The Problematic Narrative of Iraq’s ‘Uncontrolled Militias’
The “uncontrolled militias” and the motives and perpetrators behind them is the latest apparent issue concerning the Iraqi government, Iraqi public opinion, and to some extent, the United States. The terminology itself could also be viewed as a new justification utilized by the pro-Iran camp to continue its denial of connection with activities committed by its directly affiliated proxy militias in Iraq.
Akin to many other regional political crises or conflicts, Iraqi geopolitics requires understanding its complexities beyond the common approach. For instance, one cannot view the Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) only through its chronicles being ultimately a 'Shia majority' or a 'Pro-Iran' organization overlooking its Intra-Shia rivalry, which presents a major ideological and political rift between Iran and Iraq.
The significant distinction increasingly emerged during Iraq's October uprising (2019-2020). PMF enjoyed considerable popularity and respect in many areas across Iraq following the defeat against the terrorist organization and the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) circa 2017. Despite significant reservations from many Sunni communities who experienced human rights violations by the group based on false affiliations with ISIL. In October 2019, as the protests mainly took place in Baghdad and the Shia-majority southern provinces, PMF groups started attacking peaceful protesters from their own sect – and here was the distinction necessary. The pro-Iran militias within the PMF did not fight ISIL to defend Iraq or its Shia community from ISIL; they supported the pro-Tehran political class in Baghdad. When the communities threatened this political class's destiny, it claims to represent Iran's greediness to maintain power and influence in Iraq was evident through the Iranian ambassador’s anti-protest statements and pro-Iran political parties and groups politically and physically attacking protesters.
While the level of control varies between ultimate and non-permanent reliance, Iran has approximately 200,000 soldiers in foreign non-state groups. Iran's network of proxy alliances across the region, most notably in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and beyond is mainly led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF). Iran's coordination consists of logistical, financial, training, equipping, and other elements of support.
The US military presence in the region is estimated at around 111,000 soldiers – although, in contrast to Iran, it enjoys an official presence with military installations and bases. Comparing the Iranian and US military sights in the region could also indicate the significance of the US-Iran tensions in Iraq. With an imprecise US military strategy against Iran's proxies, Tehran’s main battle against the US is in Iraq through its backed militias.
According to a recent RAND report named "The Iran Threat Network (ITN)," – Iran's proxy network responds to the US maximum pressure policy and revenge on behalf of Iran for the US withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal. The report also reflects on how Iran's insistent denial of any ties with the militias in Iraq serves "Iran's desire to avoid escalating to a conventional military conflict with the United States where its conventional inferiority would drastically stymie its ability to win in combat."
The Iran-backed militias in Iraq have been involved in three different fronts: a) targeting anti-government and anti-sectarian protesters since the outbreak of the October 2019 uprising, b) targeting US military personnel and bases, and most importantly, c) undermining any potential progress towards political and security stability guided by the government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. The first front was in response to the protest movement's noticeable focus on Iran's meddling into Iraq's political domestic affairs. The second was in response to the US maximum pressure policy on Iran. The third is where the notion of "uncontrolled militias" emerged and will be further elaborated throughout this article.
Since the US strike that killed IRGC-QF Commander Qasem Soleimani and Kata’ib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes in January 2020, attacking and targeting US interests in Iraq by Iran’s proxies never paused. The US decision to kill Soleimani and Mohandes was mainly driven by the alleged involvement of Iran-backed groups in anti-US activities such as the rocket attack on US forces on November 7, 2019, the killing of an American on December 27, 2019, and the assault on the US embassy in Baghdad on December 31, 2019.
Ahmed Al-Yasiry, director and founder of the Arab Australian Centre for Strategic Studies, claims that "uncontrollable militias is not a new tactical terminology – Iran publicly announces that IRGC-QF commands the militias."
The political discourse, logistical coordination, and activities of the self-proclaimed axis of resistance were mainly led by Iran-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba.
In the past months, new groups emerged, such as Usbat al-Thaireen, Saraya Qassem al-Jabbarin, Ashab al-Kahf, and Raba Allah. Claims presented many of them as acting without Iran’s final approval. A recent Washington Institute report, named ‘Changing of the Guard: New Iraqi Militia Trends and Responses’ states that the groups “should be thought of not as discrete organizations, but rather as brands for certain types of activities by Kata’ib Hezbollah and other top militias.” The sudden emergence of new Iran-backed militias’ expansion and spread into different groups is a branding tactic to complicate any accountability attempts by the international community or the Iraqi government.
“It will be very hard to know in the foreseeable future which of the new groups are indeed more radical offshoots of some of the Muqawama old-timers and which of them have been launched to act as an empty facade with a noisy Telegram channel,” says Inna Rudolf, a research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and is completing her Ph.D. on the PMF and the implications for the future of Iraqi statehood at King’s College London.
Al-Yasiry adds, "following the assassination of Soleimani and the threatening October uprising to their on-ground support base, the militias decreased their regional activities on the Saudi and Syrian borders and re-focused their aim towards taking US forces out of Iraq. Iran has not lost control of the militias, but it has changed its mission from offensive to defensive".
In contradiction to the above, and further elaboration on the post-Soleimani power vacuum and how it caused the chaotic and disorganized reality of "uncontrolled militias," – many could argue that the rise of new unruly groups is an expected outcome due to the significant reliance on Soleimani from Iran's proxy network in Iraq.
Soleimani’s charisma, Arabic fluency, familiarity with Iraq’s militia and political leaders, and the coincidence of the ISIL war, which resulted in the formation of the PMF, were all enough indicators to argue against his successor Ismail Ghaani's arduous task to takeover. Ghaani lacks all of the above skills, communicates with the militia leaders through an interpreter, and reportedly informed militia leaders during an April 2020 meeting in Baghdad that they would have to start relying on Iraqi state funding due to Iran’s economic crisis.
The anti-government military-style parades, drone attacks against US military presence, and the recent attacks near Erbil have all been "uncontrollable actions," according to the pro-Iran propaganda in Iraq.
Rudolf continues to add, “Iran's inability to maintain control over the groups does not mean Tehran would not try to make use of the status quo. While awaiting the results of the Vienna talks, Iran can still afford to act as a silent spectator of these groups' haphazard maneuvers. Depending on the outcome of the negotiations, Iranian decision-makers can still claim plausible deniability while arguing that the resulting chaos is merely a logical outcome of Tehran allegedly taking a back seat and backing off from Iraq's domestic affairs.”
However, it is worth noting that even if there were actions beyond Iran's command – they were all still serving Iran's interests against their counterparts in one way or another. Undermining al-Kadhimi’s government and targeting the Kurdistan Regional Government due to conflict of interests over Sinjar with PMF’s pro-Iran camp is not far from Tehran’s agenda.
The militia groups referred to on this paper all pay their allegiance to Iran’s supreme leader, reportedly coordinate logistically and politically with IRGC-QF, and often act upon responses or messages Iran needs to deliver. The idea of “uncontrolled militias” further expands the narrative of Iran's incapability and incorruptibility over the militias' actions. The term carries a false interpretation of Iran's distance from the militias as it creates an idea that Iraq is an extraordinarily complex and multilateral scenario and therefore ignore Iran's ability to prominently end militant strength in Iraqi politics - and that is unforeseeable in the near future as it is its most potent political weapon on Iraq's political scene. Iran has the ultimate command over its proxy groups and has at least the most substantial influence against those who are slowly acting autonomously.