BAGHDAD — Hashem Al Mayahi didn’t always despise America. When the U.S. first invaded Iraq to rid the country of Saddam Hussein in 2003, he hoped regime change would usher in a brighter future.
“I thought they’d turn Iraq into a paradise after they rid us of Saddam,” he recalled.
But as Baghdad descended into violence and chaos, and American abuses rose to the surface, he began mobilizing his neighborhood against the occupation, first as part of the Mahdi army, an insurgency led by popular Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, and later its splinter group, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq. Asaib grew and gained notoriety for targeting American troops, claiming responsibility for over 6,000 such attacks.
Now, with the U.S. and Iran in a standoff that’s threatening to spill into armed conflict in Iraq, he’s ready to do it again. In an exclusive interview with VICE News, Al Mayahi said Asaib was ready to hit U.S. targets in Iraq using the same insurgent tactics it deployed during the height of American occupation.
“Ninety percent, there will be a war,” the 46-year-old told VICE News from his home in a Baghdad neighborhood. “When America attacks Iran, we will not be silent.”
Al Mayahi is a senior military commander of Asaib, which is now technically part of Iraq’s security apparatus after its contributions in the war against ISIS and operates under the prime minister’s command. But the militia and its sister groups maintain close ties with Tehran. And as relations between the U.S. and Iran continue to deteriorate, Asaib and militias like it could factor as major players in any conflict.
“When America attacks Iran, we will not be silent”
There are already signs that Iraq could become a primary battleground between the U.S. and Iran. This month, rockets were fired at a base housing American troops north of Baghdad and, just days later, at the compound of U.S. oil giant Exxon Mobile in the south of the country. No one has claimed responsibility.
The attacks came just weeks after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had warned that “Iran and its proxies” were planning imminent assaults on U.S. interests in Iraq and rushed to Baghdad to seek assurances of support. He also urged Baghdad to rein in Iranian-backed armed groups like Asaib.
“We urge them to move quickly to consolidate those forces,” Pompeo told reporters after the visit. “So long as there are Iranians there who have the capacity in terms of weapons systems who aren’t under Iraqi government control, then the Iraqi people are at risk and it’s a less stable nation.”
Such demands put Iraq’s government in a tricky position: It can’t afford to alienate the U.S., a key strategic partner, particularly in the defense and energy sector. But some officials in Baghdad chafe at Washington’s pressure campaign, which they say overlooks the domestic circumstances that gave rise to these groups and continue to galvanize their support base.
“It’s really not that simple,” said one senior government official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Each of these groups has its own track record, its own history, its own interests, its own self-protection requirements.”
Asaib is closely aligned with Iran, to be sure: During the interview with VICE News, Al Mayahi openly talked about receiving salaries and military training from Iran, and didn’t hesitate to proclaim loyalty to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. He also admitted to having fought in Syria, where Iran has deployed its affiliates to prop up Bashar Assad’s regime.
But some analysts argue that these groups’ relationship with Iran is best described as one of converging interests rather than an outright proxy force.
"A lot of their day-to-day decision-making, whether it's the deployment of units or expansionist tendencies in certain governorates — for example, their decision to take over a particular infrastructure point or to expand economic activities — are driven by their own domestic strategic calculations,” said Erica Gaston, a non-resident fellow at the New America Foundation.
Asaib is widely believed to have used its battlefield gains against ISIS to expand its interests, commandeering certain sectors of the economy and running mafia-like gangs who levy unofficial taxes, smuggle goods and extort businesses.
Asaib laid down arms when American troops left in 2011, but they mobilized again three years later when Iraq’s supreme Shiite religious authority rallied young men to halt ISIS’ advance on Baghdad. Over 150,000 men heeded the call, joining various militia under the umbrella of the Shiite-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). A 2016 law made the PMF an official arm of Iraq’s security forces, alongside the country’s army, the Counter Terrorism Service and the Federal Police.
When U.S. troops returned to Iraq to fight ISIS, they found themselves fighting on the same side as the PMF.
But with ISIS all but gone, their competition for economic, political and military influence in Iraq has become more pronounced. Just as the U.S. is pressuring Baghdad to curtail the powers of the PMF, the PMF says it’s time for U.S. troops to leave.
