From a desert hillside guarded by Iraqi Shi’ite paramilitaries, commander Qasim Muslih can spot ISIS hideouts across the frontier in Syria. But he also keeps a wary eye on U.S. warplanes soaring overhead.
“The Americans are spying on us,” he said, squinting skywards. “But we can hold the borders. We’ll fight whoever lays a finger on Iraq and its holy shrines.”
The fighters Muslih commands are part of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a grouping of mostly Shi’ite militias backed by Iran, which the United States regards as the biggest threat to security in the Middle East.
The PMF has been deploying in growing numbers at the border, fearing hundreds of ISIS militants who fled Iraq are trying to cross back into Iraqi territory.
The deployment is strengthening the PMF’s de facto control over large stretches of the frontier while its leaders are calling for a formal, permanent role securing the border.
But with fewer Sunni militants to contend with on the Iraqi side a year after Baghdad declared victory over ISIS, many Shi’ite paramilitaries now see the United States as a bigger threat.
The White House has indicated the U.S. military presence is as much about countering Iran’s influence as fighting ISIS. Asked about the suggestion of spying on the PMF, a coalition spokesman said: “The Coalition is concerned with the enduring defeat of ISIS.”
As the battle against a mutual foe rumbles on, Washington and Tehran are keeping a close eye on each other in this part of the region, raising the risk of new violence.
The PMF officially became part of Iraq’s security forces this year after playing an important role fighting ISIS.
Factions including Iran-backed groups that fight inside Syria have concentrated their recent build-up around the town of al-Qaim, which was recaptured from ISIS in November 2017 and was the last ISIS bastion in Iraq to fall last year.