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My time with PMF fighters in Iraq: the proxy wars must stop

  • Ash Gallagher
  • 10 Jan 2020

The proxy wars are being fought by countries over land that doesn't belong to them and its the Iraqis who are paying with their lives.

PMF fighters in Iraq outside of Mosul. ( Ash Gallagher / TRTWorld )

As the clouds moved overhead at sunset, I jumped in a jeep with my translator and a media representative for the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, also known as a Hashd al Shaabi. We were north of Mosul, and outside Tal Afar. The aim was to interview a brigade commander on the PMF's role in the fight against Daesh.

The drive felt like a four-wheeling adventure, over dirt roads, bumps and violent weaves on a wide plain of high desert. We saw the smoke rise and heard the booms, in the distance, where bombs were going off.

We were less than a kilometre from the frontline. Close enough to see the battle rage, but far enough from imminent danger. We took a left turn and hit another bump. The jeep felt like it was flying, suspended in the air for milliseconds.

We pull up to a house and were greeted by a teenager, no older than 15-years old. As the sun went down he took us into a small dark room with curtains drawn and guns stashed in the corner. We took our shoes off and made ourselves comfortable on the hard cement floor.

The PMF media representative made attempts to tell me what questions I could ask and what I could not. I didn't listen, and asked through my translator: "Why are you here?," "Are you familiar with American General McMaster, are you okay with American soldiers advising the Iraqi Army?," "Why not just join the Iraqi Army?" "Do you get support from Iran?"

The commander had a warm smile and went by the name 'Abbas' - he was generous, kind and understood well why I was asking these particular questions. He told me the Americans were responsible for the chaos in Iraq when they invaded in 2003. He told me he wished they were not on the ground, they did not pay for the "chaos and blood" they caused. But for now, his focus was on Daesh.

They were called up by Sayyid Ali Husseini Sistani, their spiritual guide, to defend their land and to fight dark forces who didn't belong. He believed Saudi Arabia benefitted from Daesh and he had a duty to protect his home.

He didn't ask me where I was from, but he knew. He smiled, and we took a break for dinner. The teenaged errand boy came in to let us know that food was ready. My translator told them I was a vegetarian, the commander nodded and issued instructions to the young man. The boy disappeared and as short time later large trays of food were brought back.

I sat behind the circle of men, observing their mannerisms. They laughed and joked. A tray was set down in front of me, filled with extra vegetables, graciously, they over-supplied me with extra eggplant, tomatoes, cucumbers, hummus and bread. They didn't judge my choice, they went above and beyond to show me respect and asked throughout the meal if I enjoyed the food. Of course, it was delicious.

We spoke briefly, a little longer but it was getting late and it was time to go. As we prepared to leave, I noticed the commander and his men talking, quietly, but within earshot. I leaned over to my translator and said, "What is it they are saying? Can you hear? Tell me."

He listened for a moment, and then told me, "They're saying Americans are causing problems. We need to get rid of them. 'When the Americans leave, they're going after the Kurds.'" Well, that was interesting. 

But it wasn't the story, so I didn't focus on its value. I kept the information close. They believed they were the rightful protectors of Iraq. They were Iraqi. The Iranians were their friends. Ayatollah Sistani was their religious authority. The Americans were foreigners, and the Kurds were trouble. Tribe against tribe, they believed they were the rightful ones.

A few days later, I met up with PMF units again, this time on the frontline, pushing in closer to Tal Afar. The soldiers were setting up mortars, what looked life-sized bottle rockets, loaded and lodged over the hill at Daesh fighters.

From the yard of the house where they nested their position, trucks were speeding across the terrain bringing in militia fighters who were injured at other fortified positions nearby. The house also served as a medical triage centre.

Doctors used bedrooms in the house to stop the bleeding, patch up the injured and move them to a hospital. The whole scene was busy, loud and chaotic. We spoke to whoever would give us a few minutes.

Everyone greeted me warmly, wanted photos, they were eager to show off their mortars. Others passed by with raised PMF flags and whooped and hollered every time they sent a mortar over the hill.

Another one shot, my ears pierced. I forgot my earplugs, I flinched and took a deep breath, slipped my hand under my headscarf to comfort my eardrum with pressure. I went to the rooftop to take photos. I watched intently, there were moments it almost felt as if the whole scene moved in slow motion.

They were proud, determined. They would defeat their enemies by any means necessary. They believed in their cause and every death turned their brothers into martyrs. They were the heroes of their own story. Even so, some would say, they’re nothing but terrorists. And I understand that.

But isn't that the way it is?

In newsrooms I worked in, my colleagues and I debated that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." It contributes to our language, how we label one group or another? Who is bad? Who is good? What is the collective way to present one case or another? It's a debate worth having.

The US President Donald Trump is beating the war drums over the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani and he has put American lives in danger. The attack will backfire, one way or another.

It's all becoming tribal propaganda, a tit for tat, in a quest for power. The Iranians replaced Soleimani immediately with General Esmail Ghaani who has warned the US of violence to come if the US acts again.

For millions in the Middle East, Solemani is no hero. Iranian backed militias have a reputation for popping up as defence forces and seen as heroic protectors by many Shia Muslims while many others view them as terrorists committing atrocities.

But truthfully, any activity which destroys another’s land and life is a violent act to gain power. And to each tribe, they are justified to take action and defend their cause, whether militia or state military.

It is no secret that Iran and Saudi Arabia are in a battle for power and influence over the region. Each country uses its resources and alliances to assert their power.

The point is, innocent people in Iraq are dying. The US is focused on power and attacking what they see as the 'bad guy' rather than investing in a nation that's desperate and fumbling to get back on its feet. Iraq cannot afford to descend into the same madness consuming Syria.

But the country is in danger of doing so, and as a result, the recent escalations are terrifying.

Tribes are based on the idea of ‘fitting-in,’ or being assimilated as part of a group, excluding others in the name of entitlement or some divine rightness. It is a word that binds people. And ironically, it is an involuntary initiation: you are born into tribes. They are the birthmark you know.

So, it’s important to remember in this case, Iraq and Iran are neighbours. While Iraq has tried to keep the US-Iran conflict at bay, in the end, despite their own historical wars, they do rely on Iran far more for economic trade and support. This is something the US skirted and minimised after the 2003 invasion.

The US has a bad habit of invading without investing in the aftermath and state-building and therefore are no better any warring tribes.

I’m an American, my government screwed up. And no tribe is winning this proxy war over land that doesn’t belong to them.

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