Iraq’s Militias and the US-Iran Impasse

Since the US invasion in 2003 and ensuing occupation of the country, Iraq has been stuck between a rock and a hard place as it tries to balance its relations with the United States and Iran. While Washington has attempted in vain to maintain its hegemony, Tehran’s reach has expanded and deepened rapidly. The main reason for this is Iran’s influence among the popular classes and religious authorities as well as Shia political leaders and their representatives in government.

Iranian Influence, American Pressure

The recent crisis between the United States and its Gulf allies on the one hand and Iran on the other placed a heavy toll on fragile Iraq and added to its problems of terrorism, unchecked militias, deep divisions, and corruption. The far-reaching Iranian intervention and influence over so many institutions in Iraq has made the country overly dependent on Iran in its most basic requirements such as electricity, for which Iraq relies heavily on Iranian gas to operate its power stations. Such dependence has made Iraq victim to Iranian blackmail. For example, American sanctions on Iran make it illegal to transfer hard currency to the Islamic Republic as a means of payment for Iraqi gas and electricity supplies; therefore, smuggling and illicit operations, including money counterfeiting, are now rampant.

American sanctions on Iran make it illegal to transfer hard currency to the Islamic Republic as a means of payment for Iraqi gas and electricity supplies; therefore, smuggling and illicit operations, including money counterfeiting, are now rampant.

The United States exerted pressure on the Iraqi government to abide by sanctions on Iran. In response, Iran and its militias in Iraq pressured the government in Baghdad not to accept these sanctions. Tehran also threatened to target American interests in Iraq if Washington prevented Iran from exporting its oil through the Strait of Hormuz. The militias reinforced their threat by firing missiles on the Green Zone in Iraq, where the US embassy is situated. Washington then pulled out unnecessary staff and dependents cadres from its embassy and consulates, asking the Iraqi government to provide and ensure the protection of its people and interests in the country.

As the situation deteriorated further, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Iraq and briefed Iraqi President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi in separate meetings about the severe threat the militias posed for American interests and personnel. He also intimated that Iraq is responsible for providing security protection for them. Pompeo suggested that Iran is posing a more significant threat, according to intelligence sources. In a meeting with reporters, he said: “We wanted to let them know about the increased threat stream that we had seen and give them a little bit more background on that so they could ensure that they were doing all they could to protect our team.” He added that the United States did not want Iran to interfere in Iraq, pointing to information and intelligence Washington had collected on Iranian activities in the country.

One important factor in Iraq’s dealing with Iran that impacts how it deals with the United States is that of the Iran-supported militias.

One important factor in Iraq’s dealing with Iran that impacts how it deals with the United States is that of the Iran-supported militias. The militias give the impression that they are a part of the lawful Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) that were created in 2014. However, when fighting is called for, it is not the Iraqi prime minister who issues the orders but General Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Iraqi President Salih called for an urgent meeting with Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi, Speaker of Parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi, and some of the militia commanders. The meeting addressed Iraq’s delicate situation during the recent US-Iran crisis and concluded that the safety and security of Iraq should be the highest priority. The government urged the militias to keep their distance from Iran to ensure Iraq’s security and stability. To be sure, the missiles against the Green Zone were an embarrassment to the government. Such continued threats to the US presence and interests in Iraq have illustrated the degree to which these militias are subordinate to the Iranian IRGC and the weak leverage the Iraqi government is able to exercise over them.

Iraq’s Militia Problem

The spectrum of the Shia sect is reflected in the multifarious militias in Iraq. They are controlled by the IRGC’s Soleimani. The strength of these militias comes from their ability to recruit tens of thousands of Shia fighters, who are motivated by the fatwa of Ayatollah Ali Sistani for jihad against the Islamic State. These militias include Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, the Badr Organization, and Kataeb Hezbollah which are practically available any time General Soleimani orders.

The strength of these militias comes from their ability to recruit tens of thousands of Shia fighters, who are motivated by the fatwa of Ayatollah Ali Sistani for jihad against the Islamic State.

