BAGHDAD — On a dirt road north of Baghdad in Iraq’s Salahuddin Province, Deputy Jabar Mohamed’s Brigade was preparing to detonate an IED. In the not too distant foothills, some 150 ISIS fighters were still holding out, he said
“If we withdraw,” said Jabar, “ISIS will control this area within hours, not days.”
While ISIS no longer holds territory in Iraq, remaining pockets of fighters continue to wage a bloody insurgency against Iraqi forces and civilians alike. Just the day before, a roadside bomb killed a local farmer and badly injured his son in the same area.
Earlier this year, VICE News gained exclusive access to Brigade 21, part of a powerful coalition of mostly Shia militias that make up the country’s Popular Mobilization Units or PMU.
When ISIS overran huge swaths of the country in 2014, men like Jabar left civilian jobs and volunteered to fight. When the Iraqi Army fled the battlefield, these militias stepped in. Many of them did so with training and funding from neighboring Iran. Five years later, many of these groups continue to keep close ties to Tehran.
That's viewed as a problem for Iraq's other major military ally: the U.S. Following U.S. President Trump's decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal, tensions between Washington and Tehran have soared. And that friction is already spilling over into Iraq, threatening to undo the country's fragile peace.
Home to numerous Iran-linked militias and some 5,200 U.S. troops, Iraq could become an early battleground if both sides resort to military conflict. It's already proved a flashpoint; citing unspecified threats from Iran and their proxies earlier this year, the U.S. withdrew all non-emergency personnel from Iraq in May.
Human rights groups have also accused the PMU of committing sectarian violence against the Sunni community in the fight against ISIS. They’ve documented instances of enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, and extrajudicial executions of civilians.
In an apparent bid to appease US concerns, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi issued a decree to more fully integrate the PMUs into the Iraqi military in July. But critics of the plan question whether these groups and more broadly, Iran’s influence, can truly be reined in.