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Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi in Baghdad, Iraq on 12 May 2020 [Iraqi Prime Ministry/Anadolu Agency]

To Assert Iraqi State Authority, New PM Challenges Iran Backed Militias

A few weeks after his appointment on May 7 as the Prime Minister of Iraq, former chief of intelligence Mustafa Al-Khadhimi swiftly moved to assert control of Iraqi security forces in Baghdad. After over a decade of paramilitary groups in the country increasing in both quantity and power, Iraqi forces moved to arrest militiamen accused of carrying out and planning attacks on Iraqi and foreign interests.

While this move could be seen as inline with the U.S. request that Baghdad curb the uncontrolled influence of Tehran-backed militias, the main takeaway is that the new cabinet in Baghdad is working to affirm its place as the only authority in the country. Further, the new PM has seen an increase in support to curtail the power of these militias; It was one of the main popular demands of the last two years that led to October protests.

Militias Counter Iraqi National Interest

On June 26, Iraqi security and counterterrorism forces attacked a center of Iran-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah militia that has repeatedly launched missiles at bases hosting U.S. troops and diplomatic centers. They were also involved   in several attacks on U.S. troops and have been sanctioned by Washington since 2009. In this operation, Iraqi security forces arrested 14 members of Iranian-backed militias in Baghdad, including an Iranian militiaman.

This is not the state’s first attempt to control these paramilitary groups that had a role in the fight against the Islamic State militants. Since the demise of ISIS, both state and society have challenged the militias’ increasing power and human rights violations. With every wave of demonstrations since 2018, Iraqi protestors have burnt the headquarters of Iran-backed militias in several cities across Iraq, as well as Iranian diplomatic centers due to the militias’ association with Tehran.

Under popular pressure, last summer former Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdulmehdi took the first official step on behalf of the Iraqi state to curtail the militias’ power with a decree to merge the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) under the Iraqi army. The decree was resisted by some groups, mainly those closest to Iran, Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. Both groups were involved in several missile launches on military bases that host U.S. troops whenever tension between the U.S. and Iran heightened. The use of these militias has led to not only violence on Iraqi soil but also a series of retaliation acts by both Tehran and Washington.

In the midst of rising tension between Tehran and Washington, the killing of a U.S. defense contractor in missile launch by these militias has unleashed a series of U.S.-Iranian confrontations unfolding in Iraq. This was followed by U.S. airstrikes on the militias’ locations, then a storming of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad in a wave of attacks by militias and protestors led by the leaders of Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, then the U.S. killing of Qasem Soleimani, and finally Iranian missile attacks on U.S. bases. All of these incidents — which nearly brought the Gulf region to war — happened on Iraqi soil, largely in part due to the militias, which played a major role in turning Iraq into a battlefield for Washington and Tehran. The fact that these militias are making unilateral decisions to attack American interests on behalf of Iran has embarrassed Baghdad, and likely fueled the new PM’s determination to assert state power against attacks on U.S. troops and diplomatic delegations.

Intentions and Implications

Right after concluding the first round of the U.S.-Iraqi strategic dialogue and in the same week that Baghdad announced that Kadhimi is planning to visit Washington for the second round, the Iraqi government arrested the militiamen. While the Iraqi government mentioned in a tweet that the operation was tactical and meant to arrest members involved in planning a new attack on Iraqi locations inside the Green Zone, the reality is that these attacks are typically not planned by members but rather by leaders of the militia. The tweet mentioned an arrest warrant, suggesting that this was an independent judicial act and not a political one that the PM directed. Yet the decision to crackdown on one of Tehran’s most efficient hands in Iraq indicates that the new government is willing to take more aggressive action against militias that are putting Iraq in a diplomatic impasse and dragging the country into the role of a battlefield between Iran and the United States.

The arrest of militiamen makes two indications. The first is that the PM would not make this move if he did not have the support of the security forces and other apparatuses in the government. Second, the PM is trying to use two years of popular anger that built up due to the militias’ killing of protestors and other violations in areas recently liberated from ISIS. These also indicate a potential friction between the PMU and the Iraqi security and counterterrorism forces as the government is trying to assert its power, mainly since the new PM is the former chief of Iraqi intelligence and his experience could help him reestablish the state’s power.

Despite the release of those arrested within a few days, the arrests were primarily intended as a message from Kadhimi that his cabinet is serious about its program and is inline with the demonstrators’ list of demands. While it is unclear if the government will carry out further arrests, and it is unlikely that the arrests will deter the militias from launching more rocket launches on U.S. interests and troops. However, the PM has left precedence for his government and future ones to actively curtail militia influence that undermines state power and, oftentimes, drags the country into conflict.

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