On Tuesday, the State Department designated al-Ashtar Brigades (AAB) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, describing it as “an Iran-backed terrorist group in Bahrain.”
Bahrain’s population, like Iraq’s, is majority Shi’ite. However, Bahrain’s ruling family is Sunni.
Notably, Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province (once known as al-Ahsa) is also Shi’ite, and it has a long history of tensions with the religiously conservative Sunni rulers in Riyadh.
“AAB is an Iran-backed terrorist organization aimed at overthrowing the Bahraini government,” the State Department explained. In 2014, AAB killed three police officers, two from Bahrain and one from the United Arab Emirates, in a bombing attack, and in 2017, it shot dead another Bahraini police officer.
“In January 2018, AAB formally adopted Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) branding and reaffirmed its loyalty to Tehran,” the State Department continued. “AAB members have received weapons and explosives from Iran” and “training at IRGC-funded camps in Iraq,” it further explained.
US officials have long sought to downplay the significance of Iran’s growing influence in Iraq. This statement represents the first official, and clearest, US acknowledgement of the malevolent role that Iran is now playing in Iraq.
The strongest of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the largely Shi’ite militias raised in 2014 to fight the Islamic State (IS), are backed by Iran.
In an attempt to bring the PMF under his control, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi formally incorporated them into the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Yet they continue to answer to Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, responsible for the IRGC’s external operations—i.e. terrorism.
Although the Trump administration has declared the IRGC and its proxies to be terrorist organizations, US officials have resisted the suggestion that the Iranian-backed militias within the PMF should be designated, and treated, as terrorist organizations.
Following Baghdad’s assault last October on Kirkuk, a military operation engineered by Soleimani, in which the PMF played a central role, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R, California), complained that pro-Iranian Shiite militias had gained access to powerful, highly lethal US military equipment.
“There’s the M-1 Abrams tank, with the Hizbollah flag,” Hunter said at a Capitol Hill press conference, as he displayed pictures from the Iraqi attack on Kirkuk. “Here’s the IRGC with the militias that we’re equipping, training and sending into combat,” he complained.
Paul Davis, formerly an analyst of Kurdish affairs at the Pentagon and now a Fellow at Soran University, advised Kurdistan 24 that the US Train and Equip Program for Iraq “could very well be helping to sustain these training camps.”
Davis noted that the PMF uses US-supplied military equipment from that program, and the IRGC could easily obtain that equipment from its local proxies.
Davis also stressed that the PMF-electoral list, which did so well in Iraq’s May 12 elections—and which is headed by Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the PMF and of the Badr Organization, an Iranian-backed militia—will be major players in the next Iraqi government, once it is formed.
“The problem of Iran’s role in Iraq has been building for a long time,” Davis said. “But the US ignored it, and so it has only grown worse.”
Davis also noted that Shi’ites from Saudi Arabia are, almost certainly, training in the same terrorist training camps in Iraq as the Bahraini Shi’ites.
“They don’t distinguish between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia,” he said. “The key point is that they are all Shi’ites, repressed by Sunnis, at least in their view.”
Indeed, the Bahraini terrorist organization which the IRGC is training in Iraq has also called for violence against the British, Saudi, and US governments, the State Department explained.
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