After its overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the United States was forced to collaborate with fringe Shiite opposition groups in Iraq, which had formed in exile during Hussein’s rule with some regional support—such as the Iraqi National Accord bloc, led by Iyad Allawi and established with Saudi Arabia’s backing. There were also groups that were formed by local individuals, namely the Iraqi National Congress led by Ahmed Chalabi. This dynamic would soon be complicated by the conflicting interests of the US and the Iranian political leaders that influence Iraq’s Shiite factions.
In the early stages of the US presence in Iraq, when the US realized that opposition groups had no real influence in Iraq, it was forced to cooperate with the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution, despite its full knowledge that the organization was formed by Iran’s former Ayatollah, Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1982.
Moreover, Iranian Ayatollah Mahmoud Al-Hashimi Al-Shahroudi was the first chairman of the council. He later held three positions: Judiciary chairman, Diagnostic Council chairman, and First Deputy of the Leadership Experts’ Assembly (the body that undertakes the task of appointing and dismissing the Supreme Leader). The council was considered one of the first Iraqi organizations that declared its commitment to Wilayat al-Faqih (appointing all political and religious authority to the Shia clergy) and acknowledged loyalty to the Al Wali al-Faqih (guardian Islamic jurist) residing in Tehran.
This ambiguous relationship between the US and Iraqi Shia leaders was culminated in Abdel Aziz al-Hakim’s visit to Washington in 2002. Al-Hakim is the younger brother of Shia scholar Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, who assumed the presidency of the Supreme Council after Shahroudi. He met with then US Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Minister Donald Rumsfeld, two of the most prominent Republican figures to push for the war on Iraq.
As a result of the meeting, the Supreme Council was financed by the United States (under the Iraq Liberation Law), even though the Council had an armed force called the “Badr Corps” militia, which operated under the command of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was its first commander, before Hadi al-Amiri assumed its leadership. According to President Bill Clinton’s Executive Order (P.D. 99.13) in 1999, the Supreme Council was one of six groups that were to be funded under this act and this continued with the Bush administration in 2002.
After Iraq’s occupation, the Supreme Council was the main Shiite force with which the United States apparently needed to have relations, particularly after Abdul Aziz al-Hakim took over the Council’s presidency. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim succeeded his older brother, Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, who had previously occupied the position and was assassinated in an explosion in Najaf in August 2003.
The Americans had to play a dual game in Iraq, with the understanding that the effective Shiite politicians have strategic relations with Iran.
The Americans had to play this dual game in Iraq, with the understanding that the effective Shiite politicians have their strategic relations with Iran—relations that could not be disrupted or interfered with in any way. The Americans were convinced that it was not in their benefit to have any confrontation with the Shiite politicians, especially after the emergence of the Sunni’s resistance that was provoking them. Such ties with Iran even led a liberal figure like Ahmed Chalabi, former President of the Governing Council of Iraq, to promote his relationship with Iran and establish what he called the “Shiite House” in 2004, to secure a foothold in the Iraqi political scene.
On March 6, 2013, British daily The Guardian published a report entitled: “From El Salvador to Iraq: Washington’s Man Behind Brutal Police Squads.” It pointed out that the United States prevented members of violent Shiite militias – such as the Badr Corps and the Mahdi Army – from joining the security forces at the beginning of the occupation, but by the summer of 2004 it lifted that ban. The report noted that members of Shiite militias from all over Iraq arrived in Baghdad on trucks, to join the new commando force and that these men were “enthusiastic to fight the Sunnis,” seeking “revenge for decades of Saddam’s Sunni-backed rule.”
In the wake of ISIS’ occupation of Mosul in June 2014, which allowed it to control a third of Iraqi territory, the United States was forced in August 2014 to return to Iraq within the framework of the international coalition it had established and led before. Keen to distance Iran from this alliance, the US was well aware that the Iranian role in this confrontation had escalated. Indeed, the Iran-backed militias in Iraq had transformed into a real force, through the assistance of the Popular Mobilization Authority. This came after leading Shiite politicians distorted a fatwa (religious ruling) by Ayatollah Sayyid Sistani and called for recruitment in the army, to legitimize the activity of Iranian-backed militias on the ground, an activity that preceded the fatwa.
Once again, the Americans had no choice but to play their double game in the context of the war. They turned a blind eye to the armament of these militias with American weapons. They were silent about their violations, which a United Nations Human Rights Committee report described early on as “crimes against humanity amounting to war crimes.” In fact, the Americans even provided air support to these militias in many battles, especially in the Battle of Baiji. Thus, the US’ attempts to refuse the participation of these militias in some areas, like the battles of Tikrit and Mosul, were done in the context of “reducing sensitivities” more than a disapproving stance.
