In the push towards the ISIS stronghold of Mosul, the successes of the Iraqi Army and Kurdish Peshmerga dominate the headlines. Yet, there’s another key, but underreported, participant: the Iranian-backed Shiite militants, which include the Iraqi Hezbollah and Hashed al-Shaabi.
Even less is heard about their expansionist aspirations. Iran and its terror proxies dream of establishing a land route from Tehran to the Mediterranean and Israel’s borders.
With progress on both ends, only the centrally-situated Ninevah and Sinjar areas near Mosul remain just out of their grasp. Their rapid headway has only been possible through the pretext of defeating ISIS — and America’s tacit willingness to accept the participation of groups to defeat ISIS.
Major General Aziz Weysi Bani, commander of the 56,000-strong Kurdish Zerevani Peshmerga, is at the forefront of this divide. Speaking exclusively to the Clarion Project, General Aziz offers his take on the current situation — a rare critique from a leading Kurdish figure, when officials are hesitant to provoke their counterparts.
Clarion Project’s Kurdish Affairs Analyst Zach Huff: Please explain how you view the involvement of these Iranian-backed forces in the fight against ISIS.
Major General Aziz Weysi, commander of the Kurdish Zerevani Peshmerga: The Kurdish Peshmerga are constitutionally part of Iraq’s defense establishment. Constitutionally, the Kurdish forces should have the same rights as the Iraqi Army, because they are protecting a defined area — they are not extralegal. In contrast, the Shiite militias were formed outside of the law and imposed on the Iraqi government. When observed closely, they are now more powerful than the Iraqi Ministry of Defense — the Defense Ministry is under their control.
Meaning, in the areas that these Hashed al-Shaabi militias operate, it is they that rule, not the Iraqi Army. They are not under control of the army, but it is the army who is under the control of them.
Clarion Project: The Iranian-backed Shiite militias made threats against the Peshmerga in Sinjar — is it a sign of things to come? Are you prepared for a potential confrontation?
General Aziz: We are ready to protect our land, our dignity and our people. We know that there are good channels for negotiation, and not all Hashed members are enemies of Kurdistan.
To the contrary, there are people in Hashed who show they are happy with Kurdistan’s developments, but unfortunately there are some Hashed members that work under influence of other countries or ulterior political agendas, and these elements are working to direct the Shiite communities against the Kurdistan region.
Clarion Project: How are some of the Hashed working against you?
General Aziz: They are attempting to show that Kurdistan is an enemy of Iraq, and they don’t demonstrate the role of Kurdistan in protecting Iraq and its people.
If not for Kurdistan, where could two million refugees be hosted? Where could they go? For those who came here, they’re more comfortable than the refugees in many other countries.
We treat the refugees based on humanitarian values, not political interests. Everyone wants to take part in helping them. That’s how our people are educated, with special moral and ethical values. These two million refugees from Syria are Iraq are the witnesses for what we have provided.
Clarion Project: What of the reports that these some of these Shiite militia members committed war crimes?
General Aziz: We are concerned about their crimes against Sunnis in central Iraq. Their behavior was similar to what ISIS’ and sometimes worse.
We condemn anyone committing crimes against humanity — whether they are from the Hashed, Peshmerga, Iraqi Army or U.S. Army. We hope it will not be repeated.
We have concerns, but otherwise we aren’t enemies, and we don’t seek conflict with anyone.
Clarion Project: What if the West had to choose between supporting these militias to finish the job against ISIS, and your forces, against those same militias?
General Aziz: We can’t say for sure. There is huge disagreement in the international community, because their interests don’t intersect on regional issues, and the victims of all of this are innocent people in the region.
Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani just condemned last week’s surprise gains by the Hashed al-Shaabi in Yazidi-majority areas. The Kurds were not notified prior to the militant takeover of Yazidi villages, violating long-standing agreements. Although nothing else stands in their path, it’s unclear what the Kurds are willing to do to halt these advances.
Zach Huff is Clarion Project’s Kurdish affairs analyst.