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The United States military is facing accusations that it has been training Iraqi militia fighters who are tied to Iran, a charge that military officials who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon denied this week while insisting that the United States and Iran share common goals in the war-torn country, as both sides fight to eradicate the threat of Islamic State terrorists.
The latest charge that the United States may be directly involved in the training of Iranian-backed militia fighters has reignited concerns that America is becoming too cozy with Iranian interests operating in Iraq, an issue that highlights the difficultly facing U.S forces as they seek to counter the influence of ISIS.
Video recently emerged of U.S. military advisers training Iraqi militia fighters in Makhmur. Some foreign policy observers assessed that these militia fighters may have ties to Iran, which controls an increasing number of Iraqi militia fighters taking on ISIS.
The charge was picked up this week in a lengthy Los Angeles Times exposé claiming, "The U.S. is helping train Iraqi militias historically tied to Iran."
Senior military sources who spoke to the Free Beacon denied the United States is directly working with Iranian forces, but acknowledged the United States and Iran do share similar goals in Iraq when it comes to combatting the threat of ISIS.
"In Iraq, with regards to ISIL, our interests and Iranian interests have some convergence," said one senior military official who spoke to the Free Beacon on background, using another acronym for the Islamic State.
Iranian influence over militias in Iraq continues to be a challenge for the United States, which is barred by law from working with any such group. Foreign policy insiders who spoke to the Free Beacon about the issue warned that U.S. intervention against ISIS in Iraq is serving to bolster and legitimize Iran's regional influence.
During last spring's campaign in Fallujah, the U.S. provided air cover to Iraqi fighters, some of whom came from militias tied to Iran. Iranian media reported that some of the fighters belonged to Iran's state-controlled militia.
"The forces that the LA Times observed in that story are not affiliated with Iran," Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for the U.S. Joint Task Force operating in Iraq, told the Free Beacon. "They are approved as hold forces for terrain that has been liberated by the Iraqi Security Forces. They are being trained by coalition forces. They are local forces, and they represent diverse ethnic and sectarian backgrounds. The local tie is a key element in their acceptance by the population they are going to keep secure."
Dorrian added that the headline on the LA Times article discussing the training of these militias "is very misleading."
"There's a lot of good information in the article but the Iranian tie is nonexistent," Dorrian said. "The Government of Iraq has enrolled these forces as Popular mobilization forces. I think LAT conflated that fact with Iran. Despite my telling them there's no tie, they went with that headline."
Multiple other military officials, Obama administration sources, and outside experts familiar with the matter told the Free Beacon that the militia fighters depicted in recent videos have no ties to Iran.
However, they said the United States and Iran share common goals in Iraq, where the threat of ISIS has sparked sectarian battles and endangered the Western-backed government.
A State Department official authorized only to speak on background told the Free Beacon that the United States does not train any Iranian-tied fighters, even if they are officially backed by the Iraqi government.
"The U.S. provides support to the Iraqi Security Forces, and those aligned with the Iraqi government," the official said. "The U.S. does not, and will not, provide direct support to any group proscribed by American law, or which does not operate under the aegis of the Iraqi government."
Much of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMFs, are comprised of Shia Muslim fighters, many of whom are ideologically aligned with Iran's hardline regime.
Maj. Adrian J.T. Rankine-Galloway, a Defense Department official, confirmed to the Free Beacon that some Iraqi units have been barred from receiving U.S. training due to their inability to pass background checks.
"Some Iraqi units have been restricted from receiving assistance because their commander didn't pass vetting," Rankine-Galloway said. "Because that quarterly report is classified, we cannot release which units were disqualified from receiving ITEF assistance."
Rankine-Galloway further maintained that the United States has not changed its policy with regards to training in Iraq.
"U.S. government support to the counter-ISIL campaign remains by, with, and through the central Government of Iraq—and only to forces under the command and control of the Iraqi Security Forces," Rankine-Galloway said. "Department of Defense policies on the provision of military assistance to foreign military forces have not changed. Iraqi Security Forces units who receive Iraq Train and Equip Fund assistance are strictly vetted" for ties to terror groups and the government of Iran.
Critics of the Obama administration's policy in Iraq charge that even if the forces are not directly under the Iranian government's orders, they are influenced by its senior military leaders.
"For proof the Obama administration treats our enemies like friends, look no further than their efforts to train armed militias loyal to Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC-Qods Forces, in Makhmur," said one senior congressional aide who works on the matter. "Incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn knows intimately what Iran is capable of, so it's hoped that he and the Trump administration will reverse this disgrace."
Amir Toumaj, an Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that militia fighters tied to Iran far outnumber other fighters in Iraq's PMF.
“There are militiamen, Sunni, Shias, and Christians who are not part of the Iranian-backed network in Iraq and are not necessarily amenable to Tehran’s influence,” he said. “However, these are dwarfed, out-financed, and out-gunned by the IRGC-backed militias, who promote the brand of Islamic identity as espoused by the IRGC, and openly display ideological loyalty to the velayat-e faghih (the Islamic Republic’s founding ideology) and Iran’s supreme leader.”
“Key leaders” in the PMF “are beholden to Qassem Soleimani,” a top Iranian military leader, Toumaj said. “For example, the PMF operations commander is Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, Iran’s number one man in Iraq who has been designated as a terrorist by the U.S. Treasury and has overseen lethal attacks against U.S. soldiers during the occupation of Iraq. Iraqi militia and party leaders openly travel to Iran, and have received royal treatment, such as Akram al Kabi, head of Harakat al Nujaba, or the Movement of the Noble. The group under his command has committed war crimes and summary executions of women and children in east Aleppo this past week, according to the U.N.”
“The law legalizing the PMF has been welcomed in Iran. When Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei this past week received Ammar Hakim, head of the National Alliance Shia party that helped passed that bill, he called the PMF a ‘great wealth’ for Iraq that should be ‘supported and consolidated.’”
“The current U.S. policy of defeating the Islamic State above all else is empowering the IRGC-backed network, which has worked to infiltrate the Iraqi government and cement itself into a part of the state and establish an Iraqi version of the IRGC, crystallized in the PMF,” Toumaj said.
Update 2:23 P.M.: This post has been updated to clarify Toumaj's comments.