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Analysis: Iran’s Long Con in Iraq

In June 2014, the Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, the foremost Shia leader of Iraq, issued a fatwa encouraging Iraqi Shias to take up arms against ISIS. In the short term, this has had a resounding impact on the battle against the jihadist organization-turned-state. However, in the long term, it may invite further Iranian influence in the country post-ISIS.

These collective forces, which are actually a re-branding of longstanding external militias operating in the country, are referred to as al-Hashd al-Shaabi (The Popular Mobilization). Most importantly, many of the key leaders representing Hashd report to Tehran, meaning that the umbrella organization has never been a tool of the Iraqi government—which is contrary to what Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told the UN General Assembly last September.

This is a problem with increasing stakes, given the appearance of a collapse in authority in the country after the initial takeover of large swaths of territory by ISIS. Some of these non-state military organizations, such as the Badr Organization (formerly the Badr Corps), have been operating in the country since the 1980s; others for over a decade ever since the fall of Saddam Hussein. More importantly, some groups, such as Kata’ib Hezbollah (Hezbollah Battalions), were even responsible for attacks on American and British soldiers during the 2003-2011 Iraq War.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister al-Abadi has worked to make sure that Hashd is actually seen as an apparatus of the state rather than as an external actor. After meeting with some of the heads of the fighting groups in October 2015, the Iraqi Prime Minister’s Office released a statement noting that Abadi had “particularly emphasized that their struggle is one and unified and that this unified struggle has successfully driven the enemy back into the hole from which they emerged and has liberated the people of Iraq.”

Indeed, Hashd has played a significant role in the push-back against ISIS. However, this may give rise to it being welcomed by many Iraqis in the wake of the eventual defeat of ISIS—unlike the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), the official state military, which has been viewed by many as slow-moving and ineffective after its abandonment of key posts early on in the conflict. For example, Hashd units slipped into ISIS-held territory in December 2015 and took out an official known as the “ISIS executioner.” They also intervened in support of popular protests against Baghdad’s inability to keep electricity running in certain parts of the country. These types of popular actions will surely allow Hashd units to have significant influence in the areas that they liberate and to later break down into populist political entities—much like Hezbollah did in Lebanon.

But where does Iran exactly come into play in this political development? In short, it has supplied weapons and advisers to the paramilitary groups that make up Hashd. One commander of a unit that makes up Hashd, Akram al-Kaabi, has even reportedly claimed that he would overthrow Iraq’s government if ordered to do so by Tehran—thus signifying that his true allegiance lies with the Supreme Leader of Iran and not with the Iraqi head of state. What is more, one of the most prominent and active commanders within Hashd is Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (AKA Jamal Jaafar Muhammed Ali), a well-known terrorist who was designated by the U.S. Treasury in 2009 as an “individual posing threat to stability in Iraq.” In fact, Muhandis, who has Iranian citizenship, is known to be a close adviser to the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani.

Thus, there is strong reason to believe that these organizations, which are increasingly coming into control of large areas of territory that they liberate from ISIS, intend to diverge from the interests of the Iraqi government in Baghdad and to instead levitate towards Iran’s sphere of influence. After all, some of these Shiite militias, such as the Badr organization, have already formed political parties and have representatives currently serving as ministers of government and parliamentarians.

Moreover, Hashd units have also undermined the Iraqi Prime Minister by diverging on matters of strategy. The most prominent example is the ISF’s liberation of Ramadi.

Perhaps the most-high ranking commander within Hashd is Hadi Ameri, who is the leader of the Badr Organization. Interestingly, last year he refused to cooperate with the Iraqi prime minister’s wish to liberate Ramadi, and instead began his own separate campaign to push ISIS out of Fallujah. This suggests that Baghdad is too weak to control these paramilitary organizations which have undoubtedly benefited from the vacuum created by the rise of ISIS. Iran is therefore poised to increase its influence over the country given that its support for Hashd has added to its public relations image as a staunch and valuable regional ally.

In fact, Iraqi interior minister Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban, a member of the Badr organization, made it clear in an interview with RT last year that Iran has played the key supporting role in recapturing the country from the hands of ISIS:

The situation since the collapse of Mosul was very difficult, was very crucial—we were in a situation where Baghdad was under threat, and it was a serious threat, actually. So we welcome anybody who help us and as you mentioned, Iran was the first one to give help to Iraq and give hand to Iraq. Even the Kurds, when the threat was very close to Erbil, the first supplies of ammunition that reached Kurds were from Iran, not from other people. So, we’re receiving many claims from other countries that they are supporting Iraq, but on the ground, I say, clearly Iran was the first in everything to support Iraq. …
The international community, particularly the coalition forces was helpful, and air support and airstrikes—we cannot say that they were not helpful, they were helpful; but the determining point in victories and liberation of areas was the soldiers on the ground and the advisers from Iran, the ammunition, was very helpful.”

Indeed, these days Iran is making less of an effort at hiding its intervention in Iraq. In the case of the ongoing operation to retake Fallujah from ISIS, pictures have been making their way across social media of the famously elusive Soleimani meeting with Hashd leaders and coordinating with Iraqi security officials on matters of strategy. Even Fars News Agency, a semi-official Iranian news agency, ran a story on May 29 underlining that Soleimani was in Iraq at Baghdad’s request. This important development was later corroborated by Iraq’s foreign minister, who said that “Qassem Soleimani provides military advice on Iraqi soil, and this is with the complete awareness of our government.” Of course, both the Iraqi minister and the Iranian newspaper emphasize that Iran has no troops in the country and that Hashd units have no political aspirations. But then again, who would admit such things?

For now, attention is mostly being paid towards the war against ISIS. However, it is time to focus on the political developments that will play out in Iraq after the fall of ISIS. And the main power brokers look to be Iran and its Iraqi counterparts within Hashd.

The German Arabic-language media organization Niqash has reported that Hashd is working closely with certain Sunni tribes when liberating Iraqi cities and then keeping those particular tribes in positions of power post-liberation. This may in fact be the strategy: to enter the political scene and influence elections in Iraq once the country begins the process of rebuilding after the fall of ISIS. By establishing alliances with Sunni tribes, these Iranian-backed Shiite militias are indeed playing a long-term game. The problem is, what will be the repercussions of letting Iran once again exert its influence over the affairs of another Middle Eastern state?

Gabriel Glickman is a PhD candidate in Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London. He founded and runs a foreign policy website, www.themodernhistorian.org. Gabriel is writing a book about the historiography and origins of the Six-Day War.

[Photo: Regional Center for Strategic Studies]