On June 22, 2005, Bloomberg published an article by Josh Rogin and Eli Lake entitled: “Iranian and US forces share one base,” citing two senior US administration officials who confirmed that US soldiers and Shiite militias were using the Taqaddum military base together in Anbar. Another senior official was quoted saying that the leaders of some extremist militias were sitting in American talks regarding military operations.
With the advent of the Trump administration in 2016, it appeared there was an American decision to end the double game.
With the advent of the Trump administration in 2016, it appeared there was an American decision to end the double game that had lasted for so long in Iraq, although Trump’s campaign did not present a clear strategy for Iraq. Still, his administration was keen on accomplishing two goals: confronting the Iranian threat in the region as a whole and reducing the presence of US forces in Iraq.
The confrontation with the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq was only a direct result of the US sanctions imposed on Iran at the end of 2018, after Trump pulled the US out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – known as the Iran nuclear deal. This decision somehow ended the “swaying” US position towards these militias, through the sanctions imposed on some factions such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Al-Nujaba (2019), and Kata’ib Hezbollah (2020). Then the US took the most severe action towards these militias with the assassination of Iran’s Generals Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis – the real leader of these militias in Iraq – in early January 2020.
Prior to these assassinations, the Iranian-backed militias had launched their first Katyusha bombardment in May 2019 at the US Embassy in the Green Zone in central Baghdad, and it became clear that the fluctuating relationship between the two parties had reached a new turning point. The upticks in offensives by the militias elicited an American response on August 12 of that year. The US bombed a camp for the Martyrs Brigades in Baghdad, then targeted another camp near Balad Air Base in Salah al-Din Governorate. These attacks forced Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis to issue an official statement on August 20, 2019 in his capacity as the nominal Deputy Head of the Popular Mobilization Authority – though its real leader in practice – in which he explicitly accused the United States of being responsible for the strikes.
Drone attacks by Iran’s proxy militias are nothing more than a “signal” to the US, targeting specific, low risk locations.
In more recent developments, political messages have been issued through armed offensives and drone strikes, over the last two months. These drone attacks by Iran’s proxy militias are nothing more than a “signal” to the US, targeting specific, low risk locations such as the Base of Ain al-Assad, the Hareer Base, and even the city of Erbil, which is a far reach for the Katyusha rockets’ capacity. The fundamental observation here is that this confrontation remains “measured,” under control, and has not turned into a real open conflict. Katyusha rockets, for example, which are mostly homemade, have a limited impact due to their explosive microcephaly, and therefore should only be seen as a minor provocation.
Similarly, the American stance remains limited within the framework of the messages exchanged between the two parties through calculated, restrained attacks—rather than real preemptive strikes on the militias or their camps, with the exception of targeting Iranian commander Soleimani Al-Muhandis in January 2020. The killing of Al-Muhandis was a direct response for breaking into the American Embassy in Baghdad and threatening its workers, which, according to the United States, required a stern response.
The United States of America is fully aware that it is dealing with a proxy war in Iraq. It knows that the militias that are targeting US bases in Iraq, do not make autonomous decisions and that they are merely Iranian tools. The US also knows that Iran seeks to use its proxies in Iraq as a pressure card for the current Iranian-American nuclear negotiations. Moreover, such offensives are also linked to an Iranian desire to consolidate its influence in Iraq, in the context of any future security arrangements. The US is also aware of the fact that any open confrontation with these militias will require a large military presence on the ground, which it is not interested in establishing.
The US knows that Iran seeks to use its proxies in Iraq as a pressure card for the current Iranian-American nuclear negotiations.
The Iranians are also not ready to get into a real military confrontation with the United States in Iraq. They know perfectly well that any confrontation would mean a severe blow against their proxies on the one hand, and against their interests in Iraq, on the other—neither of which Iran wants to see happen. Iraq is currently the second supplier of hard currency to Iran, something Iran cannot afford to lose, since it is in a difficult economic situation due to the numerous sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe. Additionally, Iraq’s internal politics has become a threat to the existence of Tehran’s allied Iraqi factions, especially after the October 2019 protests, and the deep Shiite division regarding these factions.
All these factors confirm that the conflict between the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and the United States will remain in the context of provocation and not confrontation. Therefore, no matter how intense the actions or reactions may appear, the two sides will not pursue direct confrontation, at least not in the foreseeable future.