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Analysis

When Kadhimi Tries to Curb Militia’s Influence in Iraq

The prime minister has made a show of force, but the influence of pro-Tehran factions is compelling him into a balancing act.

When Kadhimi Tries to Curb Militia’s Influence in Iraq

Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who has been in office since May. Photo AFP

Was it a message or a real strategy to put an end to the actions of pro-Tehran militias on Iraqi territory? The arrest on the night of June 25 of a dozen militants from the powerful pro-Iranian Hezbollah Brigades militia for firing rockets at US soldiers raises questions about the ambitions of the new Iraqi prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, and, above all, the means at his disposal to achieve these ambitions. While these arrests created a stir, the government's action ended in failure. The majority of the detainees who were handed over to a court run by the Popular Mobilization Forces or Hashd al-Shaabi, the name given to a largely pro-Iranian paramilitary coalition of which the Hezbollah Brigades is a member, were released for lack of sufficient evidence.

The unprecedented targeting of the Hezbollah Brigades underlines the prime minister's dual willingness to meet the security demands of the Americans and to let the people know that he has recognized their aspirations for a real state. As Iraq is facing a serious economic crisis, al-Kadhimi does not want to discourage Washington's investment prospects in the country and wishes to demonstrate that he is capable of pounding the table and starting an arm-wrestle with pro-Iranian armed factions, especially when they attack US facilities in the country.

The unprecedented uprising that began in October 2019 saw hundreds of thousands of Iraqis take to the streets to denounce, among other things, the sectarian system, endemic corruption and Iran's grip on Iraq. Anger is still growing today, albeit on a much smaller scale than at the end of last year. Cuts in civil servants' salaries and late payments are worrying a population to which the new head of government wants to give pledges to his commitment.

The timing seems all the more appropriate for the head of the Iraqi government as the Islamic Republic is particularly discreet these days. If the reactions of the militias in the country against al-Khadimi did not take long to come, combining threats and accusations of complicity with Washington. Tehran, for its part, kept silence although the June 25 arrests target it in a country it considers its private backyard. This attitude further confirms Iran's tendency to lower its tone against the Americans in the region. "External actors like Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah are distracted by massive economic and COVID crises. The Iraqi militias are on their own and struggling to keep their illicit gains and to stay relevant,” Michael Knights, an expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told L'Orient-Le Jour. This is also an opportunity for Washington, which wants to seize it to try to get a head start on Tehran. "The US will work with the broader international community that is highly supportive of Kadhimi’s policy agenda. The key support will be political and economic, including economic reform and energy self sufficiency," Knights added.

Contortionist

While Iran appears to be losing a few points, its stated objective has not changed. Since the January assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the then commander-in-chief of the Quds Force which is part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and the former de facto leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the main purpose of Tehran and its allies remains the withdrawal of all US forces from the region. This is a priority that was even endorsed by a vote by the Iraqi parliament on January 5. Since October 2019, more than 30 rockets have targeted US soldiers and diplomats in Iraq, but the escalation following the deaths of Soleimani and al-Muhandis has remained moderate.

"Actions by pro-Iran entities like KH that do not enjoy popular support create challenges to Tehran’s objective of developing a national consensus in Iraq on the issue of US force withdrawal. ," said Randa Slim, a researcher at the Middle East Institute. "Hence their preference for now is to work behind the scenes to solve differences that arise among parties they support and to keep pushing the new government to implement the Jan 5 parliamentary vote calling for withdrawal of US forces."

The June 29 release of the arrested militants illustrates the difficulties the Iraqi prime minister will face if he is to put Tehran-affiliated factions under state control. The task is made all the more complicated by the official integration of the Popular Mobilization Forces into the security forces. The paramilitary coalition therefore has one foot in the national army and another where Tehran demands it. "Curbing Iranian influence in Iraq is an uphill battle. Tehran has been for years embedding its supporters at every level of the decision making process and in every government agency. To unwind such influence takes a long term sustained strategy," Slim added.

The pro-Iranian militias in the country have no intention of making concessions, at least in form. Proof to this is the fact that the Hezbollah Brigades faction, after securing the release of its militants, said it wanted to prosecute the prime minister for "kidnapping."

Al-Kadhimi also has to deal with the voluntary US withdrawal from the Middle East. This move, defended by both Democrats and Republicans, resonates favorably with the US public in the run-up to the presidential election scheduled for November. "While the US will continue to support Iraqi security forces to prevent reconsolidation of ISIS in the country, they will also exit Iraq as soon as security conditions allow it," Slim said.

The opening of the strategic dialogue between Washington and Baghdad on June 11 resulted in a joint declaration, saying that the United States would reduce its military presence in the country in the coming months, without however specifying the exact scale and timeline of this move. Al-Kadhimi, who cannot oppose the militias head-on too much and must resign himself to a subtle contortionist game, can also argue that this announcement is in favor of Iran's political allies.


(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 2nd of July)


Was it a message or a real strategy to put an end to the actions of pro-Tehran militias on Iraqi territory? The arrest on the night of June 25 of a dozen militants from the powerful pro-Iranian Hezbollah Brigades militia for firing rockets at US soldiers raises questions about the ambitions of the new Iraqi prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, and, above all, the means at his disposal to achieve ...