How the Pentagon Accidentally Funnels Millions to Iraqi Militia Groups It’s Also Fighting

This article was written by our Investigator Zack Kopplin and was originally published here.

Iraq’s Balad Air Base, home of the country’s F-16 program, was running out of fuel at the worst possible time. It was the spring of 2017 and the Iraqi military was preparing a final push to remove the Islamic State from Mosul, a major metropolis in the north of the country that had fallen to the extremists three years earlier. But fuel trucks, sent from Baghdad to the American military contractor that operated the base, Sallyport Global Services, were being ambushed. Without fuel, Balad’s fighter jets wouldn’t be able to provide air support to Iraqi soldiers battling the terrorist group.

For the coalition fighting ISIS, the fuel squeeze was a self-inflicted crisis.

Today, American influence in Iraq is felt largely through powerful defense contractors, like Sallyport, that act as unacknowledged boots on the ground. These companies have a vested interest in the continuation of the war and the stealth occupation. Sallyport’s leadership contains a roster of former military and intelligence brass, and it has won around $2 billion in Pentagon-awarded contracts at the Iraqi air base since 2014. American military contracts are ostensibly meant to help bring peace and democracy to Iraq—and security for the United States. In reality, Pentagon spending has led to more violence. The fuel crisis at Balad is a perfect example.

Sallyport’s profit is contingent on maintaining control of the base and ensuring its smooth functioning. This has driven the company to make deals with Iraqi politicians known for corruption. Sallyport’s partners are even allegedly connected to paramilitary groups that include America’s battlefield enemies and human rights violators. These types of illicit deals are a routine part of Pentagon contracts across the country, and they’re valuable enough to fight over.

“All of our business partners in Iraq have been fully vetted, including vetting by the U.S. Department of Defense for work at Balad,” C.D. Moore, chief operating officer of Sallyport Global Holdings, said in a statement. “We are vigilant about, and take very seriously, our obligations to comply with all U.S. and host-nation laws and regulations.”

Internally, Sallyport blamed ISIS for the attacks on its trucks. But the ambushes, which targeted tankers attached to the fuel trucks, rather than the drivers, didn’t match the terrorist group’s profile or its capabilities. Intelligence analysts privately believed they were part of a corporate turf war. “The biggest hurdles you have in getting fuel are primarily political,” a Sallyport consultant, Ginger Cruz, wrote in a May 2017 email to the company.

Cruz, a former U.S. government anti-corruption official, offered Sallyport a solution. “The selection of vendors is directly tied to good business decisions,” Cruz wrote, in the same email.

In Iraq, good business typically means breaking the rules, something Sallyport was ready to do. On Cruz’s recommendation, the contractor turned to an Iraqi company, Layth al-Bawadi, to supply fuel. Layth al-Bawadi shares personnel with a complex network of multinational companies, called Sigma, that was previously blacklisted by Cruz’s former employer, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, for alleged corruption.

Layth al-Bawadi only delivered one shipment of fuel, according to Cruz, but working with Sigma solved Sallyport’s short-term fuel issues. By 2018, two other Sigma-aligned companies, called al-Lia and al-Jabal, were selling roughly 2.5 million liters of fuel, at inflated rates, to the American contractor, every month. (Al-Lia, according to the conglomerate’s website, is a Sigma subsidiary; al-Jabal shared bank accounts with the conglomerate.) Invoices show these two companies charging prices more than $0.30 per liter above standard prices set for contracts by Iraq’s Oil Products Distribution Company, a branch of the country’s Ministry of Oil.

The planes stayed in the air and ISIS was expelled from Mosul. But Sallyport had been told the deal was dirty. “We have committed to Layth Albawadi for a whole host of other reasons including their ability to get all the proper authorizations from the Prime Minister,” Cruz wrote to the contractor’s staff, some of whom appear to have balked at the partnership. “There are larger forces at work here.”

Iraqi conglomerate Sigma’s high-level connections were what appealed to Sallyport. The contractor hired it in part because, according to Cruz, it had direct support from Iraq’s then–Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The relevant subsidiary, al-Lia, was “recommended” for business since it was “aligned” with al-Abadi and his political party, according to a vetting memo produced for Sallyport by Cruz’s consultancy, Mantid International, in October 2017. (The former prime minister, along with Sigma and its affiliates, did not respond to detailed questions.)

