A high-ranking Iraqi delegation arrived in Iran [in late December], carrying a message from Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to the Iranian regime. The delegation, according to a report in Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, was headed by a former director of the Iraqi Prime Minister's Office. Its intention was to request that Iran exercise greater control over the myriad of militias that it supports in Iraq.
The visit came at a tense time for Iraq, [ahead of the January 3] anniversary of the killing by the US of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi Shia militia chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. There are rumors of possible Iranian retaliation against US targets in Iraq, probably to be delivered by one or the other of the militias. These rumors and tension reflect a volatile and unsettled reality.
Kadhimi, a former dissident and journalist who subsequently served as commander of Iraq's National Intelligence Service, is a pro-Western figure. He came to the prime ministership in the wake of the protests of 2019-20, and with the support of the protesters. He has little political base of his own, however. The Iraqi Parliament remains dominated by pro-Iranian forces. Pro-Iran figures are also present in Kadhimi's cabinet.
More importantly, the Iran-led militia structures constitute an independent axis of power in Iraq, beyond the reach of the central government. The largest and most established of them – Badr, Kata'ib Hezbollah, Nujaba and others – control real estate, businesses, land, weaponry and prisons of their own. Should the Iranians decline to rein in their proxies, it is not clear what Kadhimi would be willing to attempt, or even what would be possible.
An additional question has arisen as to the extent to which the militias in their entirety are entirely controlled by Iran at the present time, given the appearance of disagreements between them. The sense that Soleimani's successor in the Quds Force, Esmail Ghaani, is a less capable operator enjoying less authority adds to this perception, as does the reality that as a result of the US policy of maximum pressure, less Iranian funding is available for the militias.
The latter have had to rely more on their own (considerable) ability to generate income from business and industrial projects under their control, and from Iraqi public monies made available to them because of their dual role as legally constituted Iraqi bodies within the framework of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). Nevertheless, in assessing this, it is probably worth bearing in mind the past Iranian track record in Lebanon and elsewhere of using claims of responsibility by supposedly independent organizations to provide plausible deniability for Iran itself.
This issue has recently come to a head. A significant attack took place on December 20, when a barrage of rockets was fired at the US Embassy in the Green Zone in Baghdad. There were no US casualties, though the embassy suffered material damage, as did the surrounding area.
The attack, notably, was condemned by a number of the most prominent pro-Iran militias, including Kata'ib Hezbollah and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq. Responsibility was claimed by an organization calling itself Saraya Thaer al Shuhada. This is one of many names that have cropped up recently, along with Rab'Allah and others with little or no previous footprint. Few in Iraq believe that such formations are any more than convenient sets of initials that the Quds Force and the militias can use when carrying out actions which, if openly claimed, would be likely to bring down retribution from the Americans.
The government evidently doesn't believe this either, and in the days following the attack, a number of Shia militia members were arrested on suspicion of involvement. The arrested men included a member of the Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq militia, which had itself condemned the attack. Asa'ib is a small but well-known and powerful force, commanded by Qais al-Khazali. It has a reputation for criminality and extreme violence, even by the standards of the militias. Asa'ib denied that their member had been involved in the attack. A confrontation between the militia and Kadhimi's government seemed imminent.
The situation escalated when Kata'ib Hezbollah, most powerful of the Iran-supported militias, issued a statement warning the prime minister "not to test the patience" of the "resistance." KH spokesman Abu Ali al-Askari added that the time was right to cut off the prime minister's ears, "as you cut off a goat's." The militias' rhetoric, while inelegant, has the merit of avoiding ambiguity.
In recent days, however, the militias appear to have attempted to lower the temperature. Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq announced on Sunday that the arrested man had been apprehended "on a criminal charge," and not with connection to the embassy attack, which Asa'ib condemned. The movement's spokesman also dismissed Askari's threat to the prime minister as "inappropriate."
The inability of the Iraqi central government to rein in the Shia militias might be dismissed as a colorful and lurid tale from somewhere distant. Unfortunately, it is not. The militias' entrenchment in Iraq, and specifically in the western part of the country, is of direct relevance to Israel.
As of now, the militias are operating in western Iraq, close to the border, with little disturbance from Kadhimi's security forces.
According to Mohammed Qais, an Anbar resident close to the PMU, and interviewed earlier this month by the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, efforts by the Iraqi forces to impose their will and remove the militias from the province were unsuccessful, because the army commander in the area, Nasr al-Ghanem, did not receive support from the Ministry of Defense.
According to Qais, "In the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, there is none that can get higher rank without Iranian approval. Ghanem is Sunni and he is from Anbar.... That has made him enemies." He added that "proxy militias control [in Anbar] every move and every branch of life such as investment, agriculture, security."
IDF Spokesman, Brig.-Gen. Hidai Zilberman told the Saudi Elaph website this week that Israel expects an Iranian attack in response to recent killings of senior Iranians to most likely come either from Yemen or Iraq. In the case of the latter, the militias' control of swaths of land in Anbar and elsewhere in the west of Iraq has enabled the Iranians to deploy Zelzal, Fateh-110 and Zolfaqar missiles in these areas, according to a number of studies.
Any attempt to build a free Iraqi state without clashing with militias is doomed to failure.
Unfortunately, unless an Iraqi leader is prepared to really confront the militias, with the threat of force behind him, it is difficult to see how this situation can be changed. Noori, an individual close to the "Shrines" militias aligned with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (non Iran-supporting) told MECRA in an interview this month, "Any attempt to directly clash with and eliminate these militias by the Iraqi Army or any other unit would be suicide for everyone. It would bring Iraq to a situation like that in Lebanon in 1975."
This may well be so. But it is also the case that any attempt to build an Iraqi state free of de facto Iranian domination without such a clash must surely be doomed to failure. Delegations dispatched to Tehran to plead the case are unlikely to have the desired effect.
Jonathan Spyer is a Ginsburg/Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.