Iraqi militias have been a source of trouble for Iraqi governments throughout the post-US invasion period. Unruly, difficult to control, and hard to trust, Iraqi militias – generally called Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, or the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) – are hired guns. They were initially created to protect the interests of the different parties that were brought to the country by the coalition forces in 2003.
Later, they grew in size and power, and started to play an important role in the country’s security and governance. Many of these militias are equipped and financed by Iran, to help achieve its ambitions in Iraq and beyond. Recent flare-ups of hostilities between the US forces stationed in Iraq and Iran have exposed the danger that these militias can pose to the future of Iraq.
Exacerbating matters, in late June, the US carried out a strike on three PMF “operational and weapons storage facilities” near the Iraq-Syria border, in response to recent drone attacks on US forces in Iraq.
The PMF has reported that four members of one faction were killed in the US assault and has threatened to retaliate. “We denounce and condemn in the strongest terms this sinful attack on our forces . . . and we affirm that we maintain the legal right to respond to these attacks and hold accountable their perpetrators on Iraqi territory,” the group declared in a statement. Currently, 2,500 US troops remain in Iraq as part of an international coalition to fight ISIS.
Since President Joe Biden took office early this year, US interests in Iraq increasingly have been the target of Iran-backed, Shiite militia groups’ attacks. More than 23 attacks were reported during the first four months of 2021, while dozens of similar incidents were registered in 2019.
US interests in Iraq increasingly have been the target of Iran-backed, Shiite militia groups’ attacks.
The offensives began in December 2019, with the killing of a US contractor and wounding of Iraqi and US service members in a rocket attack that struck a coalition base in northern Iraq. In retaliation, US forces launched an air strike against facilities belonging to the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia in western Iraq, killing 25 militia members. Angered by the murder of its members, a crowd of Iran-backed militias demonstrated in front of the US Embassy in Baghdad. Some of the demonstrators were able to breach the reception hall of the Embassy, which prompted US troops to fire teargas to disperse them.
A few days later, on January 3, 2020, a US drone strike killed Major General Qassem Soleimani – Iran’s most powerful military commander – shortly after his arrival to Baghdad International Airport. Former US Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, said that “this strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.” The assault also killed one of Soleimani’s subordinates, Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis. The latter had been sentenced to death in absentia by a Kuwait court in 1983, for his role in attacking US and French Embassies in Kuwait city, and in attempting to assassinate the Emir of Kuwait.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who was shaken by the US attack on Soleimani, acknowledged that Washington was able to “cut off the arm” of Iran, yet he promised to cut off the “leg” of the United States. On January 8, Iran attacked two Iraqi facilities hosting US forces in western and northern Iraq. In the aftermath, and for the first time, Iranian officials acknowledged their responsibility in launching 15 missiles at the two facilities.
With no human causalities reported, press reports suggested that Iran did not intend to cause any human losses, while US officials stated they knew of the attack plans beforehand and thus were well prepared. Meanwhile, Iranian officials falsely claimed that the strikes killed 80 American servicemen.
Why the Recent Escalation?
Relations between the US administration and the Iranian government in Iraq did not witness major difficulties from 2003 until 2018. Rather, a kind of mutual “division of labor” was maintained by the two sides, until the Trump administration decided in mid-2018 to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Former US President Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally pull the US out of the JCPOA and to reinstate economic sanctions on Iran angered Tehran.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made it clear that his ultimate goal is to push the US out of the region.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, while insisting that his country would avenge the killing of Soleimani, made it clear that his ultimate goal is to push the US out of the region. He demanded the US forces to withdraw from Iraq and Syria, claiming that Iran’s presence in these two countries is legal and non-military.
Yet, in reality, it appears Iran’s ambitions of reviving its defunct Empire never ceased. Iran’s former Vice President, Ali Younis, was quoted in 2015 as saying: “Iran has now become an Empire, as it was throughout history. Its capital today is Baghdad, and it is the center of our civilization and culture as it was in the past.” Many similar statements have reportedly been made by other Iranian officials. Still, neither Khamenei nor any of the Iranian officials have explained how they would drive the US forces out of Iraq and Syria.
Some of the Iran-backed militias actively participated in the civil war that broke out in Iraq after the 2003 US invasion. Other groups, however, fought the coalition forces for a period of time, like the Al-Mahdi Army militia, which was created by the firebrand cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr.
Most of these factions were created under the very eyes of the US troops, and some of their political leaders were appointed by the coalition forces in the first Governing Council, established by the US in Iraq in 2003. Though several of their leaders and fighters were eventually either killed or captured by the coalition forces.
Qais Al-Khazali, who is very close to Iran, is top on the list among those captured. He created a group called Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq AAH, which was designated as a terrorist group by the US. After the withdrawal of the US forces from Iraq in 2012, the militia’s role started to grow and gradually became more powerful than the official army. So much so that in 2018, about 30 militias under the PMF umbrella were formally included in the army, to be paid and equipped by the Iraqi government.
Moreover, the PMF has significant presence in the Iraqi parliament through the Fatah Alliance, which has over 40 seats in the 329-seat parliament. The head of this political bloc, Hadi Al-Ameri, also leads the Badr Brigade, which was created in Iran during the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran war, to fight with the Iranian army against his own country. Al-Ameri, who wields enormous power in Iraq, is widely known for kissing the hand of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2015, while he was holding the portfolio of transport in Iraq.
Following the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2012, the remaining US and other coalition forces were not initially targeted by the PMF forces. In fact, the coalition’s role in fighting and liberating parts of Iraq after the Islamic State (ISIL) occupation of some Iraqi cities – mainly the air campaign – decisively supported the Iraqi army and the PMF forces, contributing to the defeat of ISIL in Iraq in 2017.
The Iran-backed militias’ attacks on coalition forces started in earnest in 2018-2019, as a response to the withdrawal of the US from the Iran nuclear deal.
The Iran-backed militias’ attacks on coalition forces started in earnest in 2018-2019, as a response to the withdrawal of the US from the Iran nuclear deal and the ensuing economic sanctions imposed on Iran. Yet, to avoid further US reprisals and the “cutting” of its other arm, the Iranian authorities recently changed their tactics in Iraq. Therefore, the latest attacks on US facilities have been executed by covert, elite groups, usually using unknown names.
These groups, which have smaller numbers of fighters than other militias, are hand-picked by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Iraqi and Western sources have confirmed that these new military groups were behind recent attacks on the coalition facilities. They also believe that these groups “answer directly to Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) officers.”
Iraq Has Turned into a Debacle
In its efforts to put pressure on the US administration to lift the sanctions imposed on the country, the Iranian government is using the Iraqi PMF as a bargaining chip in any future US-Iran negotiations. However, the problem seems to be that the US does not see the Iranian military campaign against its facilities in Iraq as a serious threat to US interests. Most human and material losses so far were Iraqi, as it appears Iranian attacks are intended not to inflict serious human damage to the US forces, to avoid any possible serious US retaliation.
Ultimately, the US-Iran rivalry in Iraq has turned the country into a failed state. It has eroded the remaining pillars, if any, of Iraq as an independent, sovereign, and respected state. It has also further strengthened Iran’s grip on Iraq, making a revival of Iraq as an independent and viable country almost impossible.