“We don’t trust American policy in Iraq,” said Laith Al Adhari, a member of Asaib’s political bureau, located in a sprawling compound of Baghdad’s upper-class Jadriyah neighborhood. “If America wanted stability and security in Iraq, then the Americans should leave.”
Wearing a neatly trimmed beard, a light-grey suit and a pink tie, Al Adhari represents Asaib’s new slick image: as a political movement that has Iraqi, not Iranian, interests at heart.
“If America wanted stability and security in Iraq, then the Americans should leave”
“We cherish our national identity. We don’t accept any violation of our sovereignty, and we don’t accept neither American nor Iranian presence,” he said. Asaib’s support base hails from the Shiite south, but amid growing public opposition to Iranian meddling in Iraq, the group has sought to rebrand itself as a national movement that represents all Iraqis.
The party captured 15 seats in Parliament in last year’s elections, the biggest gain among all parties, and is part of a PMF-led, Iran-friendly bloc that has championed a bill to expel foreign troops.
According to Iraq’s constitution, Parliament cannot propose its own legislation; it can only vote on laws initiated by the executive. So far, the prime minister has shown no intention of proposing such a bill, repeatedly stating that U.S. troops were only in Iraq to train and advise Iraqi security forces.
The PMF sees it differently and accuses the U.S. of using its military presence to achieve its geopolitical goals, a belief that has been cemented by Trump’s proclamation to want to use American bases in Iraq “to watch over Iran.”
“America is protecting its interests and we are protecting ours”
“During the height of the war against terrorism, the number of soldiers was 5,000. Aren’t they supposed to decrease the number after the victory over ISIS? It means they’re not only here for training,” Al Adhari said.
A spokesperson for the US-led coalition to defeat ISIS confirmed that the US maintained around 5,200 troops in Iraq.
“We continually review our force levels in Iraq in order to achieve the job that has been requested of us by the Government of Iraq, and we have only the forces that we need,” said US Army Col. Scott Rawlinson.
Al Adhari’s views are more polished than those of Al Mayahi, the military commander who bluntly professed his allegiance to Iran. Nevertheless, over a two-hour interview, Al Adhari crafted a no less ambiguous narrative for why Iran constituted a more “natural” ally for Iraq than the U.S.
Unlike the U.S., he argued, Iran hadn’t sanctioned Iraq in the ’90s and ruined its economy. It hadn’t invaded Iraq under the false pretext of weapons of mass destruction. Echoing one of President Trump’s favorite criticisms of the Obama administration, Al Adhari also accused the U.S. of having “brought terrorism to Iraq” by creating fertile ground for extremism and providing outright support to ISIS (the latter, though unsubstantiated, is a commonly held view across Iraq).
The U.S., for its part, views key segments of the PMF as terror groups. In 2017, Congress introduced a bill to impose terrorism-related sanctions against Asaib and another Iran-linked militia, Harakat Hezbollah Al Nujaba. In March, the State Department added Nujaba to the list of terror organizations, the second PMF unit to earn the designation after Kataib Hezbollah. Asaib could be next, a prospect that didn’t seem to faze Al Adhari.
“Today, whoever is against American interests is considered a terrorist,” he said. “America is protecting its interests and we are protecting ours.”
Some analysts say the Trump administration’s aggressive stance toward the PMF could soon backfire.
“As long as the Americans are still here, it’s impossible to put down our weapons”
“Countering these groups requires a very indirect approach,” said Douglas Ollivant, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation who focuses on Iraq. “The PMF has very high domestic approval ratings for their role and sacrifices in the anti-ISIS fight. The only long-term antidote to their influence and strength is the strengthening of the Iraqi state.”
Despite the PMF’s sprawling political and economic influence, the government says it has made progress in bringing the PMF into the fold. When tensions began escalating in May, several senior PMF leaders, including Asaib’s chief Qais Khazali, echoed the government’s call for restraint.
But behind the scenes, Al Mayahi, the military commander, claims that Asaib is prepared to fight on against what he regards as American meddling in the region.
“The politicians want to calm the tensions,” said Al Mayahi, the military commander. “As long as the Americans are still here, it’s impossible to put down our weapons.”
Cover: In this Friday, July 1, 2016 file photo, Members of Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces parade of Shiite group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, during a Quds Day march in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, July 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, File)