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Powerful Iraqi Militias Would Gladly Welcome Russian Airstrikes

The spokesman for Iraq's Kataib Hezbollah, a militia with strong government ties that wields considerable power, told Vice News Wednesday that his group would welcome Russian strikes.
A Russian Defense Ministry handout dated October 3, 2015 shows two Russian SU-25 strike fighters taking off from the Syrian Hmeymim airbase near Latakia, Syria. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service Handout via EPA)

Significant factions within Iraq's government say they would support Russian airstrikes against the Islamic State there.

Russia has recently begun an air campaign over Syria in support of militia and military forces fighting on behalf of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian leader who has lost control of more than half of his country since Syria's uprising began in 2011.

The spokesman for Iraq's Kataib Hezbollah, a militia with strong government ties that wields considerable power, told VICE News Wednesday that his group would welcome Russian strikes.


"We will do our best to make cooperation between Russia and Iraq fruitful and successful," said the spokesman, Jaffar al Husseini. "We will welcome any Russian airstrikes, military training, consultants, arms, and or financial support. We continue to reject the idea of having Russian fighters on the ground simply because we have enough Iraqi fighters with the necessary will to end the existence of ISIS."

Kataib Hezbollah, which receives support from the Iranian government, fought US troops prior to 2011, mostly in southern Iraq. Earlier this year, the group and other militias said they would not participate in operations backed by US airstrikes. Nonetheless, they participated in the invasion of the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit, which was taken from IS in early April with US air support.

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"Our operation rooms are ready to cooperate with Russia, and we are serious about reaching victory and success in our fight against ISIS," Husseini said. "We refuse to have the US or any of it's allies take part in any airstrikes, trainings, or material support. They are not serious about the fight against terrorism, and they have been actually in support of IS."

The accusation that the US supports IS is widely made by Iraqi Shiites and speaks to the antipathy in Iraq toward the US, which is blamed for sowing much of the discord that led to the Islamic State's rise.


Husseini's statements came a day after Hakim al-Zamili, head of the Iraqi parliament's defense and security committee, told Reuters the militia with which he is affiliated would welcome Russian airstrikes. Haider al-Abadi, Iraq's prime minister, made similar statements to France 24 on Tuesday.

Zamili has often appeared in military dress, even inside parliament, in order to demonstrate his link with the Sadr Movement, which has fielded one of the largest militia forces fighting on behalf of the Iraqi government.

The recent comments in support of Russian action are a continuation of an ongoing Russian campaign to support Iraq's government. The Iraqis purchased Russian fighter jets and helicopters last year, in part because a planned delivery of American F-16 fighters was delayed by human rights concerns, difficulties training Iraqi pilots, and the IS threat to some of the bases where the jets were to be deployed.

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The Iraqi government appears willing to take any and all help, a position its supporters seem to favor. At an arms fair in Baghdad in March, Faisal Qaragholi, Lockheed Martin's representative in Iraq, said he didn't even mind losing business.

"It's a big country and we require a lot of equipment, and we need some of this equipment very soon, so we can fight the terrorists that we have in Iraq," Qaragholi said.


Iran has also provided significant aid in the form of tanks, armored vehicles, and munitions.

US State Department Spokesman Mark Toner downplayed the Iraqi overtures at a briefing on Tuesday.

"We're always in conversations with Iraq about the security situation," Toner said. "What I can say is that Iraq certainly hasn't asked for Russian airstrikes in its territory, so it's kind of a moot point at this point."

The Russian campaign in Syria appears focused for now on helping Assad win back some of the territory he has lost. Though there have been complaints from the US government that Russian strikes have mostly targeted "moderate rebels," the Russian strikes have been mostly on the edges of Assad-held territory in Hama, Homs, and Idlib provinces. While the Islamic State is not generally active on those front lines, the groups fighting include Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, as well as Ahrar al-Sham, a major rebel faction that has called openly for a state in Syria based on Islamic Law.

Follow David Enders on Twitter: @davidjenders

Watch VICE News' documentary Rearming Iraq: The New Arms Race: