According to sources, up to 60 Shia militiamen were killed in fighting Anbar yesterday (July 2 2017). There are competing theories as to who ambushed the members of the Badr Brigades.
Towns in the Sunni majority province of Anbar were the first to fall to ISIL in early 2014, and pockets of the extremists remain in areas north of the Rutba highway or Highway 11. Historically the road is the main land trading route with Syria to the north, and branches south to Jordan (Highway 10). Both border crossings, at al Waleed and Trebil respectively, remain closed as a result of the conflict with ISIL.
Whilst the route to the north is controlled by Iran-backed Shia militias, the Jordan crossing and areas to the south up to the Saudi Arabia border, making up the Qatheff Wadi (valley), are allegedly patrolled by a small unit of US special forces, deployed from the Ain al-Assad airbase and supported by local tribal forces. According to officials, those tribal forces are also supporting private American interests nearby.
Highway 11, heavily damaged during more than 3 years’ fighting, is to be reinstated in the coming months, PM Haider al-Abadi confirmed to parliament in March, revealing that an American company was contracted to undertake the work.
That company is Olive Group, which merged with Constellis Holdings in 2015. Constellis was formed by the merger of private security company Triple Canopy and Academi, formerly known as Blackwater, in 2014. Blackwater rebranded after the 2007 Nisour Square massacre in which 17 civilians died after being fired upon by Blackwater employees, four of whom are now serving long sentences in the US.
In an April interview with Al-Monitor, spokesperson for the Anbar provincial council Bassem Eid Ammash said: ““Olive will secure the road between Baghdad and Anbar, reaching the Trebil border crossing that leads to Jordan. The company has already signed a contract with the Iraqi federal government in this regard.” Some 5,000 men from local tribes are to help secure the highway alongside Olive Group, according to Fahed Rashed, the head of the Border Crossings Committee in Anbar.
The presence of Americans in any part of Iraq is unacceptable to Iran, though Iranian-backed militias in Iraq grudgingly accepted Abadi’s announcement of the Olive Group deal, initially at least. On March 31 Rayan al-Kaldani of the Babylon Brigades and Karim al-Nouri of the Badr Brigades released a joint statement appearing to guarantee that the Americans would not represent a legitimate target.
“These companies signed contracts with Abadi’s government. Hashd al-Shaabi [Popular Mobilisation Forces, PMF] is affiliated with him since he is the general chief of staff of armed forces, and we cannot but agree with him.
“The PMF cannot have a different stance than that of the Iraqi government vis-a-vis the security companies, although they are affiliated with a state that occupied Iraq and so their presence in Iraq is not justifiable.”
Other voices from militias under the PMF umbrella, and therefore the leadership of the prime minister, expressed greater dissatisfaction.
“The road connecting Iraq and Jordan is a strategic gateway allowing the US and forces seeking to control it to tighten their grip on Anbar and the potential Sunni region as per a US-Gulf plan,” the Hezbollah Brigades said in a March 31 statement. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq accused the companies of spying, and called for contracts to be handed to Russian or European firms.
In the weeks and months following the assurances, it seems the PMF position towards the strategically vital road has hardened, with leaders pressuring Abadi to allow them to deploy to the Wadi on the pretext of protecting the Shia shrine city of Karbala from ISIL and the Americans.
Abadi, the perennial pragmatist, sought a third way, and deployed the Abbas Brigades to act as a bulwark against Iran-backed militias and any Americans in the area. The Abbas Brigades are loyal to Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who currently maintains a close relationship with the PM.
At the same time units of the Badr Brigades were dispatched to al Waleed border crossing by leader Hadi al-Amiri. However 60 of their men were killed while crossing Highway 11 – by US special forces according to Amiri. The militia had travelled south from Baghdad to Karbala, and then south of Highway 11 through the Qatheff Wadi, skirt American positions before swinging north for the Syrian border.
A source close to the Abbas Brigades said that they were in fact ambushed by ISIL extremists. Another source, from Iraqi Joint Operations Command, confirmed that between 55 and 60 men were killed by ISIL, and that they expect the extremist group to publish a video talking responsibility shortly.
Other military sources have put the figure at 35 Iraqi soldiers and PMF fighters were killed in the attack, and a further 25 injured.