July 6, 2020

IntelBrief: Iraq Fails to Rein in Iran-Backed Militias

A poster of killed militia with Popular Mobilization militia is seen in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, June 26, 2020. Iraqi security forces arrested over a dozen men suspected of a spate of rocket attacks against the U.S. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
  • Iraq’s new government failed an initial test of its efforts to gain control of the Iran-backed Shia militias that have been attacking U.S. forces and installations throughout Iraq.
  • The United States is not known to have instigated the effort, but U.S. forces did not intervene to ensure its success.
  • Key Iraqi militia leaders are sufficiently confident to warn Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi not to continue with efforts to rein in the militias’ autonomy.
  • Additional militia attacks on U.S. forces are likely as Iran seeks to drive U.S. forces out of Iraq permanently. 

Since his inauguration in May, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has had an uneasy relationship with the several Shia militias that are formally part of the government’s ‘Popular Mobilization Units’ (PMUs), but in practice still report to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force (IRGC-QF). Some of the militias, as well as their Iranian patrons, opposed the appointment of al-Kadhimi, viewing him as inclined to work with the United States. Tehran was also concerned that al-Kadhimi would continue to host U.S. troops in Iraq. Iran is attempting, through its militia proxies and their commanders who are in Iraq’s parliament, to prompt U.S. troops to leave Iraq permanently. Yet, Iran acquiesced to al-Kadhimi’s appointment in the interests of keeping Iraq’s political structure stable. Supporters of al-Kadhimi, who is a Shia but derives support from Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds, argue that he seeks to rein in the Iran-backed militias in order to end Iraq’s role as an arena for U.S.-Iran competition. The ongoing battle for influence erupted into open hostilities on Iraqi soil in late 2019 and early 2020. 

Citing laws enacted in 2018, al-Kadhimi took office vowing to bring the Iran-backed militias firmly under national command authority. The Prime Minister sought to quiet the widespread domestic and international doubts about his abilities on June 25 by ordering Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Forces to arrest 14 members of the Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) militia who allegedly were planning new rocket attacks on bases where U.S. troops operate. KH receives more support from the IRGC-QF than any other Iraqi militia, and its former Leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who served simultaneously as de-facto commander of the broader PMF force, was killed alongside IRGC-QF commander Qasem Soleimani in the January 3 U.S. strike. Likely at Iran’s instigation, KH responded to the arrests by mustering a 150 fighter force around the office of the Prime Minister as a form of intimidation. Outmaneuvered in the gambit, al-Kadhimi agreed to the transfer of those arrested to the custody of a PMF unit controlled by KH, and 13 of the 14 were released by Monday, June 29.     

The failed effort to neuter KH came between two key meetings of a U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue, feeding speculation that al-Kadhimi moved against KH after being nudged to do so by the United States. Since al-Kadhimi took office, KH and other militias have conducted several attacks on Iraqi facilities where U.S. troops operate, including a military base, the Green Zone where the U.S. Embassy is located, and Baghdad international airport. Whether or not the United States prompted the Iraqi government move, what is certain is that U.S. forces did not act to thwart the KH intimidation counterattack. The Prime Minister’s relenting to the KH resistance to the arrests has demonstrated that he cannot enforce his orders to curb the autonomy of the Iran-backed militias, and that he cannot necessarily count on U.S. backing to defend his authority. 

The potential for al-Kadhimi’s move against the Iran-backed militias to cause a more significant backlash against his government was clear almost immediately. On June 26, the leader of the Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq militia, Qais Khazali, who leads a significant bloc in Iraq’s parliament, publicly warned al-Kadhimi not to try to limit militia autonomy or to prevent them from attacking U.S. forces. In a publicized speech, Khazali stated ‘I hope it is clear that it would be a mistake to go too far in this direction. It is best to stop here and not listen to the American advice to use this opportunity to get into problems and clashes with the Islamic resistance factions because, as I’ve said, this would be a losing battle.’ The boldness of the Khazali threat suggests that the Iran-backed militias perceive that they have significant leverage against the Prime Minister and will continue to back Iran’s drive to expel U.S. forces from Iraq. Some argue that the al-Kadhimi move has demonstrated his resolve and will deter the Iran-backed militias from further attacks on U.S. troops. But, those who argue that the militias will continue defying al-Kadhimi appear to have been proven correct when Iran-backed militias launched another rocket attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on July 4. The rocket reportedly was intercepted by a new U.S. rocket defense system deployed to guard the Embassy. 


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