Cruz argues that these politically connected Iraqi businesses aren’t too different from American lobbyists. Companies can “have a good standing with political parties, just as companies in the U.S. have good standing with various U.S. Administrations,” she wrote in response to questions from the Prospect. “Let’s be real. It’s legal and it’s the way the business world works.”

Still, this web of connections required to transfer something as essential as fuel in Iraq raises red flags. “There are realities on the ground that make Iraq an incredibly challenging place to do business, but from a compliance and anti-corruption perspective, this deal is alarming,” said Jessica Tillipman, assistant dean of the Government Procurement Law program at George Washington University.

Worse is the fact that even this deal didn’t fully end the attacks. Other Iraqi factions still required a payoff. Less than a month after the contractor hired Sigma, and in spite of Prime Minister al-Abadi’s efforts to clear the roads, al-Jabal’s trucks had already been hit twice. Again, it was unclear exactly who was responsible for these new attacks, but Iraqi politics drove Sallyport to partner with other dirty companies, some far nastier than Sigma.

For years, the Pentagon has faced a simmering insurgency in Iraq’s largely Shia south. In the wake of ISIS’s invasion in 2014, these insurgents have largely coalesced into a group of Iranian-backed death squads known as the Hash’d al-Shaabi, which means “popular mobilization units.” Self-styled as freedom fighters, evidence of sectarian killings, documented by organizations like Human Rights Watch, reveals the paramilitary’s members are often war criminals and tools of repression. Since October 2019, Hash’d groups have participated in the kidnapping, torture, and killings of hundreds of peaceful Iraqi protesters who were objecting to foreign influence and the country’s corrupt political system.

For three years, until ISIS’s defeat in Mosul, the Hash’d and the American military loosely coordinated operations against the terrorist group, but sharing an enemy didn’t make them allies. Hash’d fighters have launched rockets at Americans on Iraqi bases, including Balad. In return, the United States assassinated a major Hash’d commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in the drone strike that targeted Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in January 2020. Last month, the Biden administration struck a Hash’d-affiliated fighter in Syria.

Despite open hostilities, at Balad Air Base, sources outlined a secret relationship far deeper than either side would care to admit.

To be clear, militia membership in Iraq can be nebulous, with varying levels of affiliations through personal and tribal connections. But American contractors are essentially cooperating with known enemies. Until late February of this year, the local commander at the Iraqi base was Air Force Gen. Sahi al-Amiri, whom sources identified as a relative of a major Hash’d leader, Falih al-Fayyadh. Al-Fayyadh was sanctioned by the outgoing Trump administration for “directing and supervising the murder of peaceful Iraqi demonstrators.” By purchasing additional fuel from another Iraqi company, Medina al-Qibab, Sallyport and the Pentagon had an indirect relationship with Gen. al-Amiri’s now sanctioned family member, and his militias.

All of this was well known to the U.S. defense contractor. Medina al-Qibab is “tied to General Sahi [al-Amiri], Balad Base Commander,” said the leaked Mantid memo, which advised Sallyport to employ the company. “Mantid Recommendation—Retain for now given Gen. Sahi’s position as base commander,” the consultancy advised. (Despite Mantid identifying ties between Gen. al-Amiri and Medina al-Qibab, Cruz now says these connections don’t represent anything beyond a professional relationship.)

A leaked procurement log, from January 2020, detailed the payoff. At that time, Sallyport bought over one million liters of fuel from the Iraqi Air Force commander’s company, each month, at rates roughly $0.20 per liter above standard prices.

In return, sources say Gen. al-Amiri ensured limited complacence from local militias. He facilitated this in part through his Hash’d-connected relatives like al-Fayyadh, according to contracting and government sources. “Medina al-Qabab is allegedly affiliated with paramilitary units that control the road between Baghdad and Balad,” wrote the trade publication Iraq Oil Report, which relayed from sources that the militias would block fuel shipments from other companies.

