Laurie Mylroie Laurie Mylroie

US: Iraqi assault on Kirkuk led to 'abuses and atrocities'

Iraqi forces and Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) patrol a town south of Kirkuk, Oct. 16, 2017. (Photo: AP)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – For the first time, the Trump administration has officially criticized Iraq’s attack on Kirkuk.

Baghdad’s “reassertion of federal authority in disputed areas” after the Sep. 25, 2017, Kurdistan independence referendum “resulted in reports of abuses and atrocities by the security forces, including those affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)],” the predominantly Shiite militias that emerged after 2014 to fight the Islamic State (IS.)

This conclusion appears in the State Department’s 2017 Human Rights Report, specifically the Executive Summary of the section of the report that deals with Iraq.

Until now, the administration has avoided criticizing Baghdad for the Oct. 16 assault on Kirkuk and other disputed territories—which was engineered by Gen. Qassim Soleimani, head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The initial US response to the attack was denial—until CIA Director Mike Pompeo, now Secretary of State-designate, became the first US official to publicly confirm Soleimani’s key role in the assault three days later.

Congressmen on both sides of the aisle were quite vocal in protesting the attack on Kirkuk. But even after the Trump administration acknowledged Iran’s role, no public criticism of Iraq followed, until now.

More generally, the 2017 Human Rights Report suggests that aside from IS, the PMF are the major source of human rights abuses in Iraq—as one would expect from poorly trained, sectarian militias.

The attack on Kirkuk and other disputed areas initially resulted in the dislocation of 180,000 people. Since then, as Human Rights Watch reported earlier this year, the PMF have carried out further forcible expulsions.

Dr. Najmaldin Karim, the former governor of Kirkuk and the last democratically elected governor of the province, recently told Kurdistan 24 that the current situation is “not good,” and “Kirkuk is really occupied by Shiite militias.”

The PMF is composed of some 60 groups, the State Department report explains. “Although officially under the command of the [Iraqi] prime minister, some PMF units operated with limited government oversight or accountability.”

Indeed, the most powerful militias take their direction from Tehran, rather than Baghdad, as Entifadh Qanbar, an Iraqi-American and President of the Future Foundation in Washington, told Kurdistan 24.

The PMF units are legally limited to operations in Iraq, the Human Rights Report explains, but “in some cases [they] reportedly supported the Assad regime in Syria.”

Tehran is Damascus’ close ally, and PMF operations in Syria were conducted “independently of Iraqi authority,” the State Department report notes.

“The prime minister and the [Iraqi Security Forces (ISF)] did not demonstrate consistent command and control over all of the PMF’s activities, particularly those units aligned with Iran,” the report explains in its understated language.

“The government’s efforts to formalize the PMF as a governmental security entity continued at year’s end, but portions of the PMF remain Iranian-aligned,” the report continues, as it underscores Iran’s strong influence in Iraq, a serious problem for the US, given the antagonism between Washington and Tehran.

Moreover, the abuses of the PMF are undermining the military campaign against IS.

“The actions of these disparate units at times exacerbated security challenges,” the report explains, “especially but not only in ethnically and religiously diverse areas of the country.”

In Fallujah, the PMF were responsible for the disappearance of 643 men and boys after the city was liberated from IS in 2016, states the report.

In late March of this year, the Voice of America reported that IS “is regrouping and increasing deadly attacks in disputed areas across northern Iraq.”

Qanbar strongly concurred with the view that the PMF are the worst human rights abusers in Iraq (aside from IS) and that they are a growing challenge to Baghdad’s authority.

Qanbar cited a recent discussion he had with a general officer in the Iraqi army.

The Iraqi officer explained that PMF units are commonly located around Iraqi army bases “to monitor” the army.

“If they see any movements that they view as threatening to themselves, or to Iran, they can move against us,” he said.

One might wonder why such clarity about the role of the PMF and Iran’s influence in Iraq emerges first in the Human Rights Report.

Those familiar with bureaucratic politics will readily recognize the answer. The US faces a huge problem in Iraq: namely, Iran. To acknowledge the problem obliges you to deal with it. But dealing with it is not easy.

So those involved in making policy hope for the best and otherwise act, at least publicly, as if the problem doesn’t exist.

The Human Rights Report is produced by the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. It has virtually no responsibility for the formulation of US policy toward Iraq.

Unencumbered by that burden, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor is free to describe Iraq, as it sees Iraq!

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