One of the most critical issues in Iraq currently is the relationship between its Shia-led government and Iranian-backed Shia militias. This issue has been important for U.S. military strategy in the Middle East. The only two military actions ordered by President Joe Biden thus far were airstrikes on Iraqi Shia militias in February and more recently on June 27 (skynewsarabia.com, June 28).
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has frequently expressed his goal of imposing the government’s command over all armed forces, including the Shia militia umbrella organization, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). However, al-Khadimi is careful not to go too far in antagonizing the powerful militias and Iran. For their part, prominent militia leaders have been increasingly vocal in their criticism, and sometimes verbal attacks, on al-Kadhimi, who is a U.S.-backed moderate Shia leader. They accuse him of targeting the PMF to satisfy American pressure. Reports even exist that PMF leaders plan to remove al-Kadhimi from his position by a vote in the parliament coupled with a show of force on the ground (aawsat.com, June 3).
A recent incident shows once more how challenging the issue of reining in the militias is for al-Khadimi. On May 26, a special security unit that reports directly to al-Kadhimi arrested Qaasim Musleh, the commander of the strategically important western Iraq sector in the PMF. The government initially accused Musleh of corruption and involvement in the killing of anti-militia activists. However, other sources suggested that Musleh was arrested for possible involvement in a recent attempt to attack U.S. troops (alaraby.co.uk, May 26).
Al-Kadhimi came under immense pressure from the militias who demanded the immediate release of their comrade. Musleh was only released weeks later with no charges made against him (June 9, mawazin.net). This incident was the recent episode in a months-long struggle between al-Kadhimi and the militias.
History of Tensions
Al-Kadhimi’s relations with the Iranian-backed militias have been strained for a long time. Before assuming the position of prime minister, he was head of the Iraqi intelligence service (Mukhabarat). He was even accused by some PMF leaders of having some sort of involvement in the killing of General Qassim Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC-QF). Soleimani was killed just outside the international airport in Baghdad shortly after he arrived in the Iraqi capital from Damascus on January 3, 2020. The deputy commander of the PMF, Jamal Jaafar al-Ibrahim, who is better known as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was killed in the same airstrike (iraninsider.net, July 31, 2020).
Such an accusation against al-Khadimi was particularly serious considering the degree of anger from PMF leaders and their desire for revenge for the killing of their two most senior leaders. Nevertheless, the tension did not escalate further and no evidence was presented to support the accusation against al-Kadhimi. On the other hand, another crisis was ongoing and causing worry and discomfort for the Iraqi ruling class. In the final months of 2019, a wave of street protests spanned Baghdad and predominantly Shia southern Iraq. The Shia militias were accused of spearheading the deadly crackdown on the protesters, who were themselves mostly Shia and demanded genuine reform and change in the system of government. Hundreds of protesters were killed, which led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who was friendly to the militias and did not take serious steps to curtail their power (skynewsarabia.com, December 1, 2020).
After weeks of deadlock, the Iraqi political factions, including the PMF, agreed to support the selection of al-Kadhimi as prime minister after al-Mahdi’s resignation. In his position as head of intelligence, al-Kadhimi nurtured friendly relations with the United States, Western powers, and Sunni Muslim Arab countries in the Middle East. However, he also maintained friendly ties with Iran and was never confrontational in his dealings with the militias (alarabiya.net, May 7, 2020).
Clash of Responsibilities
The arrest of Qassim Musleh came after months of tension between the Iranian-backed militias and the United States. The Ain al-Assad base in western Iraq, which is the largest base in the country hosting U.S. troops, for example, was attacked with rockets on May 4 (aljazeera.net, May 4). Moreover, attacks on U.S. bases became more frequent after the killing of Soleimani and al-Muhandis. President Biden, for his part, ordered his first military action against the Shia militias on February 26 after an attack on U.S. forces at another airbase in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq. In an apparent attempt not to embarrass the Iraqi government, the U.S. strike targeted the Iraqi militias’ position in Syria, where they have been fighting on the side of Bashar al-Assad’s government for years (alquds.co.uk, February 26). However, the attacks on American troops did not stop there and, as a result, on June 27, newly launched airstrikes hit Iraqi Shia militias’ positions in Syria and Iraq. This time, the ostensibly U.S.-backed al-Kadhimi had to condemn Washington’s actions as a breach of Iraqi sovereignty (dostor.org, June 28).
Increasing attacks on the U.S. troops, especially against the Ain al-Assad base, was inevitably going to cause further American responses. The arrest of Musleh could, therefore, have been a message to Musleh and the militias that they needed to stop attacking American bases. The PMF’s Shia militias have taken a puzzling position on the issue of the attacks on the United States and Western targets. While they deny responsibility for any attack, at the same time they praise the attackers and state that such attacks are the right thing to do. A whole slew of new groups have emerged over the past two years of groups in statements that claim responsibility for the attacks. Those “new” groups have remained anonymous, but it is widely believed that they are part of the already existing Shia militia organization (almadapaper.net, July 20, 2020).
On the political side of the debate, the Shia factions in parliament secured a decision in the wake of the killing of Soleimani that called for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Both Sunni and Kurdish parties opposed a withdrawal, but the Shia factions have a majority in parliament (albawaba.com, January 5, 2020). After becoming prime minister, al-Kadhimi has been under pressure from the PMF to negotiate withdrawal terms with the United States, but this is something he never showed much appetite to do.
