After ISIS: The Future of Iraq in the Hands of Iran

After ISIS: The Future of Iraq in the Hands of Iran
(Michael Pregent, November 15, 2017)

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About the speaker

Michael Pregent is a former U.S. Army intelligence officer with more than 28 years of experience working security, terrorism, counter-insurgency, and policy issues in the Middle East, North Africa, and Southwest Asia. He served in Desert Shield and Desert Storm, served as a liaison officer in Egypt during the 2000 Intifada, as a counter-insurgency intelligence officer at CENTCOM in 2001, and as a company commander in Afghanistan in 2002.

Pregent spent considerable time working malign Iranian influence in Iraq as an advisor to Iraq’s Security and Intelligence apparatus, including an embedded advisory role with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Office of the Commander-in-Chief. He also served as an embedded advisor with the Peshmerga in Mosul 2005-06. As a civilian working for DIA, he served as a political and military advisor to USF-I focusing on reconciliation, the insurgency, and Iranian influence in Iraq from 2007-2011. He was a violent extremism and foreign fighter analyst at CENTCOM from 2011-2013.

Mr. Pregent holds a Masters in Strategic Public Relations from The George Washington University and is a graduate of the U.S. Army’s Defense Language Institute in Modern Standard Arabic and Egyptian Dialect. He is an adjunct fellow at Hudson Institute. He is a senior Middle East analyst, a former adjunct lecturer for the College of International Security Affairs, and a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.

He frequently appears as an expert analyst on Shia militias, Iran, Iraq, and ISIS with appearances on BBC World News, Al-Jazeera International, CNN, CNN International, and Fox News.


Robert R. Reilly:


It is a particular pleasure to welcome our speaker tonight back to Westminster because he was kind enough to speak here about a year and a half ago, so he may be known to some of the veterans in the room.

Michael Pregent is a former intelligence officer who spent considerable time working malign Iranian influence in Iraq, a subject you would be hard to run out since there is so much of it. He served as an adviser to Iraq’s security and intelligence apparatus, including an embedded advisory role within Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s extra constitutional office of the commander-in-chief, which it turns out, as we will learn tonight, was set up to ensure Iranian-backed Shia military party control of Iraq’s security and political processes.

I do remember from when I first had the pleasure of meeting Mike of hearing a story, whether it was this embed or on another occasion when he was sitting in the room with a group of Iraqis, who naturally enough were speaking in Arabic, and they got into a sensitive subject, and they said no, no, wait, who is this guy, we do not want to talk with him around. Oh, no, do not worry. He is just a stupid American. And Mike being not only an intelligence professional but intelligent, sat there as if he had not understood a word they said while, of course, he is completely fluent in Arabic.

Just a couple quick items aside from those experiences. He was also an embedded advisor with the Peshmerga in Mosul in 2005-2006. He served in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He was a company commander in Afghanistan. He served as liaison officer in Egypt during the 2000 Intifada, and counterinsurgency counterintelligence officer at CENTCOM. The list of his experiences and the background for his deep knowledge goes on. So, without further ado, let me ask Mike to come up to talk tonight about: After ISIS: The Future of Iraq under Iran.

Michael Pregent:

Well, first off I would like to say there is no after ISIS. ISIS is simply going to ISIS 2.0 or going to the al-Qaeda mode, and that is one of the things we caution. There is a sense that the administration will declare victory against ISIS in Syria in Iraq, and say we are out of here, that we have met our mission, we have met our requirements, and let us leave, so thanks for having me. Thank you very much. It is good to be back here. The good thing about being back here is I was here in March of 2016 before Mosul, before Fallujah, and warned about what was going to happen. And I have something on my Twitter page. Please if you follow me, do not follow me on Twitter, go to the Hudson Institute so you can see panels where you actually have an opportunity to say something outside of the constraints of Twitter.

But I have something up front. It is called the wars dilemma, and I do not know where I came up with this. I have looked for it. I have tried to give somebody credit for it. I cannot find it anywhere, but I am happy to give it to somebody else, but it is something that I did as an intelligence officer. I am a warnings and indicators guy. What are the indicators of instability? What are indicators where U.S. foreign policy if not applied correctly can actually pour gasoline on the fire, that goes against US interests.

If you warn about something and it does not happen, critics will say hahaha, you were wrong, you do not know what you are talking about, right? And if it happens, you are regrettably right. You do not want to be right. I am happy to be wrong, and I have challenged Baghdad. I had a panel a week and a half ago with the Iraqi Deputy Chief of Mission. Within two minutes into my talk at the Bipartisan Policy Center, basically sort of saying Kata’ib – my Arabic is terrible, by the way, but I understand 80 percent of what I am hearing, and I heard enough to hear him say thank God this dumb Texan is in here and does not know what is going on. And I was able to get 300 pieces of paper that turned out to be 300 target packets against Maliki’s political opponents, and with very weak evidence that said this guy is a terrorist simply because he is a friend of a person who has a known association with somebody who might be a terrorist. That was enough to get people removed.

But going back to what I was saying earlier, you can get attacked right away when you we say things, and I challenged Baghdad, and I challenged the embassy. I said show me I am wrong, prove to me I am wrong. I am happy to be wrong. Show me that everything I am saying is alarmist, is not backed by facts, and I will go. And he said I will not invite you, I will not invite you here, but then his aide came up to me afterwards and said, of course, we will invite you. And I said yeah, I will see kalamsheh, you know, handcuffs at the airport as soon as I land in Baghdad because it is not a secret anymore that I am a former intelligence officer who was working with the Iraqi military and the government as a مستشار سياسي mustashar siasiun, a political adviser, for General Petraeus and General Odierno. It is so refreshing to be outside of that community now and not be constrained by clearances, not be constrained by walls without windows, and not to be sitting in a partition with my arms folded upset because I am not traveling the Middle East to do things that I just made somebody else smart about, so this is great.

One of the best things that has happened since the time we spoke in March 2016 is the Osama bin Laden documents were released, and it shows a clear operational relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda, something that I hinted at in March of 2016, but could not get into the details. The reason this map is up behind me is this is what Iraq looks like now. It has been updated, but let me just talk you through this, what this map really is.

When we heard the president talk about [the IRGC], he gave a speech on a Friday where he designated the entirety of the Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist entity for supporting a general named Qassem Soleimani of the Quds Force. Within 60 hours, Qassem Soleimani of the Quds Force used Shia militias with American equipment to attack an ally, the Kurds, an ally we have had for more than a decade, an ally that I worked with, and we have had successes against Al Qaeda, ISIS, Shia militias, Quds Force. Any adversary in Iraq, the Peshmerga and Kurdish Intel have been instrumental in helping us deal with it. Also, other Intel from the Ministry of Interior [and the] Ministry of Defense back in the day during the Surge [was instrumental too]. But with this map, this is the current situation with the exception of another place. Since I did this map, you can now paint this area in Kirkuk as [orange]. I used orange to show where we could rely on Kurdish allies to not only go against ISIS but to halt IRGC land bridge operations.

Everybody here knows about the land bridge. It is one of the things that President Trump talked about. There are two key things that came out of the National Security Council two days before the president had his speech. Someone of us from think tanks were brought in. We were briefed. The information was embargoed, and of course, [on] Friday we learned that the president’s main mission is to not only defeat ISIS but to neutralize destabilizing activities from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, meaning the Revolutionary Guard and Quds Force, meaning Soleimani. The land bridge is part of that. The problem is the Department of Defense and Department of State say this land bridge does not exist yet. It does not exist yet.

This is the current state of Iraq. These are the main entry ports that the IRGC and Quds Force used to arm Shia militias as they used lethal aid like explosively formed penetrators and other things against American forces. They bragged that they killed more Americans than al-Qaeda. Our focus has primarily been on the number of Americans that have been killed by explosively formed penetrators. We are not talking about direct fire. We are not talking about sniper operations. We are not talking about Assad’s facilitation of a foreign fighter network into Iraq to kill Americans. And Assad’s Intel officers do not do anything without the approval or the Roger out from the IRGC or the Quds Force.

This is Iraq as it stands now. Entry points here, this is all under Shia control. These used to be the areas, of course, where you see red, ISIS used to control that, so that used to be black. Now it is red, but it is not red because it is under Sunni control, it is red because this is where we were able to depend on our Sunni allies in the past, the Sons of Iraq, the Awakening, the key pillar of our Surge strategy in 2007. We were able to depend on those red areas to not only go after al-Qaeda but to also halt the advances of IRGC/Quds Force-backed Shia militias.

