Tillerson tells Iraqi Shiite Militias to “go home.” Sad.

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Trump-style ignorance and faux pas are spreading, with Tillerson making missteps on Iraq.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for consultations, called on Iranian militias in Iraq to “go home.”

There is one problem. There are no Iranian militias in Iraq. The Popular Mobilization Units or PMUs are drawn from Iraqi Shiites and are very, very, Iraqi. As Iraqi as Cockneys are British. So this is like Tillerson giving a speech calling on Cockneys in Britain to “go home.”

Now it is true that these Iraqi Shiite militias receive money, training and advice from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), especially the elite special ops Jerusalem Brigade of that organization, led by Qassem Soleimani. But neither the IRGC nor the Jerusalem Brigade have many personnel in Iraq on a continuing basis. And despite a State Department attempt to “clarify” Tillerson’s remarks, it is clear that he simply did not understand that the PMUs are made up of Iraqi Shiites.

It is possible that Tillerson does not know that Iranians speak Persian, an Indo-European language like English, while most Iraqi Shiites speak Arabic.

Or perhaps he confused being Shiite with being Iranian. Iran is the most populous Shiite state, with 80 million people, of whom 92% adhere to the Shiite branch of Islam. Some 10% of the world’s Muslims are Shiites, believing that the prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 661), should have directly succeeded him as his vicar. Sunni Muslims hold that it was right and proper that Ali had to wait out the reigns of Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman before coming to power in 656. There are of course other differences between the two, as well.

The US is attempting to sanction the IRGC officers, but it is not clear that the Europeans, Russians and Chinese will go along with this unilateral US obsession, which Washington shares with Tel Aviv.

The reason Tillerson will fail in detaching Iraqi prime minister Haydar Abadi from the Shiite militias and from Tehran is that Abadi needs both to remain in power. Baghdad has excellent relations with Tehran, and the IRGC played a key role in defeating ISIL by its training and support for the Iraqi Shiite militias. During the fight against ISIL in Iraq, in fact, the US air force coordinated with the Iran-backed Shiite militias. That cooperation is now being covered up because ISIL is on its last legs.

An anonymous state department source told the wire services that the US wants to see the Shiite militias absorbed by the regular Iraqi army.

That’s a great idea, but it won’t happen and by Iraqi law it need not happen. Last November, the Iraqi parliament voted to recognize the Popular Mobilization Units aka the Shiite militias as a sort of Iraqi national guard, with all the same privileges as the regular army.

So not only don’t the Iraqi Shiite militias have to go home (they are already home) but they also don’t have to be integrated into the regular army, as the US insists they be. I’m not sure why Tillerson thinks he can over-rule a sovereign parliament like Iraq’s. It is something Iraqis, who have suffered since the teens of the last century with Western interventions, invasions, occupations, etc, won’t put up with.

It is touching that the US thinks the Iraqi regular army is less full of pro-Iran Shiites than the PMUs, but I have some news for Washington.

Tillerson’s apparent hope of detaching Baghdad from Iran and having Shiite-majority Iraq instead hook up with Shiite-hating Wahhabi Saudi Arabia is about the most pitiful thing I’ve ever seen.

Americans are focusing on all of Trump’s ‘misstatements,’ but in fact his entire cabinet is full of people who are not in the reality-based community.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

EuroNews: “Tillerson tries to limit Iran influence in Iraq”

31 Responses

  1. According to Rudaw he appended a further interpolation to the effect that “All foreign fighters need to go home.” link to rudaw.net Amen to that.

    I fear thou wilt not reach the Ka’bah  Because the road on which thou travellest leads to Turkestan. Sa’di

  2. You are right professor but you failed to ask the one most important question in this piece and that is: what’s it got to do with Tillerson or America anyway? As you rightly point out, Iraq is a sovereign Country (even if the US doesn’t think it is) so how they conduct their affairs is none of Tillerson’s business. Iraq and Iran have already had a nine year war with each other thanks to Saddam Hussein who was backed to the hilt by the USA , so the last thing Iraq needs is any kind of bad relations with its neighbor simply to appease some fool from the white house.

