Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary forces have laid siege to an American air base northwest of Baghdad to pressure the US military not to use Iraqi airspace for any attacks against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, Iranian and Lebanese media outlets reported. Iran’s Tasnim News Agency, a mouthpiece of the Revolutionary Guards, quoted the Arabic-language al-Diyar newspaper as saying that the militia forces encircling the American base were equipped with heavy weapons, including ground-to-ground and anti-aircraft missiles and tanks. According to the newspaper, a commander of the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) – also known as the Hashd al-Shaabi – has threatened the US commander in charge of the al-Zahra base that the militia forces would attack the installation if it is used for flying fighter jets to attack Syria. The Lebanese paper added that the US military has asked the Iraqi government to deploy army troops to break the siege.
The IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency wrote that two PMF groups – Asai’ib Ahl al-Haq and Saraya Khurasani – pay particular attention to the American military bases inside Iraq. “[They] have focused on the American bases in Iraq and have established several military bases for themselves specifically around each [American] base so that they can force the invaders to leave their country when needed. The IRGC outlet claimed that Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq has about 75,000 militiamen, far outnumbering the American troops in Iraq. It said the AAH forces, combined with tens of thousands of other PMF combatants, could become “a nightmare” for the US military.
Comment: Whenever tension between Washington and Tehran escalates, Iran’s regional proxies dial up anti-American propaganda and threaten violence against US forces in the region. The message from PMF commanders is clear: If the US and its allies harm Iran and its regional allies, the Iraqi militia will retaliate against American troops in the region.
The PMF consists of militia forces largely from Shiite but also other Iraqi ethnic and religious groups. While some units within the alliance are Iraqi nationalists and follow Iraq’s top cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, many prominent units have close ties with Soleimani. Despite PMF’s diversity, it is the Iran-backed militia units within the coalition – such as Kata'ib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Badr Organization – that have been playing the most prominent role in military operations across Iraq and have recently formed an alliance to contest the upcoming parliamentary elections. The alliance was formed in June 2014 following a call by Sistani to defend the Iraqi cities from the Islamic State. But as the Islamic State is militarily defeated, Iran-backed PMF groups have recently turned their focus on rival Iraqi groups and American troops advising Iraqi security forces. Some of these groups have a long history of violence and acts of terrorism against US forces in post-Saddam Iraq.
The numbers provided in the Tasnim report regarding AAH forces and overall PMF fighters is clearly exaggerated, but it is not clear whether the Iranian outlet quotes other sources or presents its own estimation. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi recently announced the integration of the PMF into the country’s security forces. But several PMF commanders have made it clear that they do not want to merge into the ministries of defense and interior and would like to remain a separate security entity in post-ISIS Iraq – raising concern in Washington and among its allies in the region.
The report about besieging a US base in Iraq is not confirmed. Outlets affiliated with the IRGC and its proxies in the region often exaggerate their capabilities and actions.