The crisis in relations between the United States and Iraq’s Shia-led government has deepened over the last few weeks and especially after the killing of Iran’s top general, Qasem Soleimani, as he arrived at Baghdad International Airport on January 2. Soleimani was killed alongside Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy chairman of Iraq’s official Shia militia umbrella organization, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) (al-Quds, January 3).
The killing of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, whose real name is Jamal Jaafar al-Ibrahim, is a major blow to Iran and its allies in Iraq and across the Middle East. Since 2003, Iraq has been a place where U.S. and Iranian influences coexisted and competed. The country emerged as the main theater of a new phase in the confrontation between the United States and Iran. On January 7, Iran launched missile attacks on two Iraqi military bases where U.S. troops are stationed. Washington decided to avoid further escalation after there were no reports of casualties, but that by no means marks the end of the confrontation as both sides continue warning each other of possible retaliation and escalation (Asharq al-Awsat, January 8).
Attempts to Expel U.S. Troops
The strategy of Iran and its allies in Iraq after the killing of Soleimani has been clear; to drive U.S. troops out of the country through political and violent means. Iranian-backed Shia factions in the parliament have managed to secure a vote to expel U.S. troops. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, although resigned and in a caretaking role, has encouraged the vote and has since attempted to find a way to implement it (Aljazeera, January 5).
The vote happened in a parliamentary session that was boycotted by all Kurdish parties and the vast majority of Sunni political groups (Rawabet Center, January 5). Although the Kurds have their own historical ties with Iran, they still prefer to maintain the U.S. military presence in their semi-autonomous region for strategic interests and protection from powerful neighbors. The Sunnis are worried about their future if U.S. troops leave Iraq under increasing control by Iran and its Iraqi Shia allies who control the government and military.
Al-Muhandis and his Militias
The PMU is comprised of dozens of different militias (Annahar, June 10, 2016). In his speech in parliament, Abdul-Mahdi praised al-Muhandis for what he described as his role in controlling the militias. Kataib Hezbollah (KH) is a militias that has never revealed the details of its hierarchy. It is widely believed that al-Muhandis was its leader, though it was never confirmed. There are two main reasons to conceal the militia’s hierarchy. First, it helped the group remain ambiguous in order to make it more difficult for its enemies to target its leadership. KH has been involved in the anti-U.S. insurgency since the 2003 invasion, but managed to avoid suffering major casualties or the arrests of its leaders. In comparison, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AHH)—led by Sheikh Qais al-Khazali—was a target of the U.S.-led campaign and its leader was arrested in 2007 along with his brother Laith al-Khazali and a Lebanese militia leader, Ali Mousa Daqdooq (Seyassah, March 14, 2019).
Leaders of the most powerful militias within the PMU decided to support Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the Badr Organization militia, to succeed al-Muhandis in the role of deputy chairman of the PMU (Alsumaria, January 3).
Like al-Muhandis, al-Amiri is expected to be an effective leader of the PMU. Although they were close allies and shared a long history of fighting alongside the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) since the 1980s, al-Amiri and al-Muhandis were two different characters. Al-Amiri is the leader of Badr, which is the largest Shia militia. He has played a hands-on role in the fight against Islamic State (IS) since 2014, but he does not have the same charisma as al-Muhandis. Al-Muhandis was someone who was viewed as fully dedicated to the cause of Shia jihadism. He was modest, soft-spoken, and spent most of his time with his men. His influence extended across all Shia militias while al-Amiri’s image was tainted by his time in government positions since 2003, including serving as minister of transportation in former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s second cabinet between 2010 and 2014. Public anger and resentment has been on the rise against the whole political class, which is accused of corruption and illegally directing government resources for the benefit of their political groups or personal gain.
The PMU chairman, Faleh al-Fayadh, will remain in his position as someone who provides the political and official cover through his capacity as the national security advisor in the Iraqi government, a position he has held since 2009. Al-Fayadh has been well known for his relations with various parties, even those who do not agree with each other. Over the last ten years, he has visited both Washington and Damascus several times. Internally, he maintains good relations with parties from across the political spectrum. However, he still lacks the charisma that al-Muhandis had or al-Amiri’s field experience.
The United States has so far dismissed the vote of the Iraqi parliament to expel its troops. Iraqi Shia parties, however, will keep calling for its implementation. It is unclear if and how the United States will address the issue with Iraq’s three main communities—Shia, Sunni and Kurds.
The Kurds have always wanted the United States to maintain its military presence in Iraq without condition. They were against the U.S. withdrawal in 2011 and unsuccessfully offered to host U.S. military bases. It is possible that the United States, if pushed by the Shia-led government, might consider the option of keeping troops in the Kurdish region (24.ae, February 21, 2019).
Most of the large military bases that host U.S. troops, including the al-Asad base, which was targeted by most of the Iranian missiles on June 7, are currently located in the Sunni majority part of Iraq. The Sunnis are in a significantly more difficult position. Although the Sunni public are worried about overwhelming Iranian domination of Iraq if the United States pulls out its troops, it will not be easy to call for U.S. forces to remain as the Iranian-backed militias already control most of the Sunni majority areas in western and central Iraq. When the United States withdrew in 2011, it was criticized for handing over its Sunni allies from the Sahwa militias, which fought al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, to the Iraqi Shia-led government of the then Prime Minister al-Maliki. Al-Maliki was accused of pursuing sectarian policies that alienated the Sunnis and helped IS to gain control of their areas. The United States has even fewer options now if the country eventually decides to withdraw from Iraq (al-Arab, July 3, 2014).
Not all Shia Iraqis want the U.S. troops to withdraw. Major street protests have occurred in Baghdad and in predominantly Shia southern Iraq since October calling for genuine reform and reduced Iranian influence. However, the political parties that represent them in parliament overwhelmingly support the withdrawal. As Iran seems to have concluded its direct response to the killing of Soleimani, Qais al-Khazali, the leader of AAH, said that the campaign to avenge the killing of al-Muhandis has not yet begun (Aljazeera, January 9).