Sallyport itself has previously acknowledged Gen. Sahi’s connection with militias. In 2017, for example, Sallyport said the Air Force commander allowed militia members onto the Iraqi base, where they stole over $1 million of the contractor’s electrical equipment. Cruz called allegations about the general’s Hash’d connections “out of line.” Gen. al-Amiri did not respond to a request for comment.

Medina al-Qibab’s vice president, Ali al-Bander, also denied a relationship with the Iraqi general and militia groups. He blamed the allegations on jealous rivals. “Our contract is one hundred percent legit, under supervision of the United States government, so there is no fraud,” he said.

But through Gen. al-Amiri’s family business, the United States is in effect funneling millions of dollars to militia groups that it is also fighting.

Sallyport isn’t the only American company doing business with the Medina al-Qibab company. Its website, along with that of a sister company, lists partnerships with three other large military contractors: KBR (originally a subsidiary of Halliburton) and Fluor, along with PAE, which also employs Mantid as a consultant. None of these companies responded to requests for comment.

But in Iraq, militia connections run deep, and the leaked documents reveal other secret relationships that spell even more trouble for Sallyport.

The godfather of Iraq’s militia movement is another former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. Despite being a sectarian warlord whose misrule and cruelties allowed for ISIS’s rise in the first place, during his eight years as Iraqi premier, al-Maliki was supported by the United States. He even survived a contested election due to the backing of then–Vice President Joe Biden, who served as the Obama administration’s Iraq czar.

Apparently, that support extended to overlooking military-contracting indiscretions. When the former prime minister wasn’t busy organizing death squads, he was engaged in corruption. One tool al-Maliki used was a military-contracting mafia network operated by friendly oligarchs known as Afaq. The former prime minister’s company is considered a likely perpetrator of the attacks on Sallyport’s fuel trucks.

One of the earliest unsavory deals Sallyport made in Iraq was with Afaq. The American contractor gained control of the Iraqi air base, Balad, in 2014, by agreeing to pay the former prime minister’s company two-thirds of its net profits at the base. Al-Maliki has denied affiliation with Afaq, but in return for Sallyport’s payments to the company, it received access to the base from the former prime minister’s office.

The revelation of this deal led to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into potential corruption beginning in 2016. In response, Sallyport claimed to have ended its relationship with its politically connected partner. But according to the consultancy Mantid’s October 2017 documents, Sallyport knowingly continued to do business with at least four Afaq-linked companies, including Gen. al-Amiri’s Medina al-Qibab and a Dubai-based military and intelligence consulting firm, Sicuro Group. (Cruz said the Mantid documents referenced previous work with the Afaq-linked companies from before 2016. Sicuro did not respond to a request for comment.)

The deals with Afaq, Medina al-Qibab, and Sigma may have helped Sallyport, and by extension the Pentagon, hold onto Balad Air Base. But the payments were blood money. All of this raises serious questions about the American military mission in Iraq.

“The United States doesn’t want to put more boots on the ground in Iraq and it doesn’t want to actually make deals with businessmen and politicians associated with the various militias there,” said Jodi Vittori, a nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment. “Contracts like this one with Sallyport mean the U.S. can outsource those problems.”

But outsourcing corruption and military operations to a contractor is just a tool for politicians to avoid accountability for America’s wars and mistakes. Stealth occupations and shadow wars enable warlords and oligarchs, while heaping more pain on Iraq’s civilians.

Eighteen years after the initial invasion of Iraq, rather than address Pentagon corruption, the Biden administration and its allies are continuing down the same path. Military “advisers” and air strikes feel less costly than a full-scale invasion, but this strategy still requires tens of thousands of contractors to continue occupying Iraq and making secret dirty deals with the enemies of peace.

The occupation’s core failure is not the Pentagon’s inability to train competent Iraqi troops or kill all the terrorists. It’s not even the failure to fire Sallyport, because that means hiring an equally dirty replacement.

America has failed in Iraq because of the symbiotic relationship between the U.S. military, its contractors, including Sallyport and its rivals, and the country’s corrupt politicians and paramilitaries. If there were no stealth occupation, there would be no military and logistics contracts for insurgent leaders and military contractors to profit from, and no economic incentive to continue fighting. Iraq would have a chance to move forward.