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Formed in 2014, the initial raison d’etre of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) was to fight the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), which usurped control of one-third of Iraqi territory that year. Today, the PMF, which have amassed significant amounts of power and wealth, are fighting for their legitimacy as different actors in Iraq’s political arena are deeply divided over questions pertaining to the appropriate role for Iran and Tehran-sponsored Shi’a militias to play in Iraq’s future.
Serious allegations and documented cases of human rights abuses, oil smuggling, money laundering, looting, and destruction of property have harmed the PMF’s image among many Iraqis who call for its dissolution. Meanwhile others believe that the PMF retains its legitimacy given the extent to which Salafist terror groups such as ISIS continue to threaten Iraq’s security and hopes for stability.
At the beginning of this month, Iraq’s Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi issued a decree to significantly curtail the PMF’s powers and force the Iranian-sponsored militias to integrate into Iraq’s formal armed forces. Mahdi’s decree and its July 31st deadline set for complying with these new regulations places further pressure on the PMF to decide between mainstream politics and paramilitary activity. He ordered the militias operating under the PMF umbrella to shut down their offices and headquarters, as well as remove all their checkpoints and abandon their militia names.
More officials in the US government have grown increasingly concerned about Iran’s actions in Iraq over the past several months, leading to greater American pressure on Baghdad to distance itself from the Islamic Republic. The Prime Minister issued his order two weeks after an attack targeted a military base that hosts American military forces in Balad (in Salahuddin province). Separate unclaimed attacks targeting other bases in Iraq that host U.S. forces and a complex in Burjesia that houses major energy giants, including ExxonMobil, have also taken place since the attack in Balad.
Analysts also see Iran using its proxies in Iraq to challenge Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-states from building influential relationships with Iraq. On May 14, there was a drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s East-West pipeline which, according to US officials, originated from southern Iraq despite initial claims that Houthi rebels launched the drone from Yemen. Additionally, on June 27 more than 200 angry protestors stormed Bahrain’s embassy in Baghdad to protest the archipelago kingdom’s hosting of the “Peace to Prosperity” workshop last month. This act against Bahrain’s diplomatic mission in the Iraqi capital, condemned by officials in Manama as an act of “sabotage”, resulted in Bahrain recalling its ambassador to Baghdad. Ultimately, an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia, Kataeb Hezbollah, received blame for the episode. This group was also accused of the May 14 drone attack against Saudi oil infrastructure.
At this juncture, with Washington and some GCC capitals becoming increasingly concerned regarding the conduct of Tehran-sponsored Shi’a militias in Iraq, Mahdi wants to depoliticize the PMF. Yet it is legitimate to ask if the Iraqi Premier’s plans are realistic. After all, his predecessor, Haider al-Abadi, attempted to achieve the same goal. Yet his efforts proved mostly futile. Although the PM’s decree received strong support from the influential Shi’a leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who leads the Sadrist Movement, Sadr’s influence over certain armed Shi’a groups under the PMF umbrella is limited.
It remains unclear whether Kataeb Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi’a militias will comply with Mahdi’s decree by closing their offices and fully integrating with Iraq’s official army during these upcoming weeks. Even if these Shi’a militias integrate into the Iraqi army, some analysts warn they will continue remaining loyal to Iran’s influential Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds force (IRGC-QF) leader Qassem Soleimani, only superficially wearing the Iraqi uniform while being able to access intelligence, money, and equipment that Washington provides the Iraqi military. Under such circumstances, the PMF would only gain influence by integrating into Iraq’s national security forces.
Amid a further deterioration of the Middle East’s security crises against the backdrop of rising tension between the US and Iran, Baghdad has fears about a new war erupting in the region. The White House’s campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran, which Tehran has responded to with “maximum resistance”, has left Iraq in a difficult situation. To weather sanctions, Tehran sees deeper ties with Iraq as key to advancing Iran’s fundamental interests. Meanwhile, the Trump administration views Iraq as a key battleground in the struggle to counter Iranian influence in the Arab world.
By virtue of how close Iraq is to Iran and how many of Tehran’s proxies operate in Iraq, such a conflict between the U.S. and Iran could quickly produce uncontrollable violence and destruction across Iraq. As illustrated by the Iraqi protestors who took to the streets in May to demand that Iraq keep out of any US-Iran conflict, many Iraqis are concerned about such a war taking place and being fought on Iraqi land. Without question, the security situation in Iraq is extremely fragile and high are the risks of Baghdad becoming embroiled in, what would be, the fourth Persian Gulf war since 1980 that involves Iraq.
Indeed, Iraq has become a major zone of increased competition between Washington and Tehran with the US investing in the build-up of Iraq’s national army and Iran funneling resources into the PMF, which has roughly 125,000 members. As certain Iranian-backed Shi’a militias in Iraq grow increasingly vocal in their demands that all American forces leave Iraq, officials in Baghdad face dire security dilemmas as they continue accepting responsibility for “protecting American interests in Iraq” while calling on all militias in Iraq to avoid actions that could trigger a swift retaliation from the White House. Like other Arab states in the region, such as Oman and Qatar, Iraq is determined to strike a balance between Washington and Tehran while also playing a “middle-man” role, serving as a diplomatic bridge between the American and Iranian leaders in order to de-escalate the standoff between Trump and the regime in Tehran.
At a time in which many Iraqis disagree about the long-term purpose of the PMF as well as the U.S. role in Iraq, a confrontation involving Iran and/or the militias which it backs in Iraq would make it extremely difficult to imagine Iraq stabilizing. Although Iraq’s government heavily depended on both the US military and the PMF to topple ISIS from power in Mosul and other cities which the extremist group governed up until recently, there is no guarantee that Iraqis will reach any consensus on issues pertaining to both Washington’s and Tehran’s actions that are seen as infringements of Iraqi sovereignty.
Mahdi’s decree that aims to curb the PMF’s clout was a bold and risky move, seen as placating the White House and certain segments of Iraq’s population which believe that Iran and its proxies in Iraq must be countered. Yet how his decree ultimately plays out in Iraq’s political scene remains to be seen given the sensitive nature of this debate over the PMF’s legitimacy and the potential for this move to backfire against Mahdi.
Giorgio Cafiero (@GiorgioCafiero) is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.
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