These areas now in red are Sunni areas, but they are actually under the control of the Hashd al-Shaabi, the militias, and I am going to break down the nuance of what the Hashd al-Shaabi, the Shia militias, actually are. And how many military people do we have here? And [how many of you are] retired people? Anybody familiar with how command and control structures work? That is all I will need you to know. Alright, so this is an area where we were able to depend on our Sunni allies and Kurdish allies to disrupt this land bridge. The issue right now [is that] the strongest ‘tribe’ is Iran, it is not to central government, it is not the United States, it is Iran. And this discussion is about Iraq post-ISIS, post-first iteration ISIS, and it is firmly in the hands of Iran, and the land bridge that is key to what we are trying to do in Syria.

In this area, Qassem Soleimani has deployed Iraqi militias. One of those militias is Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, and it has been attacked by U.S. aircraft for attacking, trying to push on our Special Operations training effort in this area of Syria. We are building a force not only to go against ISIS, but to go against some of Assad’s forces as well. The al-Qaim entry point into Syria: they can use this one or they can use this one. This was the one that was tough until they moved onto Kurdistan, so they secured the routes into Kirkuk, and now they can go straight into Mosul.

They now have control of something that to me just demonstrates how much we are willing to obfuscate the role of Iran in Iraq. This area here is called Fish Khabur just north of Dohuk. It is our key logistical supply line to support our effort in Syria. It is where our special operators work with Syrian Kurds and Iraqi Kurds to secure that checkpoint, and it is now under the control of Badr Corps and Kata’ib Hezbollah from the Hashd al-Shaabi from the Shia militias. [This is a] مشكلة كبيرة mushkilat kabira, a big problem. We are saying that is not true, we are saying it is now being controlled by elements of the YPG.

The problem is the YPG. [Is] anybody familiar with the YPG, our Kurdish allies, our Kurdish temporary allies in Syria? [They] have been very helpful in the destruction of ISIS but are not the force to hold Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. They will trade it away. They are now looking at Americans and saying, wait a minute, you think we are going to work with you? You think we are not going to bargain our position? We are not going to leverage our position with the Russians and the Iranians because of what we, [American and allied forces], have done to the [Kurds] in Iraq?

They are able to point across the border (not even across the border) at this border crossing that used to be controlled by KDP Peshmerga, and say if you abandon that ally that you have worked with for more than a decade, and why not us? You are telling us that you are going to be here? And you know the person that is telling them to trust us is the same person that nobody trusts in Iraq. Who is that? Brett McGurk. I did not say it, he said it, Brett McGurk.

I spoke to some very influential Iraqis from Sunni parties, Sunni secular parties, a Sunni Islamist party, Iraqi government, Peshmerga, and Syrians, and they have said that [looking at] your position, we cannot trust the Americans anymore. We have relied on temporary alliances to somehow shape temporary solutions and they are leading to permanent ramifications and permanent giveaway. I do not think the land bridge is a permanent giveaway yet. Everything that I am doing now, whether it is at Hudson [Institute] or whether it is talking to you today is the counter narrative to what people are saying.

There have been several reports, three reports in prominent periodicals in the last week, that have said you just cannot do anything about Iran at this point. They have already reached their position. They are already the power that they have wanted to be. They have always had these you know hegemonic goals and in the region. They are there now. There is nothing we can do.

And the tilt is now look how destabilizing Saudi Arabia is. And I had this conversation at the Middle East Institute dinner last night with a couple prominent people that look at Syria and Iraq. And they said so what about this Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia? Look how destabilizing he is, and I said, well, who has more influence in Baghdad, Tehran or Riyadh? In Beirut? Tehran. In Damascus? Tehran. In Sana’a? Tehran. What Mohammed bin Salman is trying to do for the most part is a power move to tell people that the position that I hold is more important than how much money you have, the position I hold is more important than your adventurous moves.

Now, this is not a defense of MBS, this is just basically I am trying to counter these narratives. You [have] got to get the ‘what else’ out there. This moral equivalency between how bad Iran is versus how bad Saudi is is a concerted effort to allow Iran to continue to do what they are doing. This is in place, [though] the Department of Defense says it is not in place.

Now, here is the biggest argument. This is what I have to fight against, so Brett McGurk and a great American Marine General, General Dunford, went to Capitol Hill and told congressional members that we have to be ‘one Iraq’ people, we have to be a ‘one Iraq government’ because if we do not, it will be a slap in the face to every veteran who ever served in Iraq because it failed. I am a veteran who served, and I know a lot of veterans who served, and I was a ‘one Iraq’ guy before Ramadi, before Fallujah, and before Mosul, where I saw a government not empower its Sunni population to push back against ISIS, but a government that punished its Sunni population for being governed by ISIS.

And when I talked here, when I spoke here, in March of 2016, I said listen, a Sunni military-aged male in Mosul cannot drive down the road, pick up a phone, and call the cops, and say listen, there is an al Qaeda member in my neighborhood, come get him. There was no one to call. They were never empowered to do this. Since that March 2016 presentation, we have seen what has happened to Ramadi, Fallujah, and now Mosul, and then we saw Hawija. And if anybody goes back to the March 2016 presentation, I talked about the Hashd al-Shaabi, and that it does not seem like it is built to take back cities from ISIS, that it is built to move on infrastructure, punish, that it is built to move on Kurdistan, and it had all the indicators.

And we look at the Hawija offensive. The Hawija offensive was the last offensive. It is a little bit off the map, it is right down here where the last ISIS holdout [was located]. And the force that was being moved in there to take on 600 guys was too big. It was huge, and it was an indicator this force is not there to ‘exit’ ISIS, this force is here to move on Kurdistan. And then 72 hours later, they moved on Kurdistan. Then we find out, wait a minute, there is another ISIS pocket just north of Ramadi. They are always comfortable leaving these pockets out there. Remember, Ramadi was cleared in October, November, December 2015. The goal was to go in there, and get ISIS out, and declare victory.

We have never had a counterinsurgency operation in Iraq where an American general went into a city and said, okay, we have destroyed it, we are good, Al Qaeda is dead. That is what has happened in this campaign. There are still ISIS attacks in Baghdad, ISIS attacks in Ramadi, in Tikrit, in Fallujah. And I came back from Mosul 60 days ago, and I landed in Erbil. And I talked to a Peshmerga General, and I said how do I get to Mosul? And he said your most difficult thing is to be able to get out of Kurdistan. Getting into Mosul is easy, so I had a harder time getting through these checkpoints in Kurdistan than I did going into Mosul.

We were almost turned away in in Kurdistan just north of Mosul. [When] we got into Mosul, the military checkpoints were one and two guys, and I am a tall gringo from Texas, sitting in the back of a car, trying not to look like an American. And I have got these sunglasses on, so I am like I have got to take those off. I have a baseball cap on, better take that off. And then I think I look more American now than ever, so the key is to get some really flashy sunglasses, and just act like you know where you are going, but nobody even looked in the car. They just said go, go.

Mosul is already set up for security backslide. The force that went into Mosul is not one that cares about staying, so the day after ISIS, I argue, is the day before ISIS in a lot of cases. The Sunni population and now the Kurdish population are more distrustful of Baghdad than they have ever been, more distrustful of the United States than they have ever been, and the hardest part of this is getting phone calls and getting messages from Peshmerga soldiers and officers that I worked with, saying Mike, what is going on?

And you think about this. We worked with the Sunni Sons of Iraq and the Awakening. [This has to be exactly like] what they felt like when we abandoned them after the Surge, and left them open to al-Qaeda attacks, Shia militia attacks, al-Qaeda reprisal attacks, ISIS as the new iteration of al-Qaeda, and then Shia militias again. And when you are building these relationships and you are trying to forge new allies, you know, you cannot have the Peshmerga be an example of American abandonment, of an American failure to maintain a relationship. And I truly believe that. I have to believe this because we were able to get the Iran deal decertified, we were able to get the Revolutionary Guard Corps designated in its entirety as a terrorist organization.

