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Iran’s Proxies and Iraq’s Parliamentary Elections: Ideological Rhetoric without Political Substance

Lacking demonstrable political or economic achievements, Iranian proxies in Iraq—both the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and the political forces they support—rely on anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans to mobilize voters while portraying themselves as the protectors of the state, even as they undermine its authority. Groups such as Asaib Ahl Al Haq, the Badr Organization, and Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq have adopted the rhetoric of ‘resistance’ against the U.S. and Israel to win popularity among ordinary Iraqis ahead of the country’s parliamentary elections. Iran’s proxies take this course of action out of political necessity; they must compensate for a lack of policy achievements and governing competence, including the fight against corruption, infrastructure development, and job creation. In a betrayal of their supposed allegiance to Iraq, these groups repressed peaceful attempts at changing the political status quo in 2019 and openly released statements which undercut the legitimacy of the Iraqi government.

Popular Ineptitude: The Rise and Fall of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)

Riding the wave of popularity which followed the successful fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Popular Mobilization Forces gained political power in Iraq after the guns fell silent. In fact, the rise of ISIS inadvertently increased the influence of Iran’s proxies in Iraq, most of which were established prior to 2014. Nearly three years after ISIS was defeated, these groups have dispensed most of the political capital they once held. While the proxies paraded their participation in the fight against ISIS to gain seats in the Iraqi parliament in 2018, the fight against ISIS is a distant memory for many voters in 2021. Moreover, Iraq faces a slew of challenges related to governance which the PMF struggled to address. Iraq ranks amongst the most corrupt countries in the world, has a high unemployment rate, and its economy is contracting; in other words, life for the average Iraqi citizen has become worse since the defeat of ISIS. As a result, in 2019 demonstrations erupted in Iraq —by a majority Shia protestors— against corruption, nepotism and the deteriorating economic situation of the country. While Iraq faces several structural problems, Iran’s political proxies in Baghdad have not presented a political path out of this morass.

In a typical election season, political parties present political programs to improve the status quo of the citizen. But in Iraq, Iran-backed political parties and the militias which support them do not possess a clear political strategy. Iran’s proxies either lack political programs entirely, or their platforms fail to advance the basic agenda they supposedly espouse. The Fateh coalition, which includes Iran’s strongest proxies, does not even have a political program on its website. Kataib Hezbollah, on the other hand, believes that Iran’s system of vilayet-e faqih should be implemented in Iraq; a concept that is revolutionary and thus counter to the political system in Iraq. Relatedly, Asaib Ahl Al Haq’s political program is marked by vagueness and contradictions. It lauds Iraq’s melting pot of ethnic and religious groups without elaborating on the country’s national cohesion. In addition, Al Asaib’s political program advocates a market economy, but the existence of its very own militias prevents the nurturing of such a system. The difficulties of governance in Iraq notwithstanding, the political agendas of Iran’s proxies in Iraq present an obstacle, not a solution, to Iraq’s economic and societal woes.

Iran’s Proxies and the Degradation of the Iraqi State

While Iran’s proxies pay lip service to the Iraqi state, in reality, they undermine the political system they claim to serve. Despite statements by Hadi Al Ameri, the head of Al Fateh alliance, that Iraq’s sovereignty is a red line, or Qais Al Khazali, the leader of Asaib Ahl Al Haq, holding discussions with the Iraqi president regarding the country’s sovereignty, Iran’s proxies have consistently flouted basic constitutional constraints and subverted the authority of the Iraqi government. Article 9 (b) and (c) of the Iraqi constitution is unequivocal that it is forbidden to maintain a militia outside of the jurisdiction and control of the Iraqi armed forces. It also prohibits Iraqis within the Defense Ministry to hold political office. Yet, these Iran-backed militias continue to exist outside the central government’s control.

The independence of these militias directly challenges the authority of the government in Baghdad. For example, hours after the Iraqi government arrested members of Kataib Hezbollah, the group retaliated by raiding a branch of the government’s security apparatus, and Al Khazali warned the Iraqi prime minister from instigating clashes with the PMF. Al Ameri also warned of any attempts by Baghdad to dissolve or merge the PMF with the Iraqi armed forces. The general secretary of Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq said he will not allow the disarmament of  the “resistance.” In other words, the PMF are seeking to portray themselves as protectors of the state, all while taking advantage of its weakness.

Instead of focusing on the improvement of the Iraqi economy or reforming its political system, Iran’s proxies focus their energies on slogans and attacks against the U.S. and Israel. Despite calls by the Iraqi government for the cessation of attacks against U.S. forces, Iran’s proxies have continued to launch assaults against American troops because that portrays Iran’s proxies as a defender of the Iraqi sovereignty.  Iran-backed militias have attacked U.S. troops in Ain Al Asad base in Al Anbar province and the U.S. embassy in Baghdad; they have fired rockets at a base in Iraqi Kurdistan housing American troops and have augmented their offensive capabilities through the use of drones in their operations. Kataib Hezbollah has demanded on numerous occasions that U.S. forces leave Iraq and threatened to increase its attacks on U.S. troops until it does so. Similarly, Al Fateh’s leader Al Ameri reiterated his commitment to see the U.S. withdraw its forces, describing the departure of U.S. troops as a historic responsibility for Iraqis. Al Khazali has also expressed his fair share of anti-American sentiments. On one occasion he said that any expression of Iraq’s need for U.S. forces is an insult. He has also criticized statements by Iraq’s Foreign Minister regarding the potential for U.S.-backed training programs for the Iraqi military.

Iran’s proxies have also relied on anti-Israel sentiment within Iraq to buttress their faltering support. When a conference aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between Iraq and Israel took place in Erbil, these groups saw an opportunity to re-emphasize their anti-Israel credentials. Al Khazaali stated that he would punish the participants and that “the Islamic resistance will not remain silent to this great treason.” Al Ameri said that those who organized the conference committed a criminal act and betrayed the nation. Finally, Kataib Hezbollah stated that northern Iraq had become a haven for foreign agents and conspirators, and a sanctuary for American and Israeli intelligence organizations.

Similar to other Iranian proxies in the region, Iran-affiliated militias in Iraq participate in the elections and the decision-making process of the states where they reside, all while striving to maintain their military independence from the central government. The political vision of these groups is often empty and their interest in governing diminutive; their weak or non-existent national political and economic agendas compel these groups to rely on anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric to compensate for their inadequacy and illegitimacy. This formula grants proxies political cover, benefit from illegal economic activities, while remaining outside of the control of the state. Instead of tangible achievements, Iran’s proxies depend on ideology as a tool of political mobilization. This tactic might have worked in the past, but there is no guarantee such an approach will continue to work in the future.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Dr. Massaab Al-Aloosy is a Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum and a researcher focusing on Iraq, Iran, and Shia non-state armed groups. He holds a PhD from the Fletcher School-Tufts University and is the author of The Changing Ideology of Hezbollah, Palgrave 2020.

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