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Images From The Iraqi Frontlines: Iran-Backed Fighters Battle ISIS For Control Of Key Refinery

One event that flew under the radar last month as Russia revved up its long dormant military juggernaut, was the intelligence sharing alliance struck between Moscow, Baghdad, Tehran, and Damascus. The deal called for the establishment of an intel command base in Baghdad and a rotating presidency. As Sputnik reported on September 28:

“This shared intelligence base will be formed by the representatives of the chiefs of joint military staff of each of these four countries. … The first goal of the base is to gather intelligence regarding the region in the framework of fighting against this terrorist group. After the data is collected, it will be analyzed and will eventually be forwarded to the related organizations in the armed forces of each of these countries. The command of this base will rotate every three months between the member states and the first rotating president will be Iraq.”

This initiative was purportedly behind the strike on an ISIS convoy that some initially believed had killed Bakr al-Baghdadi. Apparently, Baghdadi was not actually present, but nevertheless, the Iraqis are clearly excited about the joint intelligence initiative, presumably because the US hasn’t proven to be too “intelligent” an ally thus far. Consider the following from Reuters:

Iraq has begun bombing Islamic State insurgents with help from a new intelligence center with staff from Russia, Iran and Syria, a senior parliamentary figure said on Tuesday about cooperation seen as a threat to U.S. interests in the region.

 

The center has been operational for about a week, and it provided intelligence for air strikes on a gathering of middle-level Islamic State figures, Hakim al Zamili, the head of parliament's defense and security committee, told Reuters.

 

The new security apparatus based in Baghdad suggests the United States is losing clout in a strategic oil-producing Middle East, where it has been heavily invested for years.

 

Iraqi officials, frustrated with the pace and depth of the U.S. military campaign against Islamic State, have said they will lean heavily on Washington's former Cold War rival Russia in the battle against the Sunni Muslim jihadists.

 

“We find it extremely useful," the Iraqi official said. “The idea is to formalize the relationship with Iran, Russia and Syria. We wanted a full-blown military alliance.”

 

Iran, a longtime Middle East adversary of the United States, already boasts deep influence in Iraq. Iranian military advisers help direct Baghdad's campaign against Islamic State, which aims to expand its self-proclaimed caliphate in the Middle East.

 

Washington, with a history of close security links with Baghdad, now worries the intelligence center may foster closer Russian-Iraqi ties, particularly with respect to operations against Islamist militants, a U.S. security official said.

 

The Baghdad government, and allied Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias who are leading the fight against Islamic State in Iraq, say the United States lacks the decisiveness and the readiness to supply weapons needed to eliminate militancy in the region.

Yes, “Iran boasts deep influence in Iraq, [its] military advisers help direct Baghdad's campaign against Islamic State, [and] the Baghdad government and allied Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias say the United States lacks the decisiveness and the readiness to supply weapons needed to eliminate militancy in the region.” As we’ve documented extensively, this is all orchestrated and overseen by the Quds Force and the plan from day one appears to have been this: Tehran agrees to allow Russia to become the new Mid-East puppet master once the US packs up and leaves if Russia agrees to provide the military might needed for Iran to secure Syria and cement the IRGC’s stranglehold on Iraqi politics and military affairs. 

So in short, what seems likely to happen here is that once Syria is secure, the Shiite militias under Iran’s control (including Hezbollah) will simply move on to Iraq to reinforce the Iran-backed militias operating there.

As we demonstrated on Thursday, Russia now has the capability to strike targets in Iraq thanks to the new base at Latakia, so air cover shouldn't be a problem.

Given all of the above, we imagine we’ll be hearing a lot more about Iraq in the coming months and so, in an effort to begin taking a closer look at the activities of the Shiite militias operating in the country alongside the Iraqi army, we bring you the following from The New York Times who reports that the groups achieved a major strategic victory on Thursday when ISIS was driven from the Baiji refinery:

Iraqi forces and the Shiite militias fighting alongside them announced Friday that they had retaken the oil refinery at Baiji from Islamic State militants, in some of the first significant progress against the extremist group after months of stalled efforts.

 

“Baiji refinery has been completely liberated from Daesh,” a spokesman for Iraq’s counterterrorism service said.

 

Iraqi officials insist that its recapture is a strategically important step, and a vital lift to morale, in the broader campaign against the Islamic State, which controls much of northern and western Iraq.

 

Baiji and the nearby town of Siniya, which Iraqi forces said they had also taken, are on a major north-south route to Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which was seized by the Islamic State in June 2014.

 

“This battle is crucial,” Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Monday during a visit to Salahuddin, the province north of Baghdad that includes Baiji.

 

The Iraqis appeared to have had more going for them this time. The push to retake Baiji came as Iraqi forces were mounting a parallel offensive to retake Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province in western Iraq.

 

The Iraqi military said it had encircled Ramadi, which United States military officials say is defended by an estimated 600 to 1,000 Islamic State fighters.

 

The Shiite militias — formally known as the Popular Mobilization Forces — have not been given a role in the Ramadi operation for fear that their presence might antagonize the mostly Sunni population there. But the militias, some of which are backed and trained by Iran, played a major role in the Baiji operation.

 

A spokesman for Shiite militias said that several thousand Shiite militiamen were fighting in and near Baiji, which is more than the estimated number of Iraqi soldiers also fighting there. 

 

Shiite militia leaders have advertised their presence on the battlefield. Qais al-Khazali, the head of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a militia long supported by Iran, was filmed inside the captured refinery. Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of the Badr Organization, another Iranian-backed group, also played a visible role in the operation.

And here are the images of the Shiite fighters who battled to retake Baiji (via Reuters):