Iran-backed militias are in a relatively weakened state, but will try anything to avoid being left out of the government.
Earlier this month, Iran-backed Iraqi militias attacked Iraqi bases hosting US military advisors and logistic convoys belonging to Coalition Forces. The situation was further complicated by attacks on the offices of Kurdish KDP and Sunni groups’ Taqadum Coalition and Azm Alliance, parties expected to form a government with firebrand Shia leader Moqtada Al Sadr.
In the latest election in October 2021, his party defeated Fatah Alliance, the political face of Iran-backed militias under the roof of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).
Fears about the exclusion from Sadr's government have made pro-Iranian groups more aggressive. Domestically, the PMF threatens Iraqi Sunnis, Kurds and the Shia groups that prefer to remain distant from Iran and its influence. Flexing their muscle against domestic and regional actors, Iran-backed militias harm Iraq’s relations with the Sunni regional powers, the Gulf countries and Turkiye.
Given the recent attacks, Ankara's tensions with these militias is likely to increase, considering they have carried out more than 10 attacks, including one that was fatal, on Turkiye's Bashiqa military base in Mosul in the last year.
Iran's military capability will further dominate the Iraqi political sphere if the PMF influence is not restricted. Even though Sadr aims to limit the role of militias in the new government, the question remains unclear on how to do it.
Attempts to limit the PMF would not be a first in Iraq’s recent political history. In July 2019, former PM Adel Abdul Mahdi and then his successor Mustafa Kadhimi tried with no considerable success.
Both Abdul Mahdi and Kadhimi were the compromise prime minister candidates of pro-Iranians and Sadr. While Kadhimi tried to take bolder steps against the PMF, militias openly threatened him, saying, “the time is appropriate to cut his ears as the ears of a goat are cut” and even bombarded his home last November.
Integrated into the official Iraqi security system during its fight against Daesh, the PMF wants to protect its position despite the victory against Daesh in 2017 and the end of the US combat mission in Iraq last month.
Sadr may be an option
The results of the last election strengthened Sadr’s position in his desire to limit the PMF as the rival militia-allied political groups suffered at the ballot box. Sadr called on Iran-backed militias to disarm if their political groups want to join the government. In this context, the majority government that Sadr would like to form with the Kurds and Sunnis has the capacity to limit the PMF.
However, it is clear that in a government scenario in which pro-Iranians are not involved, the militias will target the US presence and Iraqi political actors. While Sunnis and the KDP are aware of this, they may go forward with Sadr’s plan to monopolise weapons in the hands of the state. However, it is important to remember that Sadr is also a former leader of an effective militia force, Saraya al-Salam. By trying to prevent Iran-backed militias, Sadr may aim to eliminate or limit his alternatives in the security field.
A government with no or weak pro-Iranian groups’ participation would allow for warmer relations with the Gulf and Turkiye. Considering the PMF’s threats and attacks against the Gulf states and Turkiye, both Ankara and Riyadh could support the Baghdad government in limiting the PMF by backing the new government and encouraging more cohesion for the Sadr-led anti-Iran coalition.
Furthermore, depending on the trajectory of the Iran nuclear deal, the PMF may be limited outside of Iraq. The US, which has long claimed that the mission of the PMF has come to an end, is expected to adopt a more supportive stance in limiting the group.
Can Sistani be a solution?
The long-standing rivalry about the centre of the Shia world, between Najaf in Iraq, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and Qom in Iran, led by Ayatollah Khamenei, has had a negative effect on the PMF.
Sistani could limit the power of the PMF: in 2014, he issued a fatwa for Iraqis to take up arms against Daesh. A similar fatwa could bring an end to the PMF. The brigades close to Sistani, known as Hashd al Atabat, already left the PMF in 2020 due to the PMF’s pro-Iran stance. However, Sistani refrains from commenting on daily politics, which, combined with the fear that his fatwa will not find a response – which would hurt his credibility – might cause him to abstain from this issue. Moreover, the fact that the PMF is a legal part of the Iraqi security mechanism is an obstacle to Najaf's possible intervention.
Meanwhile, however, the PMF is in a relatively weakened state: Iran reduced its economic aid to Iraqi militias due to increased sanctions and the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, and the killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in 2020 also damaged the motivation of militias. Furthermore, their loss at the ballot box in the last elections accelerated this situation.
While Sadr is aware of their weakness and attempts to turn the process in his favour, pro-Iranians will try every way to avoid being left out of the government.
If Sadr fails to form a government, it is inevitable that the PMF will further consolidate its power, as pro-Iranian factions like the Fatah Alliance or former PM Nouri al Maliki’s State of Law bloc are the only other groups able to form governments. The possibility that they are strong in the new government will further accelerate the transformation of the PMF, which operates like the Lebanese Hezbollah, and wants to function like Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
The collapse of the state apparatus in Iraq after 2003, corruption, instability, and a lack of justice fed the militia culture. Iranian influence in Iraq and the lack of control of militias will continue to be a matter of discussion if there is no determination to limit the PMF.
The way to do this is to form a government that is eager to break Iran's influence and to take on the risk of clashing with the militias. However, right now, this is a far-off possibility in Iraq.
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