May 10, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Destabilizing Role of Iraq’s Shi’a Militias

• Empowered by Iran, the commanders of Shi’a militias in Iraq are undermining the authority of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi

• The Shi’a militias are helping the Iraqi government battle the Islamic State, but hindering government efforts to reform and gain the support of Iraq’s Sunnis    

• Emboldened by the critical role they play against the Islamic State, demobilizing the Shi’a militias upon the defeat of the terror group will be a considerable challenge for the Iraqi government

• The Shi’a militias are no longer a direct threat to U.S. forces in Iraq, but the militia commanders see Iran, not the United States, as Iraq’s long-term security partner.


For more than thirty years, Iran has been arming and training Iraqi Shi’a militias as a means of battling adversaries through proxy warfare and expanding its political influence in Iraq. During the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988, Iran recruited and trained captured Iraqi Shi’a soldiers for the 'Badr Corps' militia—the armed wing of an Iran-supported anti-Saddam faction called the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). With support from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Badr fighters conducted attacks on Iraqi forces and officials, and led a failed uprising in southern Iraq after Iraq’s expulsion from Kuwait in 1991. The Badr Corps and SCIRI both became political movements after Saddam’s fall, and Badr’s leader, Hadi al-Amiri, became an elected member of the National Assembly. As longtime opponents of Saddam, these factions did not oppose the U.S. military presence in Iraq from 2003 to 2011.  

Although pro-Iranian Shi’a parties dominated post-Saddam Iraq, Iran believed it needed additional Shi’a proxies to build leverage against U.S. forces in the country. For several years after the U.S. intervention, Iran’s main instrument in Iraq was Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the scion of the illustrious Shi’a Islamist Sadr family. Iran built and armed Sadr’s ‘Mahdi Army’ militia, and instigated it to fight major battles in Baghdad with U.S. forces between 2004 and 2007. However, Sadr fashioned himself as an Iraqi nationalist and did not always follow orders from Tehran. As a result, Iran armed and trained several Mahdi Army offshoot militias as alternative sources of influence. These included Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH, League of the Family of the Righteous), headed by Qais Khazali, and Kata’ib Hizballah (KH, Hizballah Battalions), headed by former Badr fighter Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. In June 2009, KH was designated by the State Department as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). After using Iranian-supplied advanced rocket munitions to kill about 500 U.S. soldiers between 2004 and 2011, the Shi’a militias disarmed and melded into the political process upon the U.S. withdrawal. An additional Shi’a militia—the Mukhtar Army—formed in 2013 to suppress anti-government protests by Iraqi Sunnis. Another—the ‘Nujaba Movement’—formed that same year to fight on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against the uprising in Syria. 

All of the Shi’a militias rearmed and mobilized when the so-called Islamic State captured Mosul in mid-2014. The role of the militias in the war effort—which includes the recapture of Tikrit in 2015—has enabled Amiri, Muhandis and Khazali to emerge as major political figures. Muhandis, for example, is the leader of the officially-constituted 110,000 person 'Popular Mobilization Forces' (PMFs) fighting the Islamic State—a force that includes pre-existing Shi’a militias as well as predominantly Shi’a fighters recruited since 2014. 

The militia commanders openly portray Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as weak, ineffective, and a 'puppet’ of U.S. advisers in Iraq. The commanders advocate a leading role for the PMFs, not the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), on the battlefield. They argue for military cooperation with Iran and Russia, which support the Assad regime and oppose Saudi Arabia regionally, rather than the United States. They also seek limitations on the role of Sunni fighters in the campaign against the Islamic State, and have denied well-documented allegations of militia abuses of Sunni Iraqis in areas recaptured from the group, only serving to further alienate Iraq’s Sunni population. The commanders advocate the formation of a new ministry for the PMFs, and have succeeded in increasing the amount of funding received from the Iraqi government from $1 billion in 2015 to $2 billion for 2016—despite the country's significant budgetary constraints. All of this is in addition to the funds the militias receive from Iran’s government and Iranian clerical foundations.

Politically, the Shi’a militia commanders have undermined Abadi by helping slow the Prime Minister’s campaign to replace the government’s sectarian and ethnic quota system with a technocratic government. By exposing Abadi’s weaknesses, the militia commanders have paved the way for Sadr to openly challenge the Prime Minister’s leadership through mass demonstrations near the fortified Green Zone. The storming of the Green Zone on April 30 by demonstrators—which ended peacefully a day later—has undermined Abadi’s rule by furthering the sense that his government is failing. The Shi’a militias—certain to resist any efforts to demobilize upon a prospective defeat of the Islamic State—are likely to insist that U.S. forces not be allowed a long-term presence in Iraq.  By continuing to pour fuel on the already raging sectarian fire in Iraq, Shi’a militias threaten to undermine the prospects for stability in the country even after the Islamic State is defeated.


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