The Race to Consolidate Power and Stave Off Disaster
Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s new prime minister as of May 12, has already announced a bold intention. In a short government manifesto he submitted to the Iraqi Parliament, Kadhimi emphasized his plans to “impose the state’s prestige” by bringing armed groups under government control. To observers of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, the manifesto’s meaning is clear: the damage to the state’s “prestige” has, after all, come mainly from pro-Iranian militant groups who answer to the commanders of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), rather than to Iraq’s commander in chief.
Iranian-backed Iraqi militias such as Kataib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, among others, operate outside the jurisdiction of the Iraqi state. They are part of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella military organization that is nominally under Iraqi command but that in fact plays an integral part in projecting Iranian power throughout the region.
Previous Iraqi administrations tried, but ultimately failed, to limit the influence of the armed militias. Iraq's prime minister from 2014 to 2018, Haider al-Abadi, sought to bring the militias under the control of the state and to limit their political ambitions. He demanded that the militias make their spending transparent and separate their military and political wings. But in the end, Iranian-backed politicians outmaneuvered Abadi and backed his much friendlier replacement, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who became prime minister in October 2018. Abdul-Mahdi increased the PMF’s budget by 20 percent in 2019 and enabled the Iranian-backed militias to expand their presence in strategic regions, including along the Iraqi-Syrian border, across which they have moved almost freely.
Kadhimi has indicated that he has plans to end this state of affairs. Recent developments in Iraq and in the wider region suggest that the new prime minister has a much better chance than his predecessors did of curbing the militias’ influence and consequently, that of Iran.
A popular uprising has wracked Iraq since October 2019—one that even a brutal crackdown did not manage to quell and that persisted until the spread of the novel coronavirus quieted the streets. The protesters were predominantly Shiite, and they vehemently objected to Iran’s meddling in their county. To show the bitter resentment that they felt toward Iran, in November 2019, some slapped their shoes against banners of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. Many did not even bother to cover their faces. Major General Qasem Soleimani, then the commander of the IRGC’s expeditionary Quds Force, came in for his fair share of insults from the demonstrators, too.
The demonstrations led to the resignation of Abdul-Mahdi and, for the first time since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, put an anti-Iranian, Shiite, national current at the center of Iraq’s political landscape. The protesters demanded a sovereign state free from Iranian interference, and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shiite authority in the country, supported them.
Khadimi takes the reins following directly on these events—and because of them, the new prime minister may see his way clear to limit Iran’s influence in the country.
Sistani’s role is particularly important. Back in 2014, the Islamic State (or ISIS) wrested vast swaths of Iraqi territory from the Baghdad government, and Sistani issued a fatwa calling on all able men to take up arms and join the fight under the state’s security institutions. Instead, militias aligned with Iran took the opportunity to create the PMF—a parallel military organization with a budget of $2.16 billion and 135,000 armed fighters. The organization has been a key element in the IRGC’s plans to exert influence in Iraq and beyond.
Sistani is now actively seeking to strip militias aligned with Iran of their religious legitimacy.
Sistani is now actively seeking to strip these militias of their religious legitimacy. Under the supervision of one of the cleric’s close confidants, four Shiite paramilitary factions affiliated with Sistani—the Abbas Combat Division, the Imam Ali Combat Division, the Ali Akbar Brigade, and the Ansar al-Marja’iya Brigade—defected from the PMF in April and expressed their intention to help others do the same. By giving his affiliated factions the nod to secede from the PMF, Sistani is effectively withdrawing his endorsement from the factions that remain loyal to the IRGC—a snub that could seriously damage the religious legitimacy of the Iranian-backed factions.
Those factions were already reeling from the U.S. airstrike that assassinated Soleimani and the PMF leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in early January. The two charismatic commanders were instrumental in consolidating Iran’s influence in Iraq and in unifying the country’s Shiite factions. Their loss has left a void that Brigadier General Esmail Qaani, Soleimani’s successor, has not been able to fill. As a result, Iraq’s pro-Iranian factions occupy their weakest position in years—just in time for the new prime minister to begin bringing the militias under state control.
President Barham Salih can be a powerful ally to Kadhimi in this endeavor. He has taken a more active role in politics than did his predecessor, Fuad Masum, the president when Abadi attempted to bring the militas to heel. Salih even played a major part in selecting Kadhimi, enraging the pro-Iranian factions in late March when he refused to nominate their candidate for the premiership. Salih said that he would rather resign than appoint someone to the position who would be rejected by the protesters.
If there were ever a moment for Iraq to shake off Iranian influence, the time is now—not only because conditions are ripe in Iraq but because they are ripe in Iran. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has pursued a policy of maximum pressure against Iran that has taken a toll on the country’s ability to support its regional proxies. According to Brian Hook, U.S. Special Representative for Iran, the Islamic Republic has been forced to reduce its military spending in recent years. Anecdotal evidence backs this claim. In March 2019, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, asked supporters to donate money, suggesting that the Iranian-supported militants were short of funds. In February 2020, a high-ranking Iranian politician recalled that Soleimani came to him looking to raise funds for the IRGC’s proxies in Syria.
Iran’s proxies in Syria are not only on the ropes financially; they are also under military pressure from Israel. Gadi Eisenkot, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, stated in January 2019, “We struck thousands of [Iranian] targets without claiming responsibility.” Among such targets are Iraqi militias that also belong to the PMF. In late April 2020, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett told the Israeli news media that his country was stepping up its campaign against Iran in Syria: since the beginning of the year, Israel has conducted at least 11 raids against targets affiliated with Iran.
To expect Iran’s influence to vanish from Iraq overnight would be naive, but certainly the circumstances under which Kadhimi begins his tenure are the best aligned of any in recent years to the purpose of restraining Iran’s hand.
The new prime minister can start by freezing further expansion of the PMF. Then Kadhimi should divide responsibility among the various leaders across the military organization. When Muhandis was the PMF’s sole leader, he liaised directly with Soleimani, who exercised considerable control. Kadhimi should structure the organization differently, such that leadership is shared—and among the group’s leaders, he should appoint some who believe in a sovereign Iraq, in order to balance the commanders loyal to Iran. At the same time, Kadhimi must put effective auditing in place to make the PMF’s spending more transparent. He should establish a good working relationship with the units that have broken with the PMF and facilitate the defection of others, should the pro-Iranian militias refuse to implement his reforms. A Shiite paramilitary force that operates under the jurisdiction of the Iraqi state will offer an alternative to the rogue Shiite militias led by Iran.
Iraq’s new prime minister has momentum behind him. He has only to implement his plan.
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