Some factions from the Baghdad-sanctioned umbrella organization for mainly Tehran-allied Shiite militia groups known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) are helping Iran expand its nefarious activities in Iraq, a top U.S. Department of State (DOS) official indicated this week.
His remarks echoed the U.S. general tapped to command American forces in the Middle East.
During his confirmation hearing last week, Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., the new chief of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), noted that the American military is concerned that the PMF reports to Tehran, not the government in Baghdad.
McKenzie’s comments came days after a Department of Defense (DOD) spokesperson told Breitbart News that combating the Iran-backed PMF fighters is not part of the U.S. mission in Iraq, even after the State Department and the Pentagon’s office of the inspector general (IG) asserted that the Shiite militias represent a menace for American service members.
Breitbart News has repeatedly asked the Pentagon to reconcile its support for the Iran-backed PMF in Iraq while trying to degrade the Tehran-allied militia presence and influence in neighboring Syria, to no avail.
The apparent division within the U.S. military regarding the PMF, also known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, surfaced during a Pentagon briefing this week.
McKenzie told lawmakers that some PMF factions — namely Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) — are not entirely under the control of the Iraqi government and are working for Iran.
In response to questions posed by the Senate Armed Services Committee ahead of the general’s confirmation hearing, McKenzie declared:
The GoI [Government of Iraq] will struggle to remain independent from Iranian aligned actors, particularly within some of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). … PM Abd al-Mahdi has yet to name his security ministers and faces difficulty integrating or downsizing the Iran-backed elements of the PMF. … [PMF-linked] militias such as Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) do not take their commands from the GoI and publicly maintain relations with Tehran.
A few days later, on Tuesday, U.S. Col. Jonathan Byrom, the deputy director of Joint Operations Command-Iraq, insisted that the PMF is in fact under Baghdad’s control.
“The popular mobilization forces, they fall underneath the Iraqi Security Forces. It is written in the constitution, it’s law. So they do take orders from the Iraqi Security Forces, and are working with the Iraqi Security Forces in the defeat of ISIS,” he proclaimed.
Referring to McKenzie’s comments that some PMF factions have gone rogue and are no longer taking orders from Baghdad, the colonel ultimately conceded, “The PMF is a broad umbrella. There are numerous entities that fall underneath that. So I definitely am not going to counter one of my senior officers on something they said on that.”
Nevertheless, he insisted, “I do know the popular mobilization forces as a whole take their orders from the government of Iraq and the Iraqi Security Forces.”
Asked to comment about the conflicting positions on the PMF within the U.S. military, Brett McGurk, the State Department’s special presidential envoy for the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), reiterated the State Department’s position that the Shiite fighters pose a threat to the American interests.
“I think it’s safe to say some of those [PMF] elements are under control of the Iraqi Government, some of them are not. And those that are not strictly under the control of the Iraqi Government are a problem, and that is a problem that the Iraqi Government has stated is a problem. It is the policy of the new Iraqi Government to bring all armed actors strictly under its control, under state control. That’s obviously a policy we very much support,” McGurk declared.
The Pentagon argues that it only provides support to PMF troops vetted for links to the government of Iran and terrorist groups, as mandated by law.
Not all PMF troops maintain a relationship with Iran. The umbrella organization includes fighters from Iraq’s Sunni, Kurdish, and even Christian communities.
Baghdad has legalized the PMF as a whole as an official component of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF).
Breitbart News learned from the DOD spokesperson that the American military is actively helping to develop, train, and equip the ISF, including the PMF.
The U.S. military has praised the PMF as a capable partner in retaking Iraq from ISIS.
Nevertheless, in September, Iran-allied militias attacked the American diplomatic consulate in Basra and the embassy in Baghdad.
The AAH faction of the PMU has repeatedly made threats against the U.S. military during the anti-ISIS operations. According to the Institute for the Study of War, the AAH carried out more than 6,000 attacks against U.S. troops between 2006 and 2011.
Last month, members of the U.S. Congress finalized a bill to sanction the AAH and Hezbollah wings of the PMU.
In November, the Pentagon IG reported that the threat against U.S. troops in Iraq posed by Iranian proxies like the PMU has intensified.