BAGHDAD – The head of one of Iraq’s fiercest Shi’a militias called the U.S.-led coalition’s campaign against ISIS ineffective and accused Washington of lacking the will to uproot extremists controlling large swathes of Iraq and Syria.
Qais al-Khazali, leader of Iranian-backed paramilitary group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, said the anti-ISIS campaign had failed because of an American agenda to redraw the map of the Middle East along new borders.
“We believe the United States of America does not want to resolve the crisis but rather wants to manage the crisis,” he told Reuters in an interview.
“It does not want to end Daesh (ISIS). It wants to exploit Daesh to achieve its projects in Iraq and in the region. The American project in Iraq is to repartition the region.”
Khazali said the U.S.-led coalition had failed to ramp up the number of air strikes over time as he said it had pledged to do.
Asaib, along with the Badr Brigades and Kataib Hezbollah, are at the forefront of the Popular Mobilization Forces, or Hashid Shaabi, the official Iraqi government entity organizing volunteers in the battle against ISIS.
The Hashid Shaabi has become the most powerful military force in Iraq since the near collapse of the national army a year ago. Yet many paramilitary groups have come under fire for alleged abuses in Sunni areas reclaimed from ISIS.
Khazali said Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was under U.S. pressure to limit the presence of Shi’a fighters in the campaign to retake the mostly Sunni province of Anbar from ISIS.
“Now the American project is trying at least to limit the presence of the Hashid Shaabi to the borders of Fallujah and not reach Ramadi. This is the magnitude of the pressure from the American leadership now on the Iraqi prime minister,” he said.
Washington and its Sunni Arab allies fear that involving Iraq’s Shi’a militias in battles to drive out ISIS militants from Anbar could lead to even more sectarian violence.
In the past few months, there have been reports of violations including killings, looting and burning of Sunni homes. Khazali denied the accusations.
“Despite the media whirlwind and exaggeration, no media outlet has been able to accuse the Shi’a Hashid Shaabi of one (act of) genocide or of killing one innocent citizen,” he said.
Khazali was among the thousands of militia fighters, armed and wearing green camouflage military fatigues, who flocked to northern Iraq to battle ISIS last June after it seized swathes of territory across Syria and Iraq.
The 41-year-old Iraqi donned the robe and white turban of a cleric when he spoke to Reuters at his office in the holy Shi’a city of Najaf.
His militia started as a splinter group of the Mahdi Army, a paramilitary force formed by anti-American Shi’a leader Moqtada al-Sadr during the U.S. occupation. Under his leadership, it gained notoriety for its attacks against U.S. forces.
In 2007, Khazali was arrested by American forces for his alleged role in an attack on an Iraqi government compound in Karbala, which left five American soldiers dead.
He is now one of the most feared and respected Shi’a militia leaders in Iraq, and one of Iran’s most important allies in the country.
Khazali said mutual mistrust made it impossible for his group to coordinate with the United States.
“We do not agree to participate in any area where there are American strikes. We will place full responsibility on the American administration for any strike that happens under the guise of being a mistake,” he said.