The president gave a speech on a Friday, and like I said, 60 hours later, the gentleman, General Qassem Soleimani – I should not have said gentleman, but this charismatic leader, this designated terrorist, 60 hours later used Quds Force militias, Kata’ib Hezbollah, Badr Corps, and the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq to move on Kurdish areas. The government could have had a legitimate basis to do something. Okay, we are going to put this back under federal control. You could simply do that by asking the Peshmerga, can you secure these areas, and then we are going to move in, and we will have these joint security checkpoints like we had when Maliki tried to do this in 2008.

The problem I have is listening to a Department of Defense official say that these are not Iranian militias, Iran is not here, these are the federal police. And anybody who has ever worked [in] Iraq and is in the Intel community knows the federal police are Badr Corps, Badr Corps is the IRGC’s/Quds Force’ premier proxy, and these are ‘counterterrorism forces.’ Think about that for a second. Think about a government using their counterterrorism forces to go into a neighborhood, to go into a city and restore order. The same forces you used against ISIS you are now using against your own people, the Peshmerga, the Kurds. And it does not sell, does it? It does not sell.

Where is the Iraqi Army?

And this is the argument that I have with the Iraqi Deputy Chief of Mission. I said listen, I would have been comfortable if the Fourth Iraqi Army Division took command of Kirkuk. The problem is the Fourth Iraqi Army Division does not exist anymore. I would have been happy if the Second Iraqi Army Division took control of Mosul. The problem is it does not exist anymore. I would be happy with a Third Iraqi Army Division took control of Tal Afar. It does not exist anymore. In its place are IRGC/Quds Force command and control militias.

And here is the nuance. See I have a different definition of nuance than the intelligence community has. Nuance in the intelligence community means water it down so nobody takes a side, and we just kind of push it out there, and we are not going to get in trouble for getting it right or wrong. To me nuance means let me explain how this works and here are the levels.

[Let us talk about] Sistani. Everybody knows who Sistani is? Sistani is a cleric in Iraq who issued a fatwa calling for volunteers. One hundred thousand people rose up with no command-and-control structure for them to fall under. The Iraqi military could not absorb them all. Guess who said, ‘we can?’ It was the IRGC/Quds Force militias. Badr Corps was so well established in the MOI that they already had the command-and-control structure to bring them under. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, a designated terrorist group that killed Americans, was another part of that chain of command. Kata’ib Hezbollah is part of this command-and-control structure, another designated terrorist organization.

U.S. Train and Equip Program is being Hijacked by the IRGC-QF

This is what this is all about now, right? This is what I have been doing the last month. I have been briefing congressional members on this, and I have a strategy. Now, I am a Republican. I did not know I was a Republican until President Clinton floated Patricia Schroeder as Secretary of Defense, and I said I am a Republican. I am against this. This does not make sense. She hates the military. I am a Republican. I was actually digging with Jerry Brown prior to that, you know, like I do not know what I am, and I know what I am, but I am not a partisan. I am fact-based. I am happy to have my mind changed. I will go where the facts lead me.

This is a problem because this right here you cannot understand how General Mattis, [General] McMaster, you know, these generals that I worked with. I worked with McMaster in 2007. Again, I am going back to March 2016 because I did not mention his name then because he was a national security adviser at the time, but I went for him, and we worked for Petraeus, and we focused on this. This is what our job was, to determine the model of IRGC influence in the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Defence, and the intelligence apparatus.

This is Qassem Soleimani, okay? This is Hadi al-Amiri. This is the Badr Corps commander, right? He is the commander of the Hashd al-Shaabi, that is where that command-and-control fits in. This gentleman over here is Hajji Shibl. He has killed Americans. He has killed Americans. He was in [Camp] Cropper for killing Americans. This is Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a designated terrorist from Kata’ib Hezbollah who has killed Americans. He has also killed Americans in Kuwait. He is a designated terrorist for what he did. He has a current extradition request so that he can be tried and executed for blowing up embassies in Kuwait in the ’80s. This is the deputy commander of the volunteers that Sistani rose up. This is the commander of the volunteers. On his organization’s patch, his face is present along with Khomeini and Khamenei. He is quoted recently, [which he said] on video, “I am a proud soldier for Qassem Soleimani. Whatever he wants me to do I will do.”

Here are the new ones, the Hashd al-Shaabi. Mike, Mike, they are not all IRGC-Quds Force militias! They are not. I said okay, they are not, but 20 percent are, and the 20 percent are in the command-and-control. And this next slide kind of demonstrates everything. This is how obvious this is, and because it is so obvious, I need more. I do not know why that is. It is because it is a known, it somehow requires more evidence. This is the current Prime Minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi. This is Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Muhandis forced the Prime Minister of Iraq to give him control of the payroll for the Hashd al-Shaabi.

We did not want the Hashd al-Shaabi operating as independent militias, so we said, hey, let us DDR them. Anybody familiar with the term DDR? It is disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate, so we wanted to do that. Basically, they sold it to Americans. Hey, that sounds great. Department of State: we are just going to bring them into the Ministry of Interior, so we have control of them. The problem is they brought them in as units. They brought in Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis into the MOI as the guy who controls the distribution of funds and equipment, so the Sistani volunteers have not been paid in months. His guys get paid, and what they are basically doing is they are creating a foreign league of Sistani volunteers that they can steal away talent and bring them into these militias. The money that they get, he decides where it goes.

I was in Mosul 60 days ago, and I stopped at a Hashd al-Shaabi checkpoint. One guy was a Sistani volunteer. The other guy was a Badr Corps member. The Sistani volunteer had a pistol that he took off an ISIS guy that he had killed in Mosul. The Badr Corps guy had a nice uniform and a nice AK-47. The Sistani guy had not been paid in four months. The Sistani guy wants to be Badr Corps guy, and the Badr Corps guy is almost like he is doing an evaluation on him. He is going to do an Ncoer or a Noncommissioned Officer Evaluation Report and Officer Evaluation Report on this Sistani volunteer to see if he is worthy of getting in, so that is the nuance.

Yes, they are not all IRGC/Quds Force militias, but if these ten people here are, and the rest of us fall under their command-and-control, are we independent anymore or not? We fall under that command-and-control, so we are proxies, we are tools of the Quds Force, and that is what is happening. And this is the biggest disgrace of this whole thing, the use of American M1 Abrams tanks by Iranian militias to not only punish the Sunni populations of Iraq, Sunni Arab populations, but now to move against Kurdish positions, not only against Kurdish positions in Iraq, but they are now moving this equipment to Syria to go after U.S.-trained allies. And this is happening.

The reason we are not talking about is because we do not have a footprint on the ground to develop sources. We do not have a footprint on the ground of American advisors at all levels of the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Defence that would ensure that items do not get into the hands of Iranian proxy militias. This is not good enough.

There is a picture of General Votel from CENTCOM with Qasim al-Araji. If you do not know who Qasim al-Araji is, he was detained twice by American intelligence and JSOC Joint Special Operations Command forces for sneaking across lethal aid to kill Americans (explosives, money). Twice he was detained.

The Iraqi government does not take SIGINT, signals intelligence, as evidence. It does not take human intelligence as evidence. They want to see him crossing the border with the stuff in his hand. If they do not see that, then the evidence does not count. We could not present them Intel because we also did not want to disclose sources and methods, but they said if you do not have his hand in the cookie jar, then he did not do it, and that is one of the biggest problems.

Qasim al-Araji is now the Minister for Iraq’s Ministry of Interior, so there is a picture of General Votel, sitting next to Qasim al-Araji, who is an IRGC/Quds Force Badr commander. He is in the Badr Corps, which is the IRGC’s premier militia, and he is asking him – he is the director of the Ministry of Interior. We have a U.S. train and equip program in the Minister of Interior, and he is asking him, are U.S. funds and equipment getting into the hands of IRGC/Quds Force proxies? And literally his answer is no.

Is that good enough? I mean you are literally sitting with a guy who is a Soleimani lieutenant, asking him if his ministry is somehow hijacking the U.S. training equip program. Brett McGurk says it is not happening because we are monitoring the end of use. We are not. When I was there, that was my job. We had 160,000 soldiers on the ground, embedded all the way down to the battalion and company level of the Iraqi military. These militias were on the joint targeting list. They were not parading around in cities. They were not legitimate. They would not dare show their faces or take selfies on the battlefield. This is not happening. It is not good enough for State Department to say this is not a violation of the Leahy law. It is. Patrick Leahy, so this is the strategy, okay?