  3. Something I’ve noticed. In order to demonize Iran, which is now in full court press mode since Commander Bone Spurs has taken the helm, the neocons have enforced a not to subtle talking point rule. The rule being any discussion of Iran must include this tag line.”Iran…the world’s chief exporter of terrorism.”

    I don’t know if Iran is or is not exporting terrorism but I do remember the country of origin the 9-11 hijackers called home.

  4. American foreign policy has too often been based on the world as we would like it to be (i.e., a world where everyone does what we say, just because we said it) instead of the world as it is. Tillerson, like everything else in the Trump administration, merely takes a common flaw in the American point of view and makes it into Theater of the Absurd.

  5. I learn a lot from your essays Professor Cole, but with this article you are making the assumption that Tillerson and Trump’s State Department should be as smart as you are. There is where you may have made a critical flaw in your thinking.

    So far from everything we have seen in regard to Trump’s White House, smartness does not rule the course of mapping out world events, as much as Twitter determines our nation’s so cunning strategies. Think of it Professor Cole of how brilliant our President Orange really is. I mean, so like the Prez sends Rex out to be his useful idiot, all the while Commander and Mouth sits on his special throne typing out tweets that will change the world. There’s the ‘Making America Great Again’ strategy in real time action, and forgive any third grade spelling errors. Oh, and please stand for the National Anthem.

    I never would have thought that world peace could have been achieved by unnerving a Florida Congresswoman, and driving a widow of a fallen hero into a deeper despair, was the magic bullet to bring down all of the evil the world has to offer. Just brilliant.

    So you see Professor Cole, there is a ‘most beautiful’ method to President Twitter Fingers method after all…now please stand, out of respect for our most magnificent Emperor Orange.

    • Tillerson and the State Department are plenty smart. Tillerson is *ignorant* in ways that shock me given his broad experience of the world. As for State, I’m sure they’re mortified and demoralized. Hang in there, folks!

      • Or may be this ignorance is by design. Look at the latest polls on the Iran deal in USA. On the one hand the majority of Americans want the deal to stay and the same majority believe Iran has cheated and the agreement should be renegotiated. I suppose the same majority that believes in Noah’s arc. As long as the majority are so ill-informed, it is easy to play with them.

  6. Tillerson’s problem, perhaps aggravated by ignorance, is his obligation to buy into Trump’s proclivity toward Magic Thinking, and being a team-player. He may just be giving lip-service here.

  7. Great catch. One thing to remember is that Tillerson is a CEO type. My impression, from CEO’s-I-have-known, is that they occupy a kind of queen-bee position, surrounded by minders, helpers, interpreters, and subservients of all kind. They sit at some considerable remove from operations and management and expect their whims and commands to carry immediate force. Very poor preparation for confronting a real world filled with independent actors.

  8. A New York Times piece from a week ago on Rex Tillerson and the Unraveling of the State Department
    link to nytimes.com

    When outgoing Republican Senator Bob Corker claims there are adults like WH Chief of Staff John Kelly (so much for this guy’s grace with his suck up to Trump and disingenuous low class attack on his Democratic critic), Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defence Secretary James Mattis that are keeping the country from chaos….he is of course wrong. Not only are their own views and qualifications questionable and standards low, they are enablers of all things deplorable and keep going lower with this presidential moron.

  9. Wasn’t Saddam Sunni and a check against radical Shias in Iraq and wasn’t Bush naïveté about this (and so much else) akin to shooting himself in the foot with the “Bush doctrine?”

    • YES! emphatically. As well, Bush absolutely could not blame the US’ best friend, Saudi Arabia, and hence the need to blame Iraq for 9-11.

