US-Iranian Struggle for Influence in Iraq

The new Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadimi has vowed to punish the Iran-backed militias that shed Iraqi blood.

“We promised that those who have been involved in shedding Iraqi blood will not sleep at night” the Iraqi PM tweeted. Having that said, the PM seems to be initiating a new stage of relations between the Iraqi state and Iran-backed militias, especially the statement came after a protester in Basra was killed a few days ago by militias, according to activists.

Local and international organizations have accused the Iran-backed militias of killing more than 600 Iraqi protestors in the past few months, in addition to assassinating and kidnapping activists of the civil society.

First bullet in the war against the militias

Since their formation in 2003, pro-Iran militias in Iraq were directly led by the Deputy Chief of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, and Commander of the Iranian Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, both killed by a US air strike earlier this year. The Popular Mobilization Units was established in 2014, according to Sistani’s fatwa in fighting the Islamic State. The PMU then became a key player in the Iraqi political decisions, enjoying a greater power than that of the state itself..

Shelly Kittleson, a US journalist, writes in Foreign Policy magazine that the militias would have started losing their influence since the assassination of both Iranian-backed military leaders.

Abu Mahdi is considered as the militias’ godfather, a main link between them and General Soleimani, the direct commander of Iranian arms outside Iran.

Although the assassination of al-Muhandis affected the influence of the militias in general, Kittleson says that Kataeb Hezbollah in Iraq would be the biggest loser in the war waged against the militias in Iraq, attributed to two reasons: the first is that al-Muhandis was the founder and commander of the PMU, while the second reason is the enmity between the new Iraqi PM and the PMU leaders, accusing Kadhimi of being linked to the killing of Muhandis and Suleimani through providing intelligence to the United States.

The General’s return and fears of uncontrolled militias

The strained relations between the militias and some Iraqi security apparatuses, foremost the anti-terrorism agency, reveal that the influence of Iran proxies in Iraq has decined, especially as Kadhimi returned General Abdul Wahab al-Saadi to the security service and assigning him as the leader of the most important military formation in Iraq since 2003.

Al-Saadi is considered as the primary enemy of the Iranian militias within the Iraqi security apparatus. This prompted former Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi to dismiss him a few months ago, amid protests in the Iraqi street over the decision, which was then described as an “Iranian sealed” decision.

Activists who talked to MENA Research and Study Center under condition of anonymity said Saadi’s return would be linked to the desire of the current government to merge all militias in the security structures of the anti-terrorism agency, led by him.

In this context, Yazan al-Jubouri, a Sunni leader, points out that the tension between the Iran affiliated armed groups and the Iraqi intelligence apparatus would be continuous.

Jabouri refers to the state of fear in Iraq, particularly among the Sunnis, that Kataeb Hezbollah in Iraq might become uncontrollabe after the death of al-Muhandis.

Kataeb Hezbollah had previously threatened both the Speaker of the Parliament Muhammad Al-Halbousi, and Mustafa al-Kadhimi who was then the head of Iraqi intelligence apparatus, considered by the militias as an Iraqi PM nominated by the US.

Loyalty should remain for Iraq

 According to Kittleson, the new assignments and the absence of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, in addition to Iran’s inability to impose a pro-Iran PM, would have created a state of weakness in the Iran-controlled militias on a political level.

She points out that Iraqi government already would have started to limit the influence of militias and Iranian-backed parties that act more as an occupying power than as an integral part of the Iraqi control.

It’s noteworthy that four militia factions belonging to the religious authority of Ali Sistani announced a few weeks ago to restructure themselves again, in preparation for the merger with the Iraqi government forces, led by the PM.

According to the US journalist, the actual gain for the Iraqi government now would depend on its ability to merge these militias with the regular Iraqi forces that were present before 2014, stressing that merging the militias with the Iraqi forces could reduce their influence and end the Iranian domination over them.

The militias’ role has been enhanced since the formation of the Popular Mobilization Units in 2014, which was formed according to Sistani’s fatwa in fighting the Islamic State.

What is needed now from Kadhimi as the new ruler of the country is developing a clear government scheme to merge all the armed forces in Iraq under the state’s flag and stressing the first and absolute loyalty of all the groups is to Iraq, Kittleson explains in her article.

During his mandate to form a government, al-Kadhimi had pledged to limit the arms in Iraq to the official institutions belonging to government agencies, and to combat the chaos of arms proliferation.

Iran’s Options and Dummy Militias

According to the Iraqi political analyst Heywa Othma, with the decline of the militias’ power and the determination of the Iraqi government to end the no-state situation in Iraq, in addition to the tension in the Iraqi street and the deterioration in the internal situation in Iran, Iran’s options to maintain a foot hold in Iraq are limited to creating “dummy militias”.

Othman points out that Iran has already started implementing this plan by mentioning the names of non-existing militias, such as Osbat al-Thaereen, Ashab al-Kahf, and Qabdat al-Mahdi, confirming that no one has heard of these militias before.

In the middle of last March, Osbat al-Thaereen militias claimed responsibility for an attack that targeted al-Taji military base, where one UK and two US soldiers were killed.

The aim of creating such militias, according to Othman, would be the increase of destabilizing the situation in Iraq, by luring US forces into confrontations with Iran and its loyalists in Iraq.

“The success or failure of the new Iranian strategy in Iraq depends mainly on the Iraqis themselves and the reaction of the Iraqi political forces to the dummy militias that have emerged,” Othman says. “Iraqi political forces should have a firm and strong position to curbing the Iran-controlled militias, preventing them from turning the country into a battleground with the United States.”

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