Going back to where I said I was a Republican, people do not like Donald Trump. Democrats do not like our president, so we are going after Democrats to get them on board to criticize the president for allowing this to happen because the president does not know this is happening because he is not being briefed [about] it. A person that I trust, the person that I have known for a while, a guy who knows ISIS very well, told me that Brett McGurk’s talent is saying that Mike, Mike, no, we are taking care of all this. This is not happening anymore. This is an old photo. This is old. We are aware of that, and we are working on that. We get that. That land bridge, we are counting on the Iraqi military to stop Iran from doing this. We are counting on the Iraqi Ministry of Interior to stop this. We have got this. We know what we are doing.

If I had the opportunity, I would say no, it is not true, and you remember you are the guy that told Tehran, Baghdad, Ankara, and DC that you could stop the Kurdish vote, that you can stop the referendum. You are also the same guy that has told the Kurds for 10 years, wait. Wait for the referendum. Eventually, we will get there. Each year that we told the Kurds to wait for this referendum, U.S. lovers declined, and Iranian leverage increased, and the Kurds knew that quite well.

When I was in Kurdistan on my last trip I was asked before the referendum, should we do this? I said, you know, you have to do it. If you do not do it, you are never going to have an opportunity to do it again. And I said this, and I will take credit. I will take credit and blame for this. I said if you do this, minds will change. If you do this, American minds will change. We are seeing some momentum in Congress. The president’s mind has not changed because I do not believe he knows. I do not believe he knows how serious this is, that if you have a strategy and you put it down on paper, you have a legislative strategy, if you actually have tools in place, designate the Quds Force, designate the IRGC, stop what Iran is doing in Iraq, you have the tools to do this.

Well, the one way you do that, if you want to fight ISIS, keep ISIS from coming back, and halt the Iranian invasion of Iraq, you simply move the US train and advisory role to Erbil. You can still target ISIS. You can take away what now is that land bridge going across northern Iraq, and you can actually build leverage with Baghdad by showing them that you are not going to put up with this anymore. You can also build Sunni outreach into Mosul and these other places.

These divisions that I mentioned, the Second Iraqi Army, Third, and Fourth Iraqi Army Divisions were divisions that I served with when I was in uniform. They were highly trained Sunnis and Kurds, trained by Americans embedded. Maliki kicked them all out [and] put Shias in place. He wanted a coup protection force and he wanted to basically neutralize, limit, constrain effective Sunni and Kurdish leaders. The divisions do not exist anymore.

And when we spoke a year and a half ago, and when we did this, we talked about [how] it is this simple. Put out a call. How many of you used to serve in the Iraqi army? Come back. Get back promotion one rank and six months backpay. That would have been nothing as far as the U.S. investment in Iraq at this point. We did not do that. Here is what is so bad at this point, again, Badr Corps [and] Kata’ib Hezbollah.

This is important. If you find a tank on the battlefield, anybody here ever been in an armor, a tanker? Anyone? Can you find an M1 Abrams on the battlefield and drive it if you are ISIS? You cannot. You put it on the back of a truck, and you move it out. I have spoken to the tankers on the M1A1 Abrams. You cannot drive it unless you have been trained, and you cannot drive it in the Iraqi military unless you have been trained by a U.S. advisor. And this should never happen. These militia members bragged that they can wear any uniform in the Iraqi military, so that is who is getting training.

And here is an issue here, and this is where we should focus. The pilots that are being trained in the United States right now from Iraq are the ones that were selected by these militias and by Qassem Soleimani. There is no doubt Sunnis are getting this training. A Sunni with a tank is an enemy, A Kurd with a tank is an enemy, a Kurdish pilot is an enemy, a Sunni pilot is an enemy, and Qassem Soleimani did not care if you were Shias, Sunni, or Christian when he had an execution campaign against Iraqi pilots in 2005, ’06 and ’07 to go after them regardless of religion because they were a threat to Tehran.

Tehran will not allow anything that we developed militarily in Iraq to become a threat to Tehran, and that is why people that get trained on these tanks are their guys. The Ninth Iraqi Army Division was an armored unit. The First Iraqi Army Division is an armored unit. All the Sunnis were kicked out of both divisions, and this was under our nose in 2007, ’08, and ’09, and those divisions now are still active. The divisions that I spoke about earlier have now been disbanded.

So, again, Qassem Soleimani, al-Muhandis the engineer, and Hajji Shibl, and every one of them killed Americans. Every one of them is now a legitimate member of the Ministry of Interior with the exception of Qassem Soleimani, who runs it, by the way, and are getting American paychecks because we basically fund the MOI. We fund the MOI and the MOD. This is a problem.

This is the biggest offense to me. This gentleman here is Qais Khazali. This is what I worked on when I was in Iraq. This man and his group, the League of the Righteous or Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, conducted an operation in Karbala where they kidnapped five Americans to trade them for four IRGC members. Qassem Soleimani ordered this operation. That is Qassem Soleimani to the right. That is Qais Khazali to the left. The kidnapping operation went wrong early. Four Americans were executed in the back of a vehicle. One American died on the objective and was awarded a Silver Star after his heroic actions. We were able to show Prime Minister Maliki intelligence that blamed this on Qassem Soleimani and on Qais Khazali. Qais Khazali was detained. His brother was detained. [Ali Mussa] Daqduq from Lebanese Hezbollah was detained.

They were all at [Camp] Cropper, and we met with them on a weekly basis to get them to reconcile because at the time I was working with a group called the Force Strategic Engagement Cell, which was set up by General [Graeme] Lamb of the British SAS and McChrystal of our JSOC. And we had a mission, find reconcilables, and if they are irreconcilable, then they go back on the targeting list.

And this gentleman here was somebody we were never going to let go. We had all the evidence. Qassem Soleimani now gets a paycheck from the MOI. He gets a paycheck from the Quds Force. [He] used M1 Abrams tanks to move on Al Tooz in the south of Kurdistan, south of Kirkuk, 60 hours after the President’s speech on Qassem Soleimani, if you think about what he said. And this guy is so not worried about anything that he opened up a recruiting center in Kirkuk behind the Marjan Hotel. [They] literally put out an ad saying, hey, come on down to our recruiting center behind the Marjan Hotel, and join AAH so you can kill Peshmerga, so you can kill Kurds, and kill Sunnis.

That right there demonstrates how much of a failure our ISIS strategy has been in Iraq because it has basically turned allies. Sunni allies we lost a while back. Our Kurdish allies we do not ever want them to be enemies. There will not be a more potent fighter or a bigger danger to American forces than an angry, justified and legitimate, Peshmerga fighter, who sees his town destroyed by a Qassem Soleimani-led force, and that sounds alarmist. It sounds big, but, you know, warnings and indicators.

The Peshmerga official army website is now calling for the United States to exit Kurdistan because we did not provide aid after the earthquake. Has that changed at all? That should change. Baghdad did not provide aid after the earthquake. Tehran did not provide aid after the earthquake. Ankara did provide aid after the 7.2 earthquake in Kurdistan.

This gentleman here is part of this DDR process that we talked about that sells well to [the United States] State [Department] and sells well to experts. I am a former military guy. I spent 20 years in the military. This is how it works. I go to the Pentagon. I work at the Pentagon on for a year and I try to get out. I am there at the Pentagon on for a year. I somehow am now in charge of this program, and I want it to be successful. We are going to call it DDR. I am not an expert. I do not know who he is. I am there for a year and I am looking at my next assignment. And I tell you this is a good process, this DDR process, disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate.

This terrorist’s group, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, are being proposed to be the 8th, 9th, and 10th Iraqi Army Divisions. Think about that for a second. Out of the Ministry of Defense to have a designated terrorist group be able to not only get a paycheck from the Quds Force, get a paycheck from the MOD, be able to operate in an MOD uniform, also be able to operate in an AAH uniform as a legitimate, deputized force as part of this DDR process. These are things that we just will not be taken seriously if we allow it to happen, and I am not saying that I have any faith that we are going to stop it, but we need to go back to what I said about Brett McGurk and the land bridge and saying none of this is happening.

Prove me wrong please on all these things. I am happy to be wrong on all of this.

