Iraq’s De-militiafication Is a Sham

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi this week announced that the Shia militias of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) or Hashd al-Shaabi are to be fully integrated into the Iraqi security forces. According to the statement announcing this decision, “All Popular Mobilization Forces are to operate as an indivisible part of the armed forces and be subject to the same regulations.”

The prime minister’s statement went on to clarify that headquarters, offices and independent checkpoints maintained by the militias are to be shut down. Militias failing to comply with this directive by July 31 will be considered illegal organizations. Those wishing to continue under their old names as political parties must disband their military component.

The Shia militias are the main instrument of Iranian policy on Iraqi soil. Not all groups involved in the 150,000 strong PMU are Iran-linked, but the largest and most consequential groupings are. These include the Badr Organization, led by Hadi al-Ameri, Ktaeb Hezbollah, headed by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and Hezbollah al-Nujaba.

All the above-mentioned groupings are franchises of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. All were established by, and are controlled by, Iran, answering directly to the IRGC’s Quds Force and its leader, Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

The Iraqi announcement comes in the wake of a sharp increase in anonymous attacks almost certainly carried out by the militias on US targets in Iraq in recent weeks. These included a mortar attack on the Balad air base in Iraq’s Salah al-Din province on June 14 (the base hosts US troops); a mortar attack on the Taji base (which also hosts US advisers) on June 17; and a Katyusha rocket attack on the Burjesia site on June 19 (this area hosts facilities maintained by a number of global oil companies, including Exxon Mobil).

While no group claimed responsibility for the attacks, there is no real suspect other than the Shia militias. (ISIS, which remains active in Iraq, is currently otherwise engaged in rebuilding its networks in Sunni central Iraq and reimposing its hold on the Sunni population in its rural heartlands.)

The US government thinks that Ktaeb Hezbollah was most likely also responsible for the launching of a drone at the East-West oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia on May 14.

Ktaeb Hezbollah members (in their political manifestation) stormed the Bahraini Embassy in Baghdad on June 27, in protest at Bahrain’s hosting of the US-sponsored “Peace to Prosperity” conference. They carried placards reading “No to the deal of the century,” and “Arab Zionists sold their Arab identity for a failed deal.”

The attacks on US facilities have been accompanied by increased rhetorical threats against the US and Israel from militia leaders. Nasir al-Shamari, assistant secretary-general of the Hezbollah Nujaba militia, stated that “confrontation with the US will stop only when it is eliminated from the region, along with the Zionist entity.”

Hadi al-Ameri, leader of the Badr Organization and perhaps the most powerful pro-Iranian political and military leader in Iraq, expressed his views in a recent interview with the Farsi-language, IRGC-associated Fars News Agency regarding the US and Israel in the following terms:

There is no doubt that ISIS is a bastard child of the United States. I and my comrades will never surrender to the involvement of the United States and its allies in Iraq, and this was our position from the beginning…. [ISIS’s] main designers and the creators were the United States and their master, Israel.

The move by the Iraqi government to integrate the militias comes in the wake of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s May visit to Iraq. Speaking after the visit, Pompeo said that he had “urged the Iraqi government, for its own security, to get all of those forces [the militias] under Iraq central control.”

So is the matter now settled? Will Ameri, Muhandis and the others now be content with a new role as besuited politicians, or as anonymous divisional commanders in Iraq’s army?

They will not.

Firstly, it is worth remembering that this latest announcement is not without precedent. The first law making the militias part of the Iraqi security forces was passed in November 2016. From that time on, they have constituted a part of the state security apparatus. Formally, the militias report directly to, and are under the authority of, the prime minister.

In March 2018, then-prime minister Haider al-Abadi issued a decree formally integrating the militias into the security forces, regularizing their salaries and affording them rights similar to members of the Iraqi army and other services, under the control of the Ministry of Defense.

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The latest decree, undertaken, it would appear, largely in response to US pressure and cajoling, resembles these earlier moves. What was their result?

With the welcome cover of official status, the militias predictably continued to act as the strong arm of Iran in Iraq. As a result of the blurring of the boundaries between the state army and the Shia militias, however, Iran’s fighters gained welcome access to the resources available to the official security forces.

These included state-of-the-art US equipment – such as the nine M1A1 Abrams tanks that the militias used against (pro-US) Kurdish forces in the assault against Iraqi Kurdistan following the Kurdish bid for independence from Iraq in late 2017. The latter operation was planned by Soleimani.

The US has provided over $22 billion in aid to the Iraqi security forces since 2005. As the lines between the army and the militias blur, so the possibility of preventing this access will also fade. Only strong and direct action against the militias and their leaders could prevent this.

The militias are powerful players – politically, militarily and economically. Abdul Mahdi, meanwhile, is a weak figure with no real power base of his own. Iraq is not a country ruled by law. The prime minister, as a result, simply possesses no coercive mechanism for imposing his will on the Shia militias. He can order their dissolution, if he so wishes. The result would be the further enmeshing and fusing of the militias with the official bodies of the state – without the ceding by the latter of their own vital chain of command. This chain of command leads to Soleimani, and thence to the office of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The IRGC does not regard Iraq as a country, but, rather, as one arena in which it is growing its power and prosecuting its attacks against US forces. In this contest, the official Iraqi state and its various structures afford a convenient cover. If the militias can burrow into the Iraqi state and incidentally benefit from the largesse afforded it by its allies (who are the militias’ enemies), then so much the better.

If this sounds familiar, it should. It is the game plan successfully pursued by the IRGC in Lebanon in recent years, through its Hezbollah franchise in that country. That model is now being applied in Iraq, on a larger and far more consequential scale. Prime ministerial decrees won’t stop it.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Middle East Forum