  10. There is a big difference between being clever and being intelligent (here, I presume “smart” is being used more or less as a synonym for intelligent). Trump and Tillerson were both successful businessmen. Tillerson for the benefit of his company Exxon and for himself, Trump for himself only. To be successful in business, one need only be clever, not necessarily intelligent. While both men have shown themselves to be extremely clever, neither has shown any real signs of intelligence.

  11. I’m wondering what is this Utopian vision of “democracy ” in the ME we keep hearing about?…..Iraq, Iran,Syria and Lebanon in ruins while KSA terrorists and playboys run wild and Israel is free to finish up their ethnic cleansing operations?

  12. Not all PMUs are the same. Some are loyal to Khamenei (who through Vilayat-e Faqih claims to be the second perfect person since 874 AD with full jurisprudence over all the world’s peoples’ temporal and spiritual affairs) rather than the GoI. Other PMUs are loyal to GoI and operate as de facto adjuncts of IMoD and IMoI. Tillerson is obviously not talking about these; which IMoD and IMoI will likely eventually absorb into themselves. Tillerson is obviously talking about the PMUs that are not loyal to the Iraqi state. In saying what he is saying, Tillerson is channeling the views of the GoI, IMoD, IMoI and the Golden Division (who belong to the Counter Terrorism Bureau, who report to the national security advisor).

    What might be considered unfortunate is that Tillerson is making this announcement in Riyadh. Most Iraqis consider The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) to be a rival (albeit not their only rival); and believe (perhaps with some exaggeration) that Saudi Arabia has supported the Iraqi resistance and Al Qaeda against the GoI and ISF from since 2003. On the flip side, perhaps Tillerson secretly got something from Saudi Arabia in return for the PMU comment. If Tillerson received no quid pro quo; then this was a foolish statement.

    “An anonymous state department source told the wire services that the US wants to see the Shiite militias absorbed by the regular Iraqi army.” This is also the view of IMoD and the view of most Iraqis (note that some at IMoI also want PMUs incorporated into IMoI). I am almost completely certain that the Najaf Marjeya would be happy to see the PMUs incorporated into IMoD and IMoI; albeit they dislike commenting on temporal affairs.

    ” Last November, the Iraqi parliament voted to recognize the Popular Mobilization Units aka the Shiite militias as a sort of Iraqi national guard, with all the same privileges as the regular army.” I would argue that this was the first step to incorporating the PMUs directly into the ISF.

    There is plenty to bash Tillerson about other than this. But I would note that in the private Tillerson, Mattis, McMaster and Mattis) are keeping things from being a lot, lot worse. Since these four appear to be working to salvage the Iranian nuclear deal; I hope they succeed.

    No matter how bad things seem now; they could easily be a lot, lot, lot worse.

  13. If Iran wants to help Iraqi security, Iran can directly help IMoD and IMoI. Iranians assistance would be appreciated. Assisting sectarian Shia militias weakens Iraq rather than helps Iraq.

  14. Unfortunately this line of thinking is widespread in American policy making circles and the media. They literally cannot differentiate between what they perceive as a ‘nefarious’ Iran (everything from mistranslating what Khamenei says, like mistranslating that he’d rip the accord if the US did-when he meant the Europeans, to casually repeating a lie about Iran having a nuclear weapons programme, which it does not) and other Shiites in the region akin to how some prejudiced Sunni commentators do. Literally adopting a sort of demonizing conspiracy narrative. Even Obama kind of did it, to a lesser extent, when calling out for ‘our Sunni allies’ to fight Sunni extremists in ISIL without acknowledging an existence of having any ‘Shia allies’ in Iraq or other non-Sunni allies in these troubled areas. And of course Trump wholeheartedly made his sectarian preferences known in his speech when he last visited the gleeful Saudis, an example Tillerson seems to be following in Riyadh.

    For example, the article by Steven A. Cook in Salon.
    link to salon.com
    While admirable that he’s acknowledging his mistakes in analysis, he still comes off with a lot of wrong assumptions, some of which is Iranian centric and can’t seem to recognize the local Iraqi Arab Shiites own independent nationalist/political/economic motivations, besides the other Iraqis that make up some of the opposition to Kurdish opposition, like the Yazdis and Turkmen.