In the crisis that followed the arrest of Musleh, al-Kadhimi appeared more confident than in his previous major confrontation with the militias. In June of last year, Iraqi security forces arrested a group of militia members from the powerful Kata’eb Hezbollah (KH) for their involvement in plotting attacks on U.S. and Western targets (alsumaria.tv, June 25, 2020). KH and other militias immediately deployed their men to Baghdad, including inside the heavily fortified Green Zone that hosts major government buildings and the prime minister’s headquarters. That significant show of force in Baghdad was followed quickly by the release of the detained militiamen. They appeared in photos after their release, stepping on posters of al-Kadhimi (eremnews.com, June 29, 2020).
Corruption Accusations, Sistani, and Sadr
The al-Kadhimi government’s implication that Musleh was involved in corruption was not specific and evidence was not made public, but was still a clever move. The resentment against the major Shia militias in the PMF within the larger Iraqi Shia community is centered around corruption accusations. While the militias hoped for a revered status within their own community after their fight against the Islamic State (IS), they have found themselves in a different situation in recent years. The militias, for example became the center of Shia youth anger and protest against the government in 2019 through wide-scale street protests. The militias’ decision to compete in the 2018 parliamentary election and join the government afterwards made them part of the much-resented political class that is accused of corruption.
The unit that arrested Musleh was called the “Anti-Corruption Commission” and is led by General Ahmed Abu Ragheef and reports directly and only to the prime minister. Government critics believe the Commission has not done anything meaningful because it has not made any serious moves against any of the influential leaders of the factions. However, it has been credited by others as being the most effective anti-corruption tool since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, due to fact that the Commission has at least arrested mid-level government officials and sometimes convicted them (aljazeera.net, April 21). Prominent militia leaders, who have long been accused of breaking the law and abusing their power, became fierce critics of the Commission, especially after the arrest of Musleh. They accordingly accused the prime minister of abusing power himself and ordering illegal arrests (shafaq.com.ku, May 27).
Another factor that made the prime minister’s move against Musleh possible was the latter’s increasing differences with the circles of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential Shia cleric in Iraq. Musleh was for years the commander of the protection force of one of the most holy places for Shia Muslims, the shrine of Imam al-Hussein. The shrine is in Musleh’s hometown of Karbala. During those years he was close to the custodian of the shrine and the personal representative of Sistani, Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbala’e. Musleh’s protection force became a unit in the PMF and fought against the Sunni IS, which consolidated Musleh’s position further but led to a clash with Karabala’e. After the defeat of IS, Sistani associates tried to split their groups from the PMF and become a part of the security forces, but Musleh was against such a move. The settlement of that conflict led to Musleh leaving Sistani’s circle and embracing the larger faction of the PMF that is directly supported by Iran, and against integration into Iraqi national security forces (epc.ae, May 30).
An important dimension of al-Kadhimi’s relationship with the PMF is the support he enjoys from the anti-U.S. Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr (aawsat.com, January 14). Sadr controls the largest block in the Iraqi parliament and has significantly larger grassroot support than the PMF. He has maintained his militia, Saraya al-Salam (The Peace Brigades), independent from the PMF. Al-Sadr’s claim is that he is free from any domestic or foreign influence, including that of Iran. However, he appears to have made his position as an ally of Iran stronger over the years. During a 2019 visit to Iran, for example, he was given the honor of sitting between the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Soleimani during a high profile religious occasion (alaraby.co.uk, September 11, 2019).
For al-Sadr, the PMF are rivals within the Shia community. Nevertheless, he joined them in supporting the decision to call for the U.S. withdrawal. When it came to his position regarding the anti-government street protests that were condemned by PMF militias, he first showed sympathy toward the protesters. However, he later turned against the protests and his loyalists played a key role in ending them.
Critics of al-Kadhimi and of the entire political system in Iraq cite the Musleh saga as an example of how ineffective the government’s actions are. They believe that Musleh was given preferential treatment in detention and point out that he was eventually released without charges. However, al-Kadhimi has made more of an effort than previous prime ministers to rein in the Shia militias. Al-Kadhimi was selected as a compromise interim-prime minister trusted to organize parliamentary elections (now scheduled to be held on October 10, 2021) and any further action could well jeopardize his political position. He also seems to be concerned that more tensions could cause an all-out civil war within the Shia community.
On June 26, the PMF organized a parade for its annual anniversary celebration. The parade was attended by al-Kadhimi and prominent members of his cabinet. The meetings between the prime minister and the PMF leaders in the parade seemed quite cordial, especially between the leader of KH and the PMF chief of staff, Abdul-Azis al-Muhammadawi (better known as Abu Fadak) (almahjar.net, June 26).
Even for Sistani associates and for al-Kadhimi himself, dissolving the Iranian-backed faction of the PMF is not a strategic goal. The PMF is, after all, a Shia power and when the Iraqi security forces disintegrated in face of IS’s sweeping advances in 2014, it was clear that the Shia domination of the government and security forces in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq still might not be enough to protect their community and the whole of Iraq. The attempts to rein in the PMF will probably always be within certain limits, and the Iranian-backed militias will continue to be a matter of concern for the Shia religious leadership and the Shia-led government. The militias, however, are not their enemy.
Despite its condemnation of the U.S. airstrike in June, the Iraqi government is still dependent on U.S. military and strategic support. The relationship between the two countries has not entered into a crisis, but Washington is determined to strike back against the militias’ attacks in the name of self-defense. The complexity of Shia politics in Iraq will make it difficult for the United States to set a clear military strategy.