Willful ignorance hurts Christian militia in Iraq

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By Christina Lin
On December 27, a rocket attack on a base in Kirkuk, Iraq, killed a US civilian contractor and wounded four service members and two Iraqi personnel. It was not clear who carried out the attack, but a source told Military Times “We think the attack was carried out by … Popular Mobilization Forces.”

The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), also known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), is an Iraqi state-sponsored umbrella organization composed of some 40 militias that are mostly Shiite Muslim groups, but also includes Sunni Muslims, Christians and Yazidis as well. The PMF was formed in 2014 after the fall of Mosul to Islamic State, and has fought nearly every major battle against ISIS.

As a reprisal for the rocket attacks, Washington, without coordinating with the Iraqi government, retaliated two days later by launching air strikes against positions of Iran-backed Kataeb Hezbollah – one of the militias in the PMF. The air strikes killed 25 people and wounded 51 others, prompting thousands of Iraqi protesters to take to the streets and break into the US embassy compound in Baghdad.

Despite US media referring to the PMF as Iranian Shiite militia or Kataeb Hezbollah’s close ties with Iran, many Iraqis see them as an Iraqi force, and are outraged by the attack from an outside power and the violation of Iraqi sovereignty. Maria Fantappie, the senior adviser on Iraq for the International Crisis Group, said: “We are talking about a foreign force attacking an Iraqi force.”

According to Elijah Magnier, chief international and war correspondent for Jordan’s Al Ra’i, US air strikes only killed nine members of Brigades 45 and 46 of Kataeb Hezbollah, and the others killed were part of the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi federal police.

The leader of the Babylon Brigade, a Christian militia within the PMF, tweeted a strong condemnation against US air strikes: “Mr Trump, we are standing here. We did not come from Iran. We are Iraqis and the sons and brothers of the martyrs who were killed. This is the widespread rage of Iraqis.”


A 2016 British Broadcasting Corporation article actually featured the leader Rayan al-Kildani and the Christian Babylon Brigade militia on the frontlines fighting ISIS, but most Americans remain ignorant about the existence of Christians in Iraq and Syria.

As Daniel Larison of The American Conservative observed, US President Donald Trump and his advisers have a tendency to oversimplify every regional issue and lump all things only in terms of Iran’s “malign activities.” He chastised that they refuse to see other countries in the region on their own terms and local actors as having their own agency and legitimate interests, and as a result this leads to misguided policies based on misperception, miscalculation, and unintended escalation of military conflicts.

Indeed, this inability of the Washington establishment to put themselves in other people’s shoes, and try to understand other actors’ perspectives, has been a perennial problem in the conduct of US foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. The unintended consequences have been disastrous failed states, rising terrorism and Wahhabi fanaticism, mass-scale deaths and human suffering, exodus of Iraqi and Syrian Christians, and the perpetuation of poverty and underdevelopment in the region.

As David Gardner in the Financial Times argued, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 almost emptied it of Christians, caught in the crossfire of ethno-sectarian warfare between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Their numbers plummeted from about 1.5 million to around 35,000. When ISIS captured Mosul in June 2014, the city lost most of its last Christians as the jihadis marked Christian homes with the letter “N” for Nazarenes, similar to the Nazis marking Jewish homes with the yellow star.

In Syria, Christians faced similar persecution from US-backed jihadis. The perception of American cynicism toward their plight was further reinforced in 2014, when Syrian Christian leaders met and pleaded with US officials to stop arming al-Qaeda-linked rebels, and the late senator John McCain responded by yelling and storming out of the room, while Senator Lindsay Graham tried to apologize on his behalf.

As former Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani noted in his book Has the West Lost It?, Washington seems incapable or unwilling to learn the cause and effect of its militarized foreign policy toward the Middle East. Mahbubani argued that whether it is the Central Intelligence Agency’s creation of al-Qaeda to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, which reaped the attacks of September 11, 2001, or a senior US official confirming the Barack Obama administration was transporting ISIS fighters from Afghanistan to Syria to fight President Bashar al-Assad’s government, US military entanglements continue to reap disastrous consequences that further destabilize the region, empower America’s enemies, and hurt many innocent people in the process.

Now, with US military escalation and Iraq at risk of becoming a theater of war between Washington and Tehran that will likely empower ISIS once more, it seems the last remnant of Iraqi Christians and the Christian militia may be making its final exodus from the Middle East – ironically spurred by their co-religionists in Washington, DC.