In an interview with the Kurdish Rudaw news service published on Thursday, Shiite militia member Ahmed Ali Hussein declared that his group was proud to be added to America’s list of terrorist organizations. He also worried that fresh U.S. sanctions on Iran would cut off Tehran’s financial support for his organization.
“The American administration or the Congress classifying the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq means nothing to us. I take pride today because today the American government lists me on the terror list,” he declared, referring to new sanctions imposed on Iran and one of the PMF militias after President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal.
Hussein insisted that his group is grateful for Iranian assistance but is not a puppet of Tehran. “We reject any intervention in Iraqi affairs, whoever it might be, and under whatever names it might be,” he said.
Hussein belongs to a group called Hashd al-Shaabi, which was established with a fatwa (religious edict) in 2014 from Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to fight the Islamic State. Such militia groups, broadly known by the English translation “Popular Mobilization Units” (PMU) or “Popular Mobilization Forces” (PMF), are illegal under the Iraqi constitution but were indulged during the desperate battle against ISIS at its peak. They are now a legal arm of the Iraqi military.
In March, Hashd al-Shaabi refused an order from Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to merge with the Iraqi military structure and receive pay and benefits comparable to regular soldiers. Militia commanders claimed they refused because they still have so much work to do mopping up ISIS, but Baghdad feared some of the PMUs were becoming terrorist threats in their own right and were acting as agents of Iranian influence under the direction of notorious Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, the commander Iran sends into other countries to crush local forces opposed to Tehran.
Hashd al-Shaabi has energetically rejected calls from the United States to lay down its arms and acknowledge the authority of Baghdad. In November 2017, commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis sneered that then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was “asleep” and dreaming if he thought the militia would disband or renounce its ties to Iran, which was supposedly the only country that helped Iraq defeat ISIS. Hashd al-Shaabi, like other Tehran-linked militia groups, rejected the U.S. call to remove Iranian influence from Iraq and said it was the Americans who needed to go home.
Fighters from Hashd al-Shaabi fought a gun battle with Iraqi police in Mosul on Monday, killing at least one person on each side of the fight. The battle started when Hashd militia fighters stormed a police headquarters building and demanded the police surrender the facility to them.
Hashd al-Shaabi has also been accused of importing foreign fighters into Iraq and training them to beef up its numbers. Some of these Shiite reinforcements slip into Iraq as tourists and religious pilgrims.
When the U.S. Congress introduced the Iranian Proxies Terrorist Sanctions Act of 2017, which proposed listing several Iran-backed PMUs as terrorist organizations, Hashd al-Shaabi was among the groups that threatened violent retaliation.
Ahmed Ali Hussein is not only a militia member but also successfully ran for office on the Sadiqun party list and became part of the second-largest political coalition in the Iraqi assembly. His interview with Rudaw stuck mostly to the “we can’t disband because Iraq still needs us to battle ISIS” talking point, although he blamed the United States for creating the Islamic State in an aside: “We believe Daesh is the product of American policies. This project was aimed to assail Iraq’s unity.”