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Before the U.S. Bombed Soleimani’s Terrorists, It Bribed Them

Other targets of Trump's strikes were “bad dudes” … as well as recipients of American payoffs in the Iraq War.

A U.S. Army Apache helicopter drops flares over Baghdad's high-security Green Zone on December 31, 2019. (U.S. Embassy in Iraq/AFP/Getty)

On January 3, shortly after killing Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Kataib Hezbollah commander Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis with a drone strike, the United States also reportedly targeted Shubul Al Zaidi, leader of Kataib Al Imam Ali, the “Imam Ali Battalions,” an Iranian-backed paramilitary group in Iraq that he founded with Al Muhandis.

There is no doubt that the Imam Ali Battalions are a bunch of war criminals. One of the militias most prominent commanders, Abu Azrael, is known for mutilating corpses and roasting people alive. Al Zaidi himself has been filmed waving around severed heads. Kataib Hezbollah, too, is responsible for hundreds of disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Al Muhandis and Al Zaidi killed Americansand inflicted far deeper suffering on countless Iraqis.

Targeting leaders of terrorist paramilitaries seems like a clear-cut mission for the U.S. military, but in these cases it exposed the stark hypocrisy of Americas wars: While Al Muhandis and Al Zaidi fought the U.S. on the battlefield, these killersand many others like themwere also financial beneficiaries and partners of the American military-industrial complex.

Over the past two years investigating Americas war in Iraq, Ive spoken to dozens of people in the military contracting and shipping business, along with current and former intelligence and government officials from both countries. The sources for this article have knowledge of questionable U.S. dealings with murderous paramilitaries that had publicly been declared enemies of freedom in the region. All requested anonymity to speak, because of the sensitivity of what they had to say and the legal and physical dangers associated with speaking out. These are but a few of the myriad allegations of U.S. double-dealing with Iraqi militias and the oligarchs who support them still being tracked by the Government Accountability Project, where I work. Collectively, they undercut the remaining moral standing that America has tried to maintain in its operations in Iraq.

Before the U.S. bombed Al Zaidi, for example, it built bases for his death squad. It was during the Islamic States invasion of Iraq in 2014. Kataib Al Imam Ali was, at that point, the enemy of the U.S.s enemy, a Shia militia fighting against ISIS, and so it began to camp out inside the walls of Balad Air Base, a former U.S.-held base near Baghdad, now run by Iraqs air force.

But the militias propensity for stealing military hardware and issuing death threats caused problems for Sallyport Global Services, the American military contractor charged with supporting Balads Iraqi forces under a billion-dollar Department of Defense contract. The enemy was living on our base,one former Sallyport employee told me, for a previous article for the Daily Beast documenting problems with the militia.

The easiest way to deal with Kataib Al Imam Ali was to bribe them, according to Sallyport employees. It started small, with free trucks, but the gifts got a lot bigger.

Sallyport built a new base, with free electricity, for the militia. Militia fighters didnt like that base and tore down some of Balads walls with a crane. So Sallyport built a better one. This second base was also considered inadequate, and the militia got a third base, paid for by the U.S. government. They got whatever they want,said another former Sallyport employee.

At other times, the U.S. has provided an actual profit motive for insurgents to keep fighting.

During the early years of the Iraq War, another militia group, Jaysh Al Mahdi, led by nationalist Shia cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, was considered a major threat. Jaysh Al Mahdi launched attacks that killed hundreds of coalition forces and Iraqi civilians before major losses in Basra and East Baghdad forced it to disarm in early 2008. But while the U.S. military was fighting Sadrs forces, it was also funding them.

American supply lines from Kuwait and Iraqs Umm Qasr port crossed through Sadrs territory in southern Iraq. Transportation companies contracted by the U.S. military struggled to make deliveries to bases because of insurgent attacks on their trucks. So these companies made a deal with Jaysh Al Mahdi. One source who worked in the shipping business described a relationship with a Jaysh Al Mahdi commander, who went by the nom de guerre Al Mullah. As long as companies used trucks owned by Al Mullah, the deliveries were safe. Both sides made thousands of dollars per truck from this arrangement.

You have to bribe the militias. Weve done it, everyone does it,said another businessman who operated out of Jordan during that time period. The U.S. military was OK with it, because they needed the supplies this is nothing. They dont care, as long as it was quiet.

One day, Jaysh Al Mahdi was delivering American Humvees. The next day, the militia was blowing them up, creating demand for another delivery. Everyone knows whats going on, its an open secret,said that businessman.

As the war continued, the deals just got bigger.

One shipping company involved in the Al Mullah deal was called Afaq Umm Qasr Marine Services. But Afaq was involved with far more than Jaysh Al Mahdi. This company is another example of how America has funded its own enemies.

Investigations by the Government Accountability Project revealed that Afaq was a network of shell companies built by oligarchs connected to Iraqs former prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, and his security forces. These companies partnered with American military contractors, including Sallyport and another company, SOS International, working on Iraqi bases. Afaq allegedly bribed Iraqi government officials to secure these U.S. companies exclusive rights to the bases and the Pentagon contracts that came with them. In return, Afaq companies took a cut of the profits from the contracts.

Some of this money made its way to militias like Abu Mahdi Al MuhandisKataib Hezbollah. Thats because Al Maliki, the prime minister who for years was propped up by the U.S., is also a godfather of Iraqs militia movement. He and Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis came of age in the same political movement, the Shia theocratic Dawa party. After Malikis ascension to power in Baghdad, Al Muhandis became an adviser to Maliki and his neighbor in the Green Zone,former American diplomat and oil executive Ali Khedery has written, describing the legitimization of Iraqs militia movement.

The relationship with Al Muhandis extends to Al Malikis oligarchs. Photos posted on Facebook by Al Malikis nephew show the former prime minister meeting with Al Muhandis and a billionaire in the Afaq network, Essam Al Asadi.

Its known that Essam Al Asadi has relationships with Al Maliki and Shia militia groups,said an Iraq analyst who pointed out that most of Al Asadis businesses are located in territory controlled by Shia militia groups. He needs these groups, they have an agreement,the analyst said.

The kindest thing you can say about the web of relationships among the American military, its contractors, and this motley assortment of sectarian death squads is that it was born out of expedience. Still, if Al Muhandis and Al Zaidi were important enough for the U.S. to immolate, maybe we shouldnt have provided them support and money in the first place.

How should Americans and Iraqis reconcile these contradictions? They put the lie to the idea that there is a long-term U.S. strategy at play in the region. Victoryand democracyare fine buzzwords, but all they seem to achieve is the perpetuation of violence, in which a few warlords and contractors get rich, while a lot of other people die.