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 with Al Muhandis.
There is no doubt that the Imam Ali Battalions are a bunch of war criminals. One of the militia’s most prominent commanders, , is known for mutilating corpses and roasting people alive. Al Zaidi himself has been waving around severed heads. , too, is responsible for hundreds of disappearances and . Al Muhandis and Al Zaidi killed Americans—and 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 America’s wars: While Al Muhandis and Al Zaidi fought the U.S. on the battlefield, these killers—and many others like them—were also financial beneficiaries and partners of the American military-industrial complex.
Over the past two years investigating America’s war in Iraq, I’ve 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 State’s 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 Iraq’s air force.
But the militia’s propensity for stealing military hardware and issuing death threats caused problems for , the American military contractor charged with supporting Balad’s 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 didn’t like that base and tore down some of Balad’s 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, , 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 Sadr’s forces, it was also funding them.
American supply lines from Kuwait and Iraq’s Umm Qasr port crossed through Sadr’s 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. We’ve 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 don’t 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 what’s going on, it’s 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.
revealed that Afaq was a network of shell companies built by oligarchs connected to Iraq’s former prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, and his security forces. These companies partnered with American military contractors, including and another company, , 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 Muhandis’ Kataib Hezbollah. That’s because Al Maliki, the prime minister who for years was propped up by the U.S., is also a godfather of Iraq’s militia movement. He and Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis came of age in the same political movement, the Shia theocratic Dawa party. After Maliki’s 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 has written, describing the legitimization of Iraq’s militia movement.
The relationship with Al Muhandis extends to Al Maliki’s oligarchs. posted on Facebook by Al Maliki’s nephew show the former prime minister meeting with Al Muhandis and a billionaire in the Afaq network, Essam Al Asadi.
“It’s 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 Asadi’s 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 shouldn’t 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. “Victory” and “democracy” are 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.