On June 26, Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) raided the Baghdad headquarters of Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), an Iranian-backed militia of the security umbrella organization, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) (al-Jazeera, June 26). The CTS arrested 14 KH militants and confiscated various rockets and other weaponry after it had received intelligence about an imminent attack on the International Zone and Baghdad International Airport. Several hours later, dozens of armed KH members entered the Green Zone to pressure the CTS to release the arrested militants. The CTS released all but one of the detainees by June 30 (Iraqi Prime Minister’s Media Office, June 30).
Amid a severe economic downturn, one of the most pertinent questions facing Baghdad is how Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadimi will balance his economic reform plans with confronting the various pro-Iran militia groups embedded in the state.
Khadimi’s Strategy Towards the PMU
The raid on the KH headquarters is the latest attempt by Khadimi to curb the influence of pro-Iran militia groups. Since his inauguration in May, Khadimi consolidated control over the CTS and the National Intelligence Service, ordered the closure of the Thar Allah al-Islami militia headquarters, and arrested an influential member of another pro-Iran militia group (Al-Monitor, May 12).
Khadimi has made it clear he wishes to remodel the state’s relationship with the PMU, where many of the more powerful pro-Iran militias are embedded. While the PMU is officially an Iraqi state institution, several of its factions receive funding and coordination from Iran. Khadimi has attempted to isolate these factions by emphasizing the Iraqi identity of the PMU, designating it a purely Iraqi institution and stating that it must subsequently answer only to the Iraqi state (Iraqi Prime Minister’s Media Office, May 16).
To this end, Khadimi has sought to exploit an inter-Shia rift in the PMU. Of the 67 Shia factions present in the PMU, loyalties are divided between factions that follow the Iraqi Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and those that follow the Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (Rudaw, June 10). Long-standing disagreements over the imbalance in control over resources and decision-making in the organization came to a head in February, after the Khamenei factions unilaterally installed the replacement for former leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Since Khadimi’s inauguration, he has thrown his support behind Sistani, offered more support to the pro-Sistani factions and even encouraged them to leave the PMU and transfer to direct state control.
Khadimi’s strategy has not yet had the desired effect. Following the raid, rocket attacks targeting U.S. diplomatic and military assets have continued, and multiple pro-Iran factions galvanized in support of KH (Middle East Eye, July 2). Iranian-backed members of the PMU are even suspected of being behind the recent assassination of influential analyst Hisham al-Hashimi, reportedly close to Khadimi, on July 6 (al-Hurra, July 8).
A Dangerous Precedent
While Khadimi may feel that now is the right time to reign in Iranian-aligned militias, particularly as funding from Iran has dropped over the past months, the June 26 raid set a dangerous precedent (Asharq al-Awsat, July 3). Khadimi will now have to ensure that the CTS continues to act if KH plans further attacks. If not, Khadimi will not only lose credibility, but also embolden KH militants to launch more daring attacks.
Close links between KH and other pro-Iran factions such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Movement mean that further confrontations could lead to a large mobilization against the state. This would have severe repercussions for the security environment, as the Iraqi state forces would struggle to contain the pro-Iran factions without mobilizing state-aligned PMU factions. The semi-civil war conditions that this would likely create are a significant deterrent for Khadimi’s government.
Pro-Iran factions also wield considerable political influence and could bring down Khadimi’s government without resorting to violence. Many of these groups are linked to the Fatah alliance, currently the largest in parliament. While the establishment of the new coalition ‘Iraqiyoon’ has bolstered support for Khadimi, the coalition is still smaller than that of Fatah (Rudaw, July 1). If the Fatah alliance were to request a vote of no confidence, there is no guarantee that Khadimi’s government has enough parliamentary support to survive.
An Important Ally and a Difficult Task
With the second round of strategic talks between Iraq and the United States looming, Khadimi cannot afford to be seen as weak on Iranian militias. U.S. assistance has become even more vital after Iraq’s economy significantly worsened over recent months due to COVID-19 and falling oil prices. Trump’s presidency has often attached conditions to its support, and if Khadimi wants to ensure further engagement with Washington, then he will need to continue to show willingness in combatting the militias.
Khadimi faces a difficult task. He cannot push the pro-Iran factions too hard as he risks a confrontation that could destabilize the security and political environment. Likewise, if Khadimi eases up on the Iranian-backed militias he could alienate a major ally at the same time as setting a precedent of impunity for powerful pro-Iran groups.
If Khadimi can strike a balance between avoiding direct conflict and showing enough strength for domestic and foreign audiences, he will have the space to focus on economic reform plans vital to strengthening the Iraqi state. By solving Iraq’s economic downturn, Khadimi can build up domestic political capital, thereby undermining the dominant Iranian-aligned Fatah block. A richer state would also be able to increase funding to state-aligned members of the PMU, thereby tipping the balance of power in its favor.
Militia groups wielding considerable influence autonomously from the state will continue to pose significant difficulties to Khadimi. Iran’s influence in Iraq has been built up over decades and will not be removed in months. While continuing to pursue pro-Iran groups will win Khadimi credibility in Washington in the short term, only an Iraqi state driven by a functioning economy will put Khadimi in a position capable to successfully confront Iranian proxies in the long term.