This is the Iraqi Army Division or the Iraqi Army unit. Brett McGurk says we will stop the Iranian land bridge. They are actually built to facilitate it, and here is the strategy of Iran, and everybody here who has followed Iran knows this. The strategy is to punish Jerusalem at some point, punish Israel at some point, and you do that by establishing logistical operational supply lines, by establishing presence. Right now, there is a rush in Congress to stop Iran from building bases in Syria, where they are actually weaponizing, they are increasing the efficacy of land-based missiles technology, so they can hit precision targets, they can hit with precision. Right now, they are basically just launch in that direction and hope Insha’Allah something happens. Now they can say I want to hit that house.

And we are wondering how did they get to that, how were they able to move this stuff into Syria? Well, through Iraq. And our intelligence community cannot think that for a second that you are going to be looking at Iranian-flagged armor columns going across Iraq or an obvious Iranian military convoy going across Iraq. These convoys to date, when these militias are moved into these positions where I showed that map, they fly Iraqi flags, and you cannot fire on Iraqi flags without firing on a sovereign country. The problem is there is no sovereignty in Iraq if you are an Iraqi nationalist, if you are a Sunni, if you are a Kurd, if you are a Shia nationalist because your government has been sold out to Tehran.

This is very telling. This is Hadi al-Amiri again, the commander of Badr Corps, Iran’s longest-serving proxy. One of these gentlemen that speaks English, presents well to U.S. military commanders. When I have had a chance to brief the military forces that are going to Iraq, briefing the 10th Mountain [Division] in February, they will probably be asked not to come to Iraq, and I will get to that in a second.

How many of you been there before? The rank and file have not. Their senior NCOs and the senior officers have. And I said you are going to have a very effective fighting force that is going to be willing to take on ISIS or ISIS 2.0, but the problem is they see anybody who is a Sunni military-age male as ISIS. This gentleman here, Hadi al-Amiri, is polling higher than the current prime minister. He can credit success for Tikrit – Qassem Soleimani as well, Tikrit, Fallujah, Ramadi, and Mosul, and Kirkuk because when the Kirkuk offensive happened, two gentlemen went to Kirkuk to lower the Kurdish flag, and raise the Iraqi flag, and also the Badr Corps and Kata’ib Hezbollah flag. It was Hadi al-Amiri and it was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

And this is what is so disappointing. When you go to think tanks and you go to these private round tables where we talk about these issues. And you will hear this argument being made, and it is dominant, and it is an indicator of how bad this is. Well, this gentleman here is not as bad as Qais Khazali or Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, so he is acceptable. Can we work with him when his allegiance is to Qassem Soleimani? We countered this, that narrative. That narrative came up, popped up in the summer.

We countered that narrative to the point now where there is a full offensive to support Haider al-Abadi as the prime minister. The problem is the more the U.S. gets behind him, the more likely he is not to win, but the real the nuance to all of this is it does not matter who the prime minister is. Iran will decide. If the United States stays, it will probably be Abadi. But every candidate running so far, on their platform, the number-one question they are asked is how soon can you get the Americans out. And everybody running to his right is saying I can get them out sooner.

Qais Khazali has a political party now and is running the 2018 elections. He has had one before, but now he can take credit for Tikrit, Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul, and Kirkuk. Muhandis has not declared, but he will probably be the [Minister] of Defense or the National Security Adviser to the next Prime Minister.

Haider al-Abadi is a compromise candidate who is easily influenced by the parties. He is not strong. We are trying to say he is. We are trying to say the Iraqi army is his. He has no command over the Hashd al-Shaabi. He says he does. And as much as I would like to say that Sistani has control over the Hashd al-Shaabi, he does not. He stood them up. It is easy to say hey, we need a hundred thousand volunteers.

Everybody says yes, but do not wear sectarian flags and bandanas and patches. Nobody listened, just like Muqtada Sadr with Jaysh al-Mahdī. We are going to do a ceasefire, we are going to kill Americans; yay, everybody wants to do it. Stop killing Americans; they do not listen. They become special groups. They become Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. They become Kata’ib Hezbollah. They become these other groups, so there is a lack of control in this area, but we are touting this as a success.

We do not know how many civilians were killed in Mosul. We do not know how many civilians were killed in Ramadi and Fallujah, but Mosul, conservative estimates from NGOs and UN people on the ground estimate 20,000 civilians were killed. That is low end, but there is no talk about that. There is no talk about how many people died in this city of 500,000, Ramadi, when Kata’ib Hezbollah militias were rocketing and pummeling this city with crude artillery. I took a picture of Mosul over my right shoulder when I went, to just show the destruction of the old city, and it was also to answer, again, [people saying things like] what do you know, what do you know about Iraq, you are not Iraqi.

Well, I spent a lot of time there. My country spent a lot of time there. A lot of Americans have died so we do have a say, we do have a right to critique things, especially if we were there, and so I went there to say listen, I am here. I walked these same streets when I was in uniform, and I watched these same streets when I was working as an intelligence officer, as an advisor. And now you cannot walk the streets because you cannot get down the street because it is rubble or because there is unexploded ordnance. Again, the last time the United States destroyed a city in Iraq was Fallujah [in] 2004 and 2005.

If you look at Syria, Iran sees this as one battlefield. ISIS sees this as one battlefield. The United States sees it as two distinct separate places where we can do something here and do the opposite in the other place, and so you provide air power to a Shia proxy force in Iraq to go after Sunni militias, and you criticize Russia for doing the same thing in Syria. They are using proxy forces on the ground, an Iranian proxy force, to punish Sunni population centers. Shia militias are now saying they are going to Syria to fight ISIS. They are not. They are going to take territory away from the YPG. They are going to take territory away from the SDF, and there is always an ISIS fighter you can kill.

But in every case, and it is something interesting, the article that you sent me about the coordination by our proxy forces on the ground. When I say that, the Iraqi military, the federal police, the Hashd al-Shaabi, the counterterrorism forces in each of these cases has allowed the exit of ISIS fighters from Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul, Tikrit, and now we are doing it in Deir Ezzor and Raqqa. Again, ISIS is morphing into the al Qaeda model. They have learned not to raise a flag because unless you can shoot down a military aircraft, you do not want to let everybody know you are here, so you go into this al Qaeda model.

But we have not defeated ISIS, we have taken away real estate and we have discredited by supporting governments that have oppressed their people if that makes any sense. Baghdad is worse off with the Sunnis Arabs and Kurds because of this blatant US support to a sectarian government’s overreaction and heavy-handed tactics against its population in the name of fighting ISIS. They are doing the same thing now with the Peshmerga. They are going to do the same thing now with [the people] who we are working with in Syria, and this all plays to Iran. And again, Iran is not a conventional force.

The decertification of the Iran Deal keeps Iran from becoming an economic power, keeps it from becoming a conventional force, and now allows us to target it when it starts to weaponize and starts to do things. The JCPOA provided them cover to do this over ten years, to become an economic power, to become a conventional military power, and then at the end of the day, simply put a warhead on top of a ballistic missile. That was not part of the JCPOA, but part of the UN Security Council resolutions, so everything is great about what happened with decertification. The problem is the certification and designating the IRGC means nothing if you do not do anything here, and that is the problem right now.

We are not afraid of Iran by any means, we are not, but we are allowing this strategic chess player to take advantage of inaction, to take advantage of the loss of momentum, so the president gets praised for 59 cruise missiles in Syria because Assad used sarin gas on his population, and we had an opportunity to create a schism between Moscow and Tehran because Tehran and Assad look to Putin and said why are you here if you cannot stop these American cruise missiles from attacking our bases or did you coordinate with the Trump administration to do this?

And we did not follow up. We did not say the next barrel bomb is the same thing as a sarin gas attack. We are looking to hold Assad accountable for his intelligence officers and his security apparatus for allowing Sunni military-age males to move in from [the] Maghreb and other places in the Middle East into Iraq to kill Americans, so now you can actually hold Iran accountable through its proxies for Sunni attacks on Americans, Sunni suicide attacks, Sunni high-profile attacks [like] when that foreign fighter came in through Syria because you did not just go through Syria, you actually stopped at a holding area.

You were briefed by not only al Qaeda members but Syrian Intel, and you were allowed to to be assessed. It was a job interview. What do you do? You are a sniper? Good, we can use you. You can build a car bomb. You are good at computers. You are good at information operations. This was an area to discuss your capabilities, so if you show up and say, I want to kill Americans, I am going to go back home and talk about it on social media, they are like do you have a skill? No, but I want to do this. We have the best job for you. You are the shaheed. You will blow yourself up. You are the car bomber. I do not want to do that, I just want to kill Americans. No, brother. This is the most important job. We are going to put you in this two-week training program where we tell you that after ten minutes, you will be in heaven with your virgins.

