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ATTN CENTCOM: Iran Built Its Own Iraqi Army

July 24, 2021
A Shia militiaman standing behind a Toophan ATGM. Via Iraqi media.

In late June a spectacular military parade took place that was unprecedented in its scale and symbolism. The event was held at a military base to commemorate the seven years since the Popular Mobilization Forces or PMF emerged in the summer of 2014 as ISIS were rampaging across northern Iraq. At the time, Baghdad was on its knees as its army fell apart and the US dithered for months until it committed to the fight–Operation Inherent Resolve continues until today even as PMF affiliated groups are launching hit-and-run attacks on some 2,500 US troops in the country.

In that same frightening year when ISIS cast a long shadow over the Middle East it was Iranian leadership and Iranian weapons channeled through the PMF that won back territory Iraq’s armed forces lost too soon. It’s unfortunate the PMF, whom the Iraqi government endorsed as a multi-sectarian citizen army of sorts, didn’t stop at battling ISIS and have now burrowed deep inside the state. In fact, Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi attended the June 26 parade held in Camp Ashraf north of Baghdad. The choice of location was an ironic one as it used to be occupied by a radical Marxist opposition group the People’s Mujahideen Organization, also known as the MEK, that sought to overthrow Iran’s theocracy. What makes the PMF so dangerous is Iran’s open support for them and the disappearing boundaries between their factions and the Iraqi government. From the US’ perspective the PMF represent another Iranian project to rally a local population that slowly captures a weak government; it’s the proven Hezbollah strategy on a grander scale.

This grandness was very apparent in the course of the parade as enormous infantry squares marched past the stage where Iraq’s current head of state along with various PMF leaders were seated. As many as 8,000 PMF fighters marched on foot judging by the size of each infantry square that comprised about 300 riflemen arranged in 14 rows. The tributes to the fallen leader of Kataib Hezbollah were unmistakable–Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis perished along with Maj. Gen. Soleimani on January 3 when a US drone struck their convoy with missiles. The assassination worsened a simmering conflict pitting the Iraqi PMF against the US forces stationed in Iraq and attacks on US troops are still a regular occurrence.

While the parade on June 26 can be dismissed as a commemorative event with little significance outside Iraq it showed the PMF ascendancy over the Iraqi armed forces. It has long been acknowledged the Iraqi armed forces are overshadowed by an estimated 140,000 to 150,000 PMF fighters who maintain their own arsenals. Research on the PMF organizational structure estimates Shia fighters are 110,000 strong while the rest are a diverse collection of militias. By comparison, Iraq’s army has 49,000 active duty soldiers. A troubling aspect of the parade was the amount of US-made and US supplied equipment involved such as Humvees and cargo trucks. Various types of Iranian military equipment appeared as well but it remains confusing if some did originate from Iran–such as the 130mm and 152mm towed howitzers–or were transferred to the PMF from the Iraqi army’s inventory.

The weaponry and equipment of Iranian origin observed at the parade are large caliber small arms such as the Sayyad bolt action anti-material sniper rifle. These were distributed in untold quantities to Iranian forces in Syria and then to the PMF from 2014 onward. Another Iranian-made large caliber small arm was a 14.5mm heavy machine gun copied from a Chinese model and mounted on the PMF armored vehicles. The latter included the Tufan MRAP that was first seen in 2018 when it entered service with the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC). Aside from the Tufan a small fleet of Rakhsh APCs were also at the parade; the Rakhsh is an older model of armored truck.

A highlight of the parade were tank and IFV columns operated by the PMF. It was clear these didn’t originate from the government, whose army operates the M1A1 Abrams and the T-90S, and were collected from Iran. The PMF heavy armor comprise upgraded T-72 tanks, the type of which emerged from Iranian factories in 2019, and older T-55 medium tanks. The PMF had dozens of Soviet vintage BMP-1 and BMP-2 IFVs to complete their mechanized formations in the parade. More ominous were the assortment of rocket artillery that appeared. These spanned the familiar Iranian-made Safir jeeps mounting 12-barrel 107mm rocket launchers to larger calibers. There’s now sufficient reason to believe some PMF have facilities for manufacturing rockets when a few unfamiliar munition types appeared at the parade.

Aside from 122mm Grad launchers on Iveco cargo trucks the PMF mounted heavy rocket launchers on Aras 2 pickup trucks and Navistar trailers. None appeared to be loaded but the size of their launch tubes indicated they are armed with medium-range munitions that may or may not be supplied by Iran or worse; the munitions are assembled at a local production site with the tacit knowledge of the Iraqi government. For the PMF to have expertise at assembling large caliber rocket artillery, which may evolve to actual ballistic missiles, is a grave concern for Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel conducted limited airstrikes on Iraqi targets in 2019 that were probably storage sites for Iranian-made Zelzal large diameter rocket artillery and Fateh-110B ballistic missiles. There’s little to suggest the PMF will cease their hostility against US forces in Iraq and if CENTCOM maintained its regional posture as a counter-balance to Iranian hegemony, its presence is outnumbered and outgunned in one theater–Iraq.

The PMF made this abundantly clear last month.

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