Saraya al-Salam, which is a new brand of Jaish al-Mahdi, was once the most ferocious militia led by Muqtada al-Sadr, the controversial Shia cleric. In addition, a quasi-militia organization called al-Salam 313 is an organized crime organization based in Germany and active all-over Western Europe; it has targeted Iraqis and other Arabs living in exile, killing, torturing, and blackmailing many of them. Recently, the German police carried out a series of coordinated raids on many German cities and towns to arrest 34 of these gang members. That the operations have extended into Europe gives a clear proof of the dangers posed by these militias.

Iran is following a strategy in Iraq similar to the one it has pursued in Lebanon. The Iran-backed Hezbollah has jeopardized the Lebanese government’s ability to exercise its authority over the whole country. Similarly, Iran’s final goal in Iraq is to render the Iraqi government incapable of carrying out its duties and responsibilities.

Additionally, militia leaders like the PMF’s Hadi al-Amiri and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and the leader of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq Qais al-Khazali, are prominent figures in the political-security apparatus in Iraq. They were successful in gaining a number of seats in parliament, and this has given them the ability to influence legislative procedures. These leaders were behind the aborted move in parliament to ask the American forces in Iraq to leave and terminate the Status of Forces Agreement between Washington and Baghdad, which regulates the American security presence in Iraq.

Designating American troops as occupiers would pave the way for the militias to target and wage a guerilla war against them. These militias can stall the government’s orders and instructions any time Soleimani orders them to do so. By insisting on staying in the Sunni governorates, they prevented a return of displaced Sunni Iraqis and were able to target the American embassy using Iran-made missiles. Indeed, IRGC authorities supply missiles with varying ranges to such groups as Kataeb Hezbollah; some can potentially reach regional capitals as far away as Riyadh. Further, the loyalty to Iran of these non-states actors and the prevailing parties is now so embedded that Iraqi Foreign Minister Muhammad Ali al-Hakim, at the joint press conference with his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif, made statements supporting Iran and criticizing the United States. Reports indicate that the pressure exerted by these militias on decision-makers in Iraq have made it impossible to move ahead with unanimity on important issues concerning the security of the country.

Baghdad as Mediator?

Javad Zarif’s visit to Baghdad led to a sort of mediation by the Iraqi side between the United States and Iran. In the press conference held in Baghdad with Zarif, Mohamed Ali Alhakim said, “We are trying to help and to be mediators.” He added that Baghdad “will work to reach a satisfactory solution.”

But is Iraq qualified for the role? It is hard to assess this possibility especially when Iraq’s foreign minister, at the same conference, stressed that Iraq opposes unilateral steps taken by Washington. In reality, it seems that Iran wanted Iraq to serve as one of its means to communicate ideas to Washington, rather than actually mediating between the two parties. Iran’s strong influence clearly precludes a mediator role by Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi called such mediation a “national duty” and deputized two emissaries to the United States and Iran to pave the way for mediation. No news has filtered out of the mediation effort so far, but it is clear the two parties reacted to the move in a lukewarm fashion.

A broad segment of Iraqi society wants Iraq to keep a distance between Washington and Tehran in this ongoing crisis.

A broad segment of Iraqi society wants Iraq to keep a distance between Washington and Tehran in this ongoing crisis. Many demonstrations in various Iraqi cities urged the government not to get involved in the crisis and to work to maintain Iraq’s independence. Indeed, extricating Iraq from Iran and its expansionist policies has become a priority for many Iraqis—even among the Shia communities—as the population feels that it has been a victim of Iran’s practices. These include the smuggling of narcotics, cutting the flow of cross-border rivers, and supporting sectarianism.

The American-Iranian standoff is still active. Washington has accused the IRGC of mining the oil tankers off the Emirates coast. Iran-backed Houthis attacked Saudi oil installations in the vicinity of Riyadh. As a result of these actions as well as the attack on the Green Zone in Baghdad, Washington continues to target the Iranian economy and deploy its military in the vicinity. Military action is a possibility if the IRGC continues to challenge the United States and other Arabian Gulf states. If this situation worsens, Iraq will find itself squarely in the eye of the storm.

Abdulwahab Al-Qassab is a Visiting Scholar at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Dr. Abdulwahab Al-Qassab and read his previous publications click here