Russia Steals a March on US in Baghdad, Rides in atop Iran’s Iraqi Shiite PMU Surrogate

Moscow has just taken a leap into a fresh Middle East pasture, Baghdad – Vladimir Putin’s quid pro quo for the American decision to keep US bases in northern Syria. That in turn was Donald Trump’s move to counter Putin’s support for Iranian advances in Syria (as first revealed by DEBKA Weekly 785 of Jan. 11).

(On Thursday, Jan. 18, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confirmed that American troops would remain in Syria long after the complete defeat of ISIS “to ensure that neither Iran nor Bashar Assad take over areas newly liberated with help from the United States.”)

DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources now reveal that Russia’s Iraq scheme is advancing through undercover talks between Russian diplomats and heads of the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Unit (PMU) at secret venues in Moscow, Syria and Iraq. The PMU is a conglomerate of Iraqi Shiite militias, fielding 150,000 officers and men and much larger than Iraq’s national army. It is under the direct command of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the Al Qods arm of the Revolutionary Guards.

The Russian-PMU talks have two clear objectives which are shared by Tehran:

One: To develop a new epicenter outside Syria for launching Russian military intervention in the Middle East.

Two: To offset the new American Syrian “Border Defense Forces” set up to secure the borders of the area held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The US is backing this grouping, which is led by the Kurdish YPG, to hold back incursions by Turkey, Russia and Iran. Moscow is venting its anger by using Iran’s Iraqi PMU as the vehicle for breaking through to a proactive role in Iraq, as well as in Syria.

According to our exclusive sources, two separate visits to Moscow since the new year are worth noting in this regard: former Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and leaders of the PMU. Their discussions turned on two subjects:

  1. a) Ways to outmaneuver the enterprise launched by the US, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the UAE’s Mohammed bin Zayed, to install an administration free of Iranian influence in Baghdad. Until now, they pinned their hopes on brokering a pact between Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi, and the powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr
    (See: Trump’s Stop Sign for Iran’s Domination of Iraq in the last DEBKA Weekly)
  2. b) Close collaboration between Moscow and the PMU. It is not clear yet whether they have reached the point of a three-cornered deal with al-Maliki, but events in Baghdad in the last few days suggest this is highly possible.

Two groundbreaking decisions were taken in the Russian-PMU conversations. One was to co-opt Russian officers for the first time to a PMU command and control center in one of the Shiite cities of southern Iraq. Its task will be to synchronize bilateral operations on the Iraqi and Syrian borders. The other was for Russia to start supplying the Iraqi militia with arms.

For years, Iraqi military chiefs relied solely on Washington and the US-led anti-ISIS coalition for their hardware and support. No Russians were seen in Iraq for fifteen years, ever since their diplomats and military officers trooped out of Baghdad ahead of America’s 2003 invasion. But now, for the first time since then, Russian military and intelligence officers are welcome guests.

Moscow’s move on Baghdad is one in the eye for Washington – and even more immediately for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, because it brings a hostile Russian-Iraqi Shiite military presence up to their borders.

But they were knocked over totally when Prime Minister Al-Abadi, instead of getting together with Sadr, suddenly announced on Sunday, Jan. 14, that he had signed an agreement with the PMU’s head Hadi al-Amiri for establishing the “Iraqi Victory Coalition.” Al-Abadi explained: “The coalition will work for all Iraqis and through relying on national talent, strengthen the unity of the country and national sovereignty and achieve justice and equality among Iraqis in rights and duties.”

That, say DEBKA Weekly’s sources, was a score of one to nil against US-Saudi plans to build an anti-Iran alliance in Baghdad between Abadi and Sadr.

However, all may not be lost. Abadi is still maneuvering between his options. On Thursday, Jan. 18, he said he trusted that the PMU he accepted for his coalition were not members of the PMU militia, but “politicians who volunteered to fight [alongside them] and now their relationship with the PMU has ended.”

The Iraqi prime minister was apparently questioning the Iranian Iraqi surrogate’s stance, which, like that of the Lebanese Hizballah, is to maintain an armed militia while also represented in parliament and government.

Hedging his bets, the Iraqi prime minister said he was ready to work with the PMU after the elections. But he has not quite closed the door on the deal promoted by the US and Riyadh.

But Moscow’s moves in Iraq and Abadi’s volatility throw the game back onto the next round of tit-for-tat moves between Trump and Putin. The US has the option of adapting the Syrian template to Iraq and retaining American bases in Iraq as well as Syria. This would help contain Russian-Iranian military domination of Iraq.

US military assets in Iraq are spread copiously across the north, the west and the center – 14 military posts in all. Half are air bases, the biggest being Ayn Al-Assad, in the western Iraqi province of Anbar and Habaniyah, west of Baghdad. Another two US air facilities are located at Baghdad international airport and Mansuriya in the eastern Diyala governorate bordering on Iran. This is the southernmost point of the US military spread in Iraq. The US maintains warplanes at two additional sites at Irbil and Dahuk in the semiautonomous Kurdish republic in the north, and a seventh at Balad in central Iraq.

The US also maintains troops in Sulaymaniya, another KRG city, and at two camps near Mosul – Qayyara and Hamam Al-Alil, as well as the oil city of Kirkuk and Rabia, which sits on Iraq’s northern border with Syria and is ruled by the Shamar Arab tribe.

Two more bases are worth noting: Halabja, 240km northeast of Baghdad and the town of Tikrit in central Iraq.

To keep enough bases in place to stop the spillover of Russian influence into areas north of Baghdad, the Trump administration may have to resurrect its alliance with the Kurds of northern Iraq, after jilting them four months ago when the PMU militia coalition defeated the Kurdish Peshmerga army and overran the Kirkuk region. US troops maintain a base in the oil city and are well placed for preventing its fall to the pro-Iranian PMU.

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