And this takes me to a quick, quick thing back in 2005, I [was] on a checkpoint with a Kurdish general, and we were basically looking for car bombs dismounted, so imagine being at a checkpoint, there are a bunch of cars, and you are asking each car, ‘is this a car bomb?’ Like no, no. Then he looks at me and he says brother, if we die, within seconds we will be in heaven, and I thought this is a great bonding moment with my Peshmerga officer. And he goes, but you, no virgins. He said that. I cannot believe that. That is just not right. He said, okay, two, you get two. Anyway, that was a cool story.

So, if you do not have a story, you become a suicide bomber, but if you have a skill, you are assessed by Syrian Intel as somebody that they can continue to develop on how to build an IED, on how to do sniper operations, on how to do these things. Then you get to go into Iraq, and kill Americans because Iran wanted to punish us for being in Iraq because they viewed somehow us been in Afghanistan and Iraq as you are next. I would feel the same way. You have got the Americans to the north, and you have the Americans to the west. What do you do? So, I am going to open it up to questions there. I hope that fit the mold of this thing. This is very concerning, and we have legislation now to sanction Iraqi militias.

The World Bank is even skeptical of doing business with Baghdad now, which is great because if anybody knows Iran, the Revolutionary Guard Corps has its tentacles in every aspect of the Iranian economy, every sector. They are now doing that in Iraq, and one of the best parts about having these tools is Russia is doing the same thing. You can punish Russia. You can do these things. I talked about getting Democrats on board to oppose Trump’s policies in Iraq and Syria. This is a way to get them: hey, Russia, Russia is doing this with Iran and Iraq, and Trump is allowing it. Let us do something about that. I am a good Republican, but sir.

I love the fact that I used to be an enlisted guy because being an enlisted guy taught me you can say something, you can speak your mind, and then you are told to sit down and be quiet, but at least you got it out there. And I have always viewed that as a badge of courage, being an officer when commanders told me you are too much of an NCO. I like that, that is a good place to be. Anyway, I will open it up to questions.


Audience member:

You mentioned earlier that the president did not know some of this. I do not know, but in my mind, I am thinking that Sebastian Gorka still may have his ear, and he is one to tell.

Michael Pregent:

We had a joint press conference with Sebastian Gorka, Trent Franks, Duncan Hunter, and me, [as well as] Lee Zeldin and DeSantis, and Gorka spoke, and we spoke about these things. And we are trying to get to the president because I truly believe that when the president is made to feel foolish about something, he tends to do something about it. It may not be the right thing all the time, but he tends to do something about it. This is an easy fix. There is no more of an American group of people in the Middle East than the anti-Iranian Peshmerga of Dohuk and Erbil, and the nationalists in Iraq, Sunnis and Shia, are looking for the U.S. to give them some sort of signal that we are going to push back against Iran.

The thing that I heard is the president has told his national security staff, do not give me my own Iraq war. Well, sir, you get it anyway and you get it if you ignore this, and it is accelerated, and it is more costly, so you get it anyway. Head it off now because Iran is a paper tiger now. You can do a lot, you just have to know what to do, and it is pretty easy. You have got a lot of willing partners and a lot of willing regional allies that can do that.

Audience member:

I noticed that the president came out not making a commitment to the Kurds, but the Kurds seem like they are the most stable group together and they were sympathetic to the American and also Christians, a lot of their groups protected Christians, so it is a tragedy that the Kurds are not given their own land, and that we do not protect them. Is there any attempt to highlight them and their needs?

Michael Pregent:

President Macron of France has actually been leading this effort to do something about this, to keep the Kurdish Region from further being encroached upon, but the international community that came out against the Kurdish referendum, and came out against the Kurds seeking independence, are the same groups that prefer to stage in Erbil and Kurdistan because it is progressive, it is Western leaning, it is not a non-intrusive place where you can practice Western values in the open because Western values are already being practiced, and yet the international community came out against this because [of] this one Iraq fallacy.

I was a one Iraq guy until we handed it over to Iran. In 2016, when I did this before, I said Iraq is like an iPad, if you drop it on the floor, it does not work anymore. Now, [if] you drop it on the floor, something comes out of it, something that works better, something that allows us to stay, and that is an independent Kurdish Region in my opinion. And the reason we at least need to tilt that way, to work with the Kurds that way, is it gives us leverage with Baghdad. And in the words of Representative DeSantis, he said it best, if Tehran is upset about it, and if Ankara is upset about it, then it seems like it is the right thing to do.

Audience member:

My name is Kami Butt. I am with The Pakistani Spectator, and my question is do you think the Obama administration did not know the connection between Osama bin Laden and Iran? [I ask] because Obama, basically, you know, made Saudi Arabia create a lot of animosity, and tried to bring America and Iran closer, and it kind of isolated Pakistan as well because, you know, Pakistani intelligence is very much involved with Saudi Arabia. And they did a successful operation in NWFP. They eliminated ISIS, and this is the first Pakistani Prime Minister who has been educated in Washington, DC. And do you think that President Trump could use these factors [that] are variable to eliminate ISIS with the help of ISI? Thanks.

Michael Pregent:

Yes, alright, so the best part about me being able to answer this question is the Osama bin Laden documents have been released. I worked on the Abbottabad SSE, the sensitive site exploitation, and we looked for links to the ISI, so the ISI had to know he was there, but at the end of the day, Hamid Ghul knew he was there because Hamid Gul was no longer in the ISI, but he is a former director. And as Americans when you retire, you are no longer part of the agency. In Pakistan, if you retire, you are senior, you get to decide who the next guy is, and you get to weigh in on every subsequent director.

So, going back to what the Obama administration knew about Iran’s links to al-Qaeda, absolutely, and that is why they kept our team, so our team got permission on a Friday to go to DC on a Monday to have a week access to all the documents. We already had translators, we already had minded it, we knew where we wanted to go. We knew what reports we wanted to see. Friday night we were canceled by the National Security Council by Susan Rice. They shut down our organization, and two weeks later I was let go. My whole team was let go. We were felon or sequestration. Three months prior to that we were the tip of the spear for CENTCOM, looking at the sensitive site exploitation of the Abbottabad thing, so this is something that they knew, and they knew it would derail the Iran Deal, and that is why they did not do it.

So now if you look at the linkages, what American would have supported the Iran Deal if they knew that Iran had supported al-Qaeda, and brought him [(Osama bin Laden)] safe harbor, and did these things? The only time Iran ever punished al-Qaeda is when al-Qaeda operatives in Iran got so cocky that they told everybody, we are al-Qaeda, what can you do to us? And they got drunk in a bar, and the IRGC put them in jail. Osama bin Laden found out about it, scolded his guys, said do not mess with them again, please release my guys, I vouch for them, they will not ever do this again.

This is absolutely [true] and you seem to tilt toward traditional allies in the Middle East, tilt towards Saudi Arabia. We shined a light on Qatar for [their] ties to these different groups. It also shines a light back on Saudi Arabia for adventurous ties to different groups. It also sends a message to the ISI for supporting the Haqqani Network, for supporting different groups. Again, if you look at this as an intelligence professional, you simply say that, of course, the ISI has ties to these groups because this is what traditional human intelligence looks like. You work with bad people, you do things, you find strategic angles, you find leverage.

I like what we did, but again, another loss of momentum. I talked about the 59 cruise missiles loss of momentum by not exploiting that schism between Putin, Tehran, and Damascus. There is another schism with Qatar. And the president also talked about ceasing an alliance with Pakistan based on these things. It shines a light on everybody’s space. Work with us. We know what you are doing. But again, if you look at it, it is traditional intelligence operations, you work with bad people to find what bad people are doing. And if you look at the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia prior to our tilt, they could [have] rolled up 400 al-Qaeda guys tomorrow if they needed to. They could roll up 400 ISIS fighters tomorrow if they needed to because they always know where they are.

And the one thing when we talk about Iran and Saudi Arabia, I always ask how many Shia militias have ever attacked Tehran? How many Sunni groups have ever attacked Tehran? Well, we had the ISIS group that was a loosely affiliated group of Sunni Arabs in Iran, and that is that. So, yes, they knew about it, and that is why they shut down an effort to look at it, and that is [why] they were hesitant to release this while the JCPOA was being negotiated.

