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Pro-Iran militias are ticking bombs for Iraq

Oct 20,2020 - Last updated at Oct 20,2020

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi is facing a pressing challenge that threatens to push Iraq once more into a sectarian furnace. He needs the political will and the means to isolate and neutralise tens of renegade pro-Iran militias. Two events that took place this week underline the limited capabilities of the federal government and its military and security arms. The first was the burning on Saturday of the offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in central Baghdad by loyalists to the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) while the second was the gruesome execution of 12 citizens in Salahuddin province, also on Saturday, allegedly a pro-Iran militia. Sixteen other victims remain unaccounted for.

The kidnapping and execution of the victims is said to be in retaliation for the killing a few days before of a member of a pro-Iran militia in an attack blamed on Daesh.

The massacre has focused attention on the presence of pro-Iran militias in liberated Sunni provinces and their refusal to allow tens of thousands of displaced people, mostly Sunnis, from returning to their homes. The case underlines the limitations of the federal government in Baghdad in extending its authority over a number of provinces that the PMU had entered to clear them from Daesh terrorist groups between 2014 and 2017.

Since they were formed back in 2014 to help the Iraqi army battle Daesh some have been incorporated into the state security bodies while others continue to act outside government control. Numbering about 40, some have been accused of carrying atrocities against Sunnis in liberated provinces. Most acknowledge fealty to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and were led by Iranian General Qassem Soliemani until his assassination earlier this year in a US strike.

The Salahuddin massacre has prompted Kadhimi to visit the province in a bid to calm angry tribal leaders. “Terrorism and all criminal acts will be prosecuted under the law,” he said. But it remains to be seen if his security bodies will be able to flush out