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Red Lines In The Sand:
In The Deserts of Anbar, US And Pro-Iran Forces Jostle

Kamal al-Ayash
A patchwork of military forces is in charge of security in Anbar’s extremist-plagued deserts. All of them, including US troops, use the lack of a command centre to their own advantage.
13.09.2019  |  Anbar

Ever since the extremist group known as the Islamic State was driven out of the central Iraqi province of Anbar in late 2017, it has become somewhat of a military zone. There are a wide variety of different Iraqi military forces deployed in Anbar’s cities and in its large desert, a well-known hiding place for extremists. These forces include the mostly Shiite Muslim semi-official militias as well as militias formed by mostly Sunni Muslim local tribes and the official Iraqi army. In terms of equipment and training, the semi-official militias are far better supplied than the local fighters. There are also around 5,000 US troops on the ground here in two bases, Ain al-Asad and Habbaniyah. The former is perhaps the most important of the US bases in Iraq.

Nobody would dare to oppose the things that the pro-Iran militias do here in Anbar - except for the Americans.

All of these forces share responsibility for Anbar’s security but they all also take advantage of the patchwork of jurisdictions and the absence of any central command to pursue their own interests.

American troops are seeking to secure their bases and to impose their presence by aerial surveillance of the desert. Meanwhile the Iraqi military and militias mostly undertake campaigns on the ground; these often involve the pursuit of fighters from the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group, who are taking refuge in the backcountry.

“Security forces in Anbar have terrible coordination with one another,” Khamis Hamid, one of the leaders of the local Sunni Muslim tribal militias told NIQASH; he spoke under an assumed name because of the sensitivity of the topic. “Each group or command defends its own personal or partisan interests. That includes the [Shite Muslim] militias, who play an important role interacting between Iran and Syria.”


Iraq's semi-official militias in Anbar.


Most recently the growing tension between the US and Iran has made the position of the  Shiite Muslim militias here even clearer, Hamid said. “They’re trying to protect the corridor between Tehran and Damascus, demonstrating that they are a strong ally that can provide a safe environment for the transport of supplies and aid into Syria,” he suggests.

Controversial Israeli attacks on weapons depots belonging to the militias who are loyal to Iran has only intensified the militias’ need to prove themselves in Anbar.

“Nobody would dare to oppose the things that the [pro-Iran] militias do here in Anbar - except for the Americans,” an officer at Anbar Operations Command, the post run by the regular Iraqi army, told NIQASH on condition of anonymity. “The US troops limit the militias’ movements in the desert because of their drones and their air patrols, which target anybody who tries to infiltrate or go beyond the US’ red lines. They make everyone stick to those borders,” he noted.  

“The threats that militias are making against the US forces right now are not just related to the [Israeli] attacks against them,” the officer continued. “These are political actions expressed through the militias because they have realised there is a move afoot to target Iran’s allies inside Iraq,” he concluded.


Militia members in Anbar.