    Also a great, though disturbing read is the 3 part Alternet series by Rania Khalek about the Yazdis situation and the cleansing they faced. It details the claims many Yazdis made being betrayed by the Iraqi Kurds and Sunni Arabs around them and their other allegiances like forming their armed group part of the Shiite led militias. Was meaning to share this earlier elsewhere.
    link to alternet.org

    • Saf, I don’t think Trump is sectarian. I think he is uninformed, naive and manipulated by others.

      Iranians have made one massive inexcusable mistake. They have not praised someone’s amazing hair, physique, intelligence, charisma and articulateness.

  15. Jim Cataldo

    Without the Iraqi Shiite militias ISIL wouldn’t be on the verge of being defeated. So not only is Tillerson wrong about them not being home, he is also being extremely ignorant of their importance.

    • Jim Cataldo, it is the Iraqi Army, Iraqi Air Force (IqAF) and Golden Division that defeated ISIS in Iraq. Some PMUs closely integrated with the Iraqi Army, Golden Division and IqAF. In many ways they now function as extensions of them and will likely be formally integrated (much the way the national guard were formally integrated into the Iraqi Army in June 2004 by Allawi).

      Today all but the best PMUs (which will likely be added to the formal ISF) are not needed and need to be dismantled. Most of these, let us call them Khamenei PMUs, are now supporting Khamenei’s fight in Syria. Khamenei likes it. Assad likes it. And Iraqis like it as a way to boot them out of Iraq and keep the pressure on ISIS.

      Remember that IMoD (Iraqi Ministry of Defense) has a great deal of institutional pride and nationalism and would rather not depend on external institutions, especially Persians. I think they would rather that the PMUs that they don’t fully trust were fully dissolved, allowing their officers/NCOs/soldiers to apply to join the formal ISF.

  16. In a recent debate at John Hopkins University (17 October), including the Iraqi ambassador to Washington and some experts on Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, it was pointed out that there were about 50 Iranian military advisors in Iraq.
    link to youtube.com
    I believe there are some 6,000 US military personnel there too. It would be good if all foreign fighters in Iraq, and for that matter in other Persian Gulf littoral states, could go home too.
    Mr. Tillerson’s remarks do not just reveal his ignorance of what is going on in Iraq which is worrying in itself, but it is a sign of a more worrying reality, namely that when you want to demonize a country facts do not matter and anything goes.

    • Farhang, there are a lot, lot more than 50 Iranian advisors in Iraq. The Iranians are not transparent about it.

      That is okay in my opinion as long as:
      1) all of them are declared foreign agents to GoI
      2) GoI is okay with them
      3) they are assigned as trainers, advisors, combat enablers to IMoD, IMoI rather than to PMUs (or they are assigned to PMUs that are in the process of formally transferring to IMoD, IMoI)

      The best way to avoid demonizing Iran to emphasize the shared values and interests between Iran and the rest; and to encourage successful collaboration between Iran and the rest.

      Since 2014 Iranian and American military officials have collaborated together very well in Iraq; in a way that has done honor and service to the great Iraqi, Iranian, American and world peoples. We need to expand this collaboration and partnership to as many other areas as practical.

      Another great place to emphasize would be to try to work out a national unity government in Yemen that serve the Yemeni, Iranian, GCC/Arab League, world peoples. And then provide international FID to the newly reconstituted Yemenese security forces that serve the national unity government. Heavy Iranian pressure on the Houthi dominated forces (note they are in coalition with some non Houthis too) is essential for this to happen. The Iraqi Government, which might be trusted by Houthis, can be helpful too.

      Working with the Iranians to solve global problems in ways that show results is the way to reduce demonization of Iran.

  17. Haven’t seen this anywhere else and the source is not the most unbiased, but it seems McMaster is getting a similar message out – US good, Iran bad, Iraq should do as it’s told: link to rudaw.net

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