended the meeting, which was held at a farm in Zufaranya south of Baghdad that belongs to militia leader Ali Shibl Al-Assadi.

The outlet said the militia leaders had decided to mobilise some 20,000 supporters to take part in the demonstration at the US embassy. Each protester would be paid $100 as a stipend, it said.

They also assigned Al-Fayadh, who also works as Iraq’s national security adviser, to contact the US chargé d’affaires in Baghdad to inform him that the protests would only last for three hours and be staged outside the outer walls of the US embassy compound.

Al-Fayadh was also to assure the US diplomats in the embassy that the protesters would be kept under control and that the demonstration was only meant as a public show of anger. 

Al-Amiri, who heads the second-largest bloc in the Iraqi parliament, was told to contact the British and other European ambassadors to assure them that there would be no protests at their missions in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone which hosts the US embassy.

Shafaak News, close to political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, attributed its report to Al-Hurra, but the relevant article seemed to have disappeared from the US government-owned channel’s website.

In both reports “high-ranking security sources” were quoted without further elaboration. But details in the reports seemed to expand on public statements by US officials on Iran’s activities in Iraq.

The US airstrikes on 29 December had targeted Kataib Hizbullah, which the United States had accused of carrying out a missile attack on an Iraqi base earlier that had killed an American contractor and wounded American and Iraqi service members.

The US relationship with the Iraqi Shia militias has been largely defined by hostility with Iran, which the United States has been targeting with a “maximum pressure” campaign that hopes to curb Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and its influence in the Middle East.

Washington has imposed economic sanctions on nearly a dozen Iraqi militia leaders, including several who attended the Jadirriyah and the Zufaraniya meetings, with US officials claiming that they work closely with Tehran and accusing them of attacking or threatening US interests in Iraq.

In retaliation for the protests at the US Embassy in Iraq, US President Donald Trump ordered the killing of Iran’s top security and intelligence commander Qassem Suleimani. The US drone strike on Suleimani at Baghdad International Airport on 7 January also accidently killed Al-Muhandis.

However, the revelations about the secret meetings came as no surprise, and they have not been seen as shocking. US whistleblower Edward Snowden has revealed that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had been routinely monitoring the calls of world leaders for years and had harvested data for US spy agencies.

It has been an open secret in Iraq that the United States has been spying on the country since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Many in Iraq believe that by using its surveillance agencies Washington has enhanced its hold on the Iraqi state and political system.

Multiple reports and leaks in recent years have suggested that even after it officially withdrew its forces from the country in 2011, the United States has continued its espionage activities in Iraq, including by routinely monitoring the calls of Iraqi officials.

In September 2017, The Intercept, an American online news organisation that covers national security issues, described the NSA’s surveillance in Iraq as a “very forward-leaning and aggressive” collection effort.

It said the NSA had established technological “access points” in the country to spy on Iraqi government personnel that had included “Iraqi cabinet level officials” among others.

The Intercept said the NSA’s activities against Iraqis had gone far beyond spying on Iraqi telecommunications and trying to tap the nation’s communications to virtual control through the technical support it provides to Iraqi intelligence services and security forces.

Indeed, the United States had been spying on Iraq even before the 2003 invasion that toppled the ultra-secretive and authoritarian regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein.

Ahead of the invasion, American spies had worked undercover on ferreting out secret Iraqi weapons programmes and recruiting dissidents to gain first-hand knowledge of the regime.

The US intelligence’s targeting of Iraqi Shia militia officials also dealt with their relations with Iran and the Islamic Republic’s rising influence in Iraq.

In November 2019, the New York Times and The Intercept published what they called “Iran Cables” that included secret documents showing how much power the Iranian regime wields in Iraq.

The cables detailed the extent to which Iraq has fallen under Iranian influence since the US-led invasion in 2003 and how this has transformed Iraq into a gateway for Iranian regional power.

The unprecedented Iranian documents offer a detailed portrait of just how aggressively Tehran has worked to embed itself in Iraqi affairs and the unique role played by Suleimani in painstakingly working to co-opt the country’s leaders.

Many of the cables describe how meetings have been arranged in dark alleyways and shopping malls or under the cover of hunting excursions or birthday parties. They also detail how sources are plied with gifts and officials are offered bribes.

One document shows that former Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki was a favourite of Tehran in the 2015 elections in Iraq at the expense of his replacement, the British-educated Haider Al-Abadi who was seen as friendlier to the West and less sectarian in his views.

According to another Iranian intelligence cable, Abdul-Mahdi, who in exile worked closely with Iran while Saddam was in power in Iraq, had a “special relationship” with Iran when he was Iraq’s oil minister in 2014.

While the revelations might have been deliberately leaked in order to convince Iran that its actions in Iraq are being monitored by the US spy agencies, they also show how successful these agencies are in gathering evidence about Iran and its proxies in Iraq.

One example of how the United States depends on eavesdropping, electronic intercepts, and other surveillance was the tracking of Suleimani’s location in Baghdad and the subsequent drone attack taking him out.

The US counterintelligence heavy-handed watching of Iran’s proxies in Iraq was demonstrated again last week when the administration disclosed that it had put on trial a US military contractor in Iraq on charges of providing highly classified information to Lebanon’s Hizbullah.

The New York Times reported Thursday that the contractor, an American of Lebanese origin was investigated for revealing to a Lebanese man with ties to Hizbullah the names of informants in Iraq and details of the information they provided to the United States.

The curious incident is that the US intelligence discovered the espionage case of the contractor, Mariam Taha Thompson, with the Iran-backed group on 30 December, same day the Shia militia leaders were meeting in Baghdad.

In this shadow realm, espionage is used to justify a large number of goals and operations, but as the Iran-US standoff continues there are increasing fears that Iraq will continue to be a playground for a proxy war between the two countries.

While the leaks about the secret activities of the Iraqi militia leaders tend to confirm US successes in surveillance, they also underline Iraq’s vulnerability and trigger fears of a confrontation that could plunge the country into further turmoil.

 

*A version of this article appears in print in the  12 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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