Audience member:

Thank you, Michael, for this presentation and for your remarks. I just want to say something before I ask a question. You first mentioned that since ISIS was defeated in Iraq, now it has been replaced by Hashd al-Shaabi or PMF. Those people are you said 2.0, [but] it is not only those. The Iraqi government itself is doing the same thing of what ISIS has been doing because now the Iraqi parliament is debating [whether] to pass a bill, debating a bill to revoke the legislation to [make it legal for a] nine-year-old child to be married. This is exactly what ISIS was doing. And this is the Iraqi government, the same thing it is trying to do, so it is not only Hashd al-Shaabi. We have in the Iraqi government the same as ISIS. This is what is happening.

But my question is – I spoke with a few Kurdish generals on the ground, that they say to link this, what is happening, to us, Fish is attacked by Hashd al-Shaabi. We need to fight. We need to get to the war. Do you think the war will be [the] solution for this?

Michael Pregent:

Fighting back?

Audience member:

Fighting back so [that] the Kurds will get support.

Michael Pregent:

We expected the Peshmerga to fight back in Kirkuk. Of course, the PUK collapsed and the KDP was not in a position to do something, but the Kurds did fight back north of Dohuk and inflicted casualties on the Hashd al-Shaabi and the Iraqi military, and that actually demonstrated to Baghdad, again, what we have been saying from the beginning, no force of the ground in Iraq has ever been successful without U.S. airpower in support of it. That is the same with ISIS, it is the same with Hashd al Shaabi, that is the same with everything.

On its own, the Peshmerga can actually hold off the Hashd al-Shaabi. It can hold off the Iraqi military. The problem is whether or not, you know, it is almost like you only want to fight Hashd al Shaabi because then it can be justified. It is hard to fight when there is an Iraqi flag on a tank coming at you because then you look treasonous, and that is the issue.

Going back to what you said, every loss of terrain by ISIS has been a gain for the Iranians in Syria and Iraq, every place, even in traditional Sunni areas are now controlled by Hashd al Shaabi, not necessarily a physical presence, but limiting the capability of local forces to defend themselves so that they actually are weakened, so they are not a threat to this Shia sectarian fault line areas, the areas along the Shia-Sunni sectarian fault lines. But they are not able to actually fight ISIS, so I talked to two members from Ramadi about fighting ISIS, and they said we do not have any bullets for our guns. And they would say it is by design, and they are telling us, Daesh is your problem, you have to fight ISIS on your own.

So now we force them after this failure in Kirkuk to move out into the desert in Anbar to go after the last pockets of ISIS, but again, you do not defeat ISIS unless you stay and whole territory, but yes, if you look at the actions of ISIS and the Shia militias and the government, [just] because somebody does it in a suit does not make them less of a threat if they do it [while] dressed like a guerrilla fighter.

Audience member:

I think one of the main reasons that the assault of the Hashd al Shaabi and the IRGC on Kirkuk and the Kurds has nothing to do with the referendum. It has to do with the oil of Kirkuk.

Michael Pregent:

It was always going to happen regardless.

Audience member:

And sure enough, right after the occupation of Kirkuk by the Hashd [al Shaabi], the Iraqi Oil Ministry signed a deal with the Iranians to export oil from Kirkuk to Iran immediately and establish a pipeline to replace the pipeline going through Turkey.

Michael Pregent:

Yes, right.

Audience member:

I just want to say something. This is extremely dangerous and strategically it will change the area and the region dramatically. Kirkuk is one of the nine biggest oil fields on the planet, probably the last place we will pump oil on the planet will be Kirkuk. This is now under the control of Qassem Soleimani. Qassem Soleimani’s enterprise very soon is going to have the income of the biggest oil field in the world under his complete control. They are not hiding it. They say we are going to do it, and the deal between the Minister of Oil for Iraq and the Minister of Oil for Iran is approved and prepared by IRGC and the Quds Force.

Michael Pregent:


Audience member:

Now you are going to have [a situation in which] the Quds Force is going to have an income from Kirkuk equivalent to many countries in the Gulf, okay? My question is, coming out of this, people were talking about fighting ideas. The answer [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave] is it is also very important to kill them. I agree with him. Now, if Qassem Soleimani is on the terrorist list, why does the United States not treat him equally like Osama bin Laden?

Maybe I know the path of the answer of the first question, but the second question is you as an ex-intelligence officer, an expert who we all respect, can you walk us through what is required for the United States government to put a nice Hellfire rocket on his head as soon as possible?

Michael Pregent:

Qassem Soleimani was taken off the joint targeting list back in 2006 and ’07, taken off, never put back on because we were worried about [the fact that] we were fighting al Qaeda in Iraq and militias, and we did not want [to fight with] Iran. I am not going to justify why, [I am] just [telling you] that is what happened. Now, with Qassem Soleimani doing this, one of the pushes now is anytime there is an American tank with a Qassem Soleimani/Quds Force’ proxy flag flying from it, it is an ISIS tank. It is a piece of terrorist equipment.

There is legislation going through Congress right now to designate Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Kata’ib al-Imam Ali. It is very good. Now, it cannot just be sanctions, it cannot just be U.S. Treasury that does this, it needs to be vetted. And this is something that the Iranians have learned from our response with North Korea. This is something that they learn with our response towards Hezbollah, that we deal with what are the ramifications of targeting a Qassem Soleimani, what are the ramifications are going after Shia militias.

Part of the thing that secured the Iran Deal, Leon Panetta said this, if we go against Iran’s strategic interests in Iraq and Syria, the JCPOA would fall apart, [so] we are constrained. Our U.S. servicemembers in Iraq are outnumbered by Qassem Soleimani’s guys and can be targets. So, the ramifications: if I am an Iranian general, I am very comfortable [that] I am not going to be targeted because if I am targeted, my guys will kill Americans. They outnumber us 20 to 1 in Iraq. We are always looking at the ramifications, so North Korea, if we strike North Korea, what do they do to South Korea? If we strike Iran, what does Hezbollah do to Israel? That is the issue, the second and third order effects of targeting a general. Well, you do not have to have links directly to the United States if any of this happens. These are these are just simple things that we cannot say as Americans, but every other foreign intelligence service will say, have somebody else do it. It is simple.

Audience member:

Imad Mughniyeh was killed in Damascus.

Michael Pregent:

Yeah, I mean the best opportunity for those things to happen [is out of country]. The number of IRGC generals that have been killed in Syria and killed in Iraq by snipers, that happened [and is significant]. Qassem Soleimani was rumored to be injured a year and a half ago, and then there were rumors circulating. And again, my Kurdish friends do not send anything that is fake that I can google search and show that it is not actually [true]. I get it. I hear what you are saying. We should be as outraged about a photo that is a year and a half old as one that was taken yesterday. The problem is our media operates on ‘this is two years ago.’ The rumor was that Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was killed by a Peshmerga sniper.

Those things will not be frowned upon by the United States if any of that stuff happens, but the United States will not conduct a Joint Special Operations mission to go after Qassem Soleimani even though we went after Qais Khazali, even though we went after al-Muhandis, even though we went after [Ali Mussa] Daqduq, and Laith Khazali, and Hajji Shibl and Akram Al-Kaabi. We went after every one of those IRGC/Quds Force lieutenants with U.S. intelligence and U.S. Special Operations forces. This mission is different from what we did in Iraq during the Surge. We went after al-Qaeda and Shia militias. Now we are actually providing air cover to a heavily infiltrated security force dominated by Shia militias with ties to Iran, to go after a Sunni population, and call it a war against ISIS, so that is the issue.

As these things progress, you have Iraqi militias being designated as terrorist organizations, a huge step. The next part would be hey, can we put in these guys in the joint targeting list, and what are the ramifications? Muqtada al-Sadr was on the joint targeting list for a minute, and we said no, if we do this, we have 10,000 guys from Sadr City that would kill Americans. That is one of the biggest mistakes. A lot of people now say that he should have been taken out a while back, but again, Muqtada al-Sadr is not the problem now. He has been pushed aside by Iran. He is just looking for a paycheck. He will do something, he will get paid off, then he goes away. He will be summoned to Tehran and told to be quiet. These are not issues. Again, do not be confused by Saudi investment in Iran. Remember, Saudis have invested in Lebanon, and Iran has always been okay with that as long as nothing [that] the Saudis do keeps Iran from doing things militarily, and that will be the same contract in Iraq. And that is the situation.

