Alwaght- Even a cursory glance at the Iraq developments after rise of ISIS terrorist group in the country leads to the notion that the voluntary forces, organized under the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), have played an outstanding role in both fighting ISIS terrorist and curbing the Kurdish secessionism in north of the country. It was, in fact, the outcome of the PMF, also known Hashd al-Shaabi locally, fighting that the ISIS-held areas, which accounted for vast swaths of the country, returned to the central government’s rule. The same role and assistance has been noticeable in the past few weeks in the Kurdistan region, where the popular forces' help effectively enabled the army to retake control of Kirkuk among other "disputed regions", distanced from Iraq risks of split, and restored state cohesion.
But this role proved far from being desirable to the US which after the recent triumphs of the Hashd al-Shaabi went to great lengths to impair the voluntary organization. The latest anti-PMF step was Washington's sending to Baghdad its Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who visited the country last week to press Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq for disbandment of the anti-terror force. This is beside the US and its allies' efforts, and of course through their media outlets, to run a campaign of tarnishing against the PMF by means of rumor spread and fabricated documents. This was all to distract the public opinion from clearly seeing the massive achievements made and role played by the voluntary fighters on the battle fronts.
Take, for instance, fiery remarks made by Tillerson during his October 23 visit of Baghdad. He said that the Hashd forces have to return home, arguing that they will destroy Iraq if they continue existence. Or the American and pro-American media that take similar stances, labelling the organization’s senior commanders terrorists. This heavy anti-PMF war of words comes despite the fact that the popular organization is one of Iraq’s leading anti-terror parties, regularly repulsing the American projects that eye augmented tensions for Iraq and the whole region.
On Wednesday, Sheikh Akram al-Kaabi, the secretary-general of Iraq’s Harakat Hezbollah Al Nujaba movement, in an interview with Lebanon’s Al-Manar TV reacted to the American blackening propaganda and threats against the movement, announcing: “We are ready to fight America.” Sheikh al-Kaabi's warning on the one hand and the American plans for long-term stay in Iraq for obliteration of ISIS plus Washington’s destabilizing presence in Iraq on the other hand produce some questions: Is it likely to see the American forces and Iraq’s popular forces coming to blows? And what factors could add to possibility of the two parties' confrontation?
To give answers to the questions, there must be a concentration on two reasons behind escalation of tensions between the US and the PMF: First, the US measures after advert of ISIS in Iraq and the second the PMF insistence on protecting Iraq from foreign intervention as a sovereign state.
Here is what the Americans did in Iraq after 2014, adding to possibility of confrontation with PMF:
Creating and nurturing ISIS to serve American strategy in Iraq
The available evidences as well as the ongoing crisis in Iraq lay bare the fact that the US direct and indirect presence in Iraq has so far declined to aid the Iraqis improve their country’s security and political situation. There is abundance of reports and documents talking about the American creation of initial nucleuses of Al-Qaeda terrorist group, and from its heart ISIS, to sink the whole region in a state of chaos for the sake of realization of the US interests and implementation of its policies in the region.
ISIS rise and territorial gains in Iraq benefited a long-term American scheme to break Iraq into smaller pieces and redraw the map of the West Asia region. The American officials' announcement of stay in Iraq even beyond current ISIS neutralization in the country reveals that the Iraqi army and Hashd forces by defeating ISIS have effectively foiled the American scenario for their country. Struggling for longer stay in Iraq, the Americans want to recraft plans to materialize their long-term regional goals.
The PMF are precisely on the collision course with aspirations of the Western-Israeli camp for regional influence, and recognize the American forces' foothold in Iraq as a constant threat to the nation’s security, sovereignty, and foreign policy independence. This view of the US makes the Americans find the PMF as an enemy and persona non grata, though the Americans are the foreign force on the Iraq soil. Therefore, the Americans' misconduct, including the highly aggressive and counterproductive measures in Iraq, stands as the main factor pushing the two sides towards a climate of confrontation.
Launching tarnishing, sabotaging campaign against PMF
Harakat Al Nujaba's chief in his interview told of the fierce American propaganda against the Hashd forces as well as moves taken to harm the voluntary organization. He further disparaged the US training of proxy fighters in Al Anbar's Al Asad airbase who later blended into the Hashd ranks without any supervision and remained stray, adding that misdeeds of them drew blame to the PMF.
Additionally, the American air force fighter jets several times bombed the popular forces' positions near northern Tikrit, where the fighters of Nujaba movement that are also part of the PMF were camping in assistance of the advancing Iraqi army. The US later claimed it mistakenly struck the anti-terror forces. The analysts agree that the American move was solely meant to escalate tensions with the Hashd movement.
“We prepared ourselves to strike back if the Americans continued to launch airstrikes and set up roadblocks ahead of the Tikrit campaign, but they moved back from the region,” Sheikh al-Kaabi went on.
Another anti-PMF hostility of the US played out in the form of media propaganda launched by Western and pro-US Iraqi news outlets to blacken the Hashd’s image among the Iraqi public. The plan revolved around diverting the regional and Iraqi public opinion through creating picture of the PMF as a violent and pro-terror organization in order to debase the three-year successes against terrorism.
Resorting to Kurdish referendum to keep Iraqi tensions alive
Last month's controversial referendum of independence of the Iraqi Kurdish region, driven by the now-resigned Erbil leader Masoud Barzani, was the very latest US arrangement to perpetuate the tumultuous conditions in Iraq as the ISIS sustained neutralizing blows from the PMF and army. The US ostensibly came against the secession vote but behind the scenes, reports say, it pledged to Barzani help in case of civil war breakout, something emboldened the Kurdish leader’s stressing on going ahead with the plebiscite process. Barzani was well aware of the Kurdish region’s divisions and also the Iraq military capabilities, but the remaining persuasive drive for him was the American and Israeli promises of backing in prospective conflict with Baghdad. This was perhaps the main reason why Sheikh al-Kaabi called the referendum an American and Israeli arrangement which went against the Iraqi security and national interests.
And here is second reason why the US and PMF may clash:
PMF guarding against foreign intervention
After ousting Saddam Hussein in 2001 US invasion, Iraq rose to become a competition scene of the Western and Arab countries, with each struggling to grab the political hegemony in the country. Some parts of Iraq hold strategic importance for the Israeli regime and also because of oil wealth. This provides the US and Saudi Arabia, as Tel Aviv allies, with justification to fight for political influence in Iraq. But they now face an emerging force that perfectly helped anti-ISIS operations and served the nation’s unity.
Iraq is scheduled to hold its parliamentary election in May 2018. Washington and Riyadh have launched early efforts to disrupt the vote through pressures and exercising influence. Earlier, the PMF founders and other political blocs proposed to the Iraqi government to postpone the provincial councils elections to 2018 to be held along with the parliamentary election, something the government agreed with. They were scheduled for September 16. The postponement comes to clamp down on the foreign influence in the country’s politics, showing strong and comprehensive Iraqi will to save the political independence.
With this intervention in mind, the PMF finds ousting the American forces from Iraq and protecting the national interests a legitimate right. So, it does not rule out military encounter with the Americans.