“Fighting against Americans was easier than ISIS,” the militia commander tells the camera, standing near the frontlines of the Islamic State-held city of Fallujah. “We were setting up ambushes, we were planting bombs. Their Humvees would pass by, and the bomb went off. Then you left.”
The man is Hashim al-Mayhi, a commander in Kata’ib Al-Tayyar Al-Risali (“The Missionary Movement Battalions”). Mayhi’s group is one of the Iranian-supported Shia militia groups that once fought U.S. forces in Iraq, but today is part of the U.S. coalition to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The footage from Fallujah with Mayhi and his men was shot in 2015, and comes from a new series of short films about the ISIS war titled “Our Allies,” by Norwegian filmmaker Anders Sømme Hammer. (You can watch the first two episodes below, and the third is above, at the top of this post.)
As the anti-ISIS war ramped up in 2015, Hammer embedded himself into groups of Shia militia fighters, female members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (known by its Kurdish initials, YPG), and Western volunteers for that group. The result was three short films focused on each of these components of the anti-ISIS coalition. While there has been reporting on the YPG and its volunteers in the past, Hammer’s access to Iranian-backed Shia groups is unique. Kata’ib Al-Tayyar Al-Risali is a militia group with historical connections to Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, a Shia militia that fought against U.S. forces during the American occupation. Today, the group is just one of a network Iraqi militias with ties to Iran that joined under the banner of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a Shia movement created to support the anti-ISIS resistance in Iraq.
As noted in an April 2017 report on the Popular Mobilization Forces by the the Carnegie Middle East Center, “The PMF are not a monolithic Shia militia.” The report describes the movement as being divided into sub-groups with varying ideologies, who are in turn loyal to different Iraqi or Iranian Shia clerics. Some of these groups hold allegiance to Iraqis, such as Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and are generally within the control of the Iraqi government. But other factions are direct proxies of Iran’s leadership, functioning as local surrogates for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and its elite Qods Force.
In the film, Mayhi makes little secret of his own loyalties. “Without the help of God and Iran, Iraq would not have been saved,” he says. “Not when facing America or anyone else.” Mayhi is also shown at his home in Baghdad in a separate interview a year after the 2015 Fallujah battle; he appears in a shirt and blazer and shows images of shrapnel and bullet wounds he suffered over the past year of combat. Sitting on a couch in his living room while a TV plays in the background, Mayhi makes what one might think a startling admission: “I am now commanding special forces both inside and outside Iraq.” His troops are taking part in battles outside of the country — including against non-ISIS rebels in the Syrian city of Aleppo.
During the impromptu tour of his home, he shows his spacious swimming pool, as well as machine guns and rocket launchers that had previously been used to fight U.S. forces. Holding a rocket-propelled grenade launcher to the camera, Mayhi says, “These were used against [an] American Humvee. Poor thing, nothing remained of it.”
Unwilling to commit its own ground troops to the effort, the coalition that the U.S. ended up cobbling together to fight ISIS drew many fighters who were former enemies of the U.S. While using these fighters has helped achieved America’s goal of defeating ISIS, it has also legitimized an expansion of Iranian influence in Iraqi politics. Iranian resources and manpower played a key role in supporting both Kurdish and Iraqi government forces over the past several years. A recent New York Times piece on Iran’s growing clout highlighted just how much the U.S. invasion has been a gift to one of America’s regional rivals.
Yet the growing influence of proxy groups loyal to Iran has led to tensions with the Iraqi government helmed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Although militias such as Mayhi’s played an important role over the past few years of war, it’s unclear what will happen to such groups as time passes. With the war against ISIS slowly approaching its end, militia groups seem increasingly bent on transitioning to a political role within Iraq. A report by al-Monitor earlier this year cited plans by some militias to take a role in Iraq’s education system, leading some to express concerns about a “cultural revolution” being fomented among Iraq’s youth.
Over the past several months, Abadi has been more critical of Iranian-backed militias and their attempts to assert themselves in politics. In a recent speech, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warned Abadi against taking any steps against Iran’s proxies once the war ends. The groups, the ayatollah said, existed to protect Iraq’s sovereignty and served as an important bulwark against the U.S.
With ISIS soon to be defeated, a confrontation between the various components of the fractious anti-ISIS coalition seems increasingly possible. The status of Shia militia groups will be one of the key areas of contention as Abadi tries to reassert his authority over the politically fragmented country. A scene from “Our Allies” gives an insight into why Abadi’s efforts to rein in the militias may prove difficult. Speaking near the frontline with ISIS, Mayhi says forthrightly that he considers the militia’s fight against ISIS a religious duty, and one that cannot be subordinated to the interests of any government. “We are Islamists,” Mayhi says. “We do what is ordered by our religious authorities, not by any state.”