Audience member:

Good evening. Thank you so much for the information. You mentioned that the Kurdish people were burned by [the U.S., they] were abandoned by the United States on October 25, so what are your Kurdish contacts telling you about alternatives, alternative allies to the United States? Like, if they were to look at Russian influence, what did they ask for that would be subtle? What did they ask for that would be overt? What did they get assuming that the United States presence remains there what it is currently?

Michael Pregent:

Well, Putin has already exploited this schism. Putin is already engaging the KRG, and the PUK, and the KDP. He is smart. Qassem Soleimani has his inroads into Gorran, and has inroads into the PUK, and now has somebody that they believe they can work with out of the KDP. Even hardened Sunni, anti-Baghdad, anti-Shia sectarians told me in Ramadi that Iran is the biggest ‘tribe’ now, so we will work with Iran, we have no choice.

There is this strong ‘tribe’ concept [that] just works. If sectarianism was a principled position, you would not be able to get a car bomb through a Shia checkpoint, through Shia neighborhoods to target a Shia area. Sectarianism, fortunately, is not a principled position.

But again, you can pay somebody at a checkpoint $200 bucks to get a car bomb through when everybody at the checkpoint knows it is a car bomb because I am not willing to die for this, and that is a macro look at this situation, so what did the Kurds ask for? Well, Congress just said we are going to directly arm and send funds to the KRG now, and not go through Baghdad, so that is a good thing. Our Joint Special Operations mission requires that we base out of Erbil to continue to do that.

The problem is they have gone to the mattresses. We are on the bases, we are not out, we are not working with our counterparts or working the Iraqi military forces, and not with Peshmerga and Kurds outside of the Iraqi army because the Iraqi Army will not let them back in. There are no more Sunni battalions, companies, brigades in the Iraqi military. There are no more Kurdish companies battalions, brigades in the Iraqi military. Half of the Iraqi military has been decimated – not decimated, but the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Iraqi Army Divisions that I talked about no longer exist and there is no effort to build them.

So, what did the Kurds ask for? The Kurds asked for us to do the right thing, and do not give up on the U.S. just yet. October 25th is when this happened and there has not been further encroachment. There have been rumored airstrikes against Shia militia positions by some allies that the Kurds have and those are good things, so Baghdad knows that this is a fight that they cannot take on just yet. The problem is the Kurds, and when I say that when I say the Kurds, I am talking about Erbil and Dohuk. They are now looking at Sulaymaniyah as a potential backdoor for Iranian aggression.

They are looking at other places that they should not have to look, but I get it. I get it. If you do not have the United States standing there with you, you have to do things. I mean we came out so heavily against this. Ambassador Crocker said this. We came out so heavily against a referendum that somehow, we gave a green light for heavy-handed response. This was a vote. This was not a binding position that the Kurds took. This was a vote to say hey, after all of this, we want to decide how to live in a country.

And if you think about it, Barzani said it best the other day when he was talking to Christiane Amanpour. He said, you know, where is the world on democracy and freedom? It does not exist. We have to survive. We have to do this ourselves now. We have no friends, and I hate to hear an ally say that about the United States.

Audience member:

I was the senior monitoring policy advisor to the Central Bank of Iraq in 2005 and ’06. Thank you for a fascinating and totally depressing story.

Michael Pregent:

It is all solution based.

Audience member:

Unfortunately, it is not new. It is all too common. Vietnam comes to mind. Every time we try to take sides in somebody else’s civil war on somebody else’s territory, we get this kind of story. You put your finger on part of it in saying that you can spend a year at the Pentagon, you spend a year here, we rotate our guys and gals through, and therefore nobody becomes a real expert on who the bad guys are this week or who the bad guys [will be] next week. We just do not know who we are playing the game with.

The final example was standing where you are now, last month or the month before, was a young lady from Kurdistan who argued convincingly that the referendum was a terrible idea. First of all, we cannot talk about the Kurds as a unified thing any more than we can talk about Iraqis as a unified thing. They are internal enemies. They are only working together because they have a common external enemy at the moment. And she thought it was awful that the current administration is only perpetuating an illegal rule, having suspended elections for a long time, and she was against it, so good people like yourself and her can be on opposite sides, very genuinely and sincerely. Why do we think we know enough about these foreign places to send our young people out there to take sides and die? I will never understand.

Michael Pregent:

Well, we should know based on our history, based on simply looking at the successes and failures. We are so afraid of our failures that we would repeat them. We are so afraid of using our successes that we shelve them, and I do not understand it because in Afghanistan, we have been there for 17 years, and I would say we have been there 17 times for one-year deployments. We have run the Afghanistan campaign like Dan Snyder runs the Redskins, trying to win every year with a different team, and it just does not work.

Going back to your point about where you worked in Iraq and what sector you worked in, we can now sanction the Iraqi government. And that goes back to your question [about] sanctioning Iraqi oil companies for working with the Iranians through the IRGC, so there are tools, but will we use those tools? Will we be afraid to use those tools?

Going back to good people being on opposite sides of an issue, I find myself on the opposite side of these issues because of these two simple things: I do not believe that there is a rule of law in Iraq, I believe that the Constitution is used when it benefits somebody, and it is shelved when it does not, and that [the] party in power is always able to decide how it is used.

When I argue with both colleagues about the Iraqi military, they show me line and block charts, they show me things on paper that say that this is what the Iraqi Army is. I was in the Iraqi Army as an advisor, and again, I was a first iteration advisor, and I know that a line and block chart is a line and block chart. And when you have a 50 percent manning of a unit on the ground, it is not reflected in a line and block chart. Anybody know what a line and block chart is? Basically, this is what the division looks like.

[When] I argue with [people] about this, I want to have my mind changed. I believe that good people can be on the wrong [or] different sides of an issue, but I also believe good people should look at the reality on the ground, and the reality on the ground is Iraq’s military is not what the line and block charts say, and Iraq’s constitution is being selectively used because there is no rule of law in Iraq. And we should know that.

This goes back to your point. Why do we think we know more about these countries than the people in them? And there is a thing in Arabic, and I am probably saying this wrong, but I would always tell people, I have to look at the problems through your eyes. And it worked with some people, and then a tribal sheikh said, who are you to look through my eyes, you are not even – like, sorry about that, but there are a lot of things that we can learn from our history that we do not apply.

In Baghdad, after ISIS came in, [people wondered] where are all the Americans we worked with during the Surge when we got this right? Nobody showed up. I am a contributing writer for The Daily Beast. One of my colleagues said there are too many generals in Iraq. There are more generals than troops in Iraq if you look at what generals are supposed to be in charge of. That is because the generals that were there were lieutenant colonels and majors during the Surge, and they knew Iraq, and they were there to bridge that, that generation gap we had between current American advisors and the Iraqis.

The Iraqis were always at an advantage. I was a first iteration advisor. By the end of the Iraq war, they saw 12 of me, 12 different levels of dedication, 12 different levels of knowledge, each with a different goal, some that did not want to be there, and the guy across from me is the same guy. And they develop a playbook, and they are chess players, and it is easy to do.

Now, I sounded negative, but there are solutions in everything that I talked about here. It is a dire situation with very simple fixes. Acknowledge the issue, do not ignore it, and use your levers, use smart power, hard power, soft power allies, regional allies, local allies. I am not a fan of using regional allies in Iraq because Iraqis are very proud. Use your Sunni population.

One of the things that I felt inspired by [was working] with General Mattis, McMaster, and Flynn, [who] were going into the administration. [I] worked for all of them; General Flynn as a lieutenant, Mattis as a civilian, and McMaster as a DIA intelligence officer. And each said you cannot defeat a Sunni insurgency without Sunni manpower and Sunni intelligence from the local cities, meaning Sunni Arabs or Sunni Kurds. We have not done that. We did not do that in Syria. We have not done that in Iraq, and we are about to declare victory. And when we declare victory, Iran is going to clean champagne glasses if they drink, but I will leave it at that. But there are solutions [to] every [one of these issues].

Robert R. Reilly:

Thank you for coming. Please join us in two weeks for Ibn Warraq. Thank you.