Iran's Weak Grip

How Much Control Does Tehran Have Over Shia Militias In Iraq?

Iraqi Shia men wave flags atop a bus decorated with a picture of their spirutual leader Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, May 10, 2003. Damir Sagolj / Reuters

These days, one can hardly turn a street corner in Baghdad without coming face to face with a poster lionizing one of the more than 100,000 Iraqi Shia fighters who have risen to prominence battling the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), which began its march through the country in June 2014. Among the militias and brigades, the most prominent are a number of pre-existing Iranian-backed groups, including Asaib al-Haq, the Badr Brigade, and Ketaib Hezbollah, which work together under an umbrella militia force known as Hash’d al-Sha’bi (Popular Mobilization Force or PMF). These groups’ popularity came from their success in rolling back ISIS in places like Tikrit, Diyala, Baiji, and Anbar, as well as preventing the jihadis from expanding further in the country. After the collapse of the Iraqi army in 2014, these groups filled the security vacuum and are now seen by many Iraqi Shias as integral to their survival.

Although the PMF is officially under the control of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, and there are large numbers of fighters that operate within the state’s military command and control structures, the strongest and most powerful force on the ground remain those militias that are Iranian-backed and controlled. They constitute the core of the PMF and are battle-hardened fighters who have years of fighting experience. They fought both U.S. and U.K. forces after the 2003 Iraq War and have further honed their skills combatting ISIS and other Sunni militant groups. For more than a decade now, Iran has provided these groups with substantial training, weapons, and financial support, using them as proxies to undercut and marginalize groups that challenged Iran’s authority or that sought to strengthen the Iraqi state in a way that impeded Iranian influence. More recently, when ISIS undertook its offensive in June 2014, Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s elite military unit, the Quds Force, personally organized these militias to confront ISIS and curb its expansion.

Iraqi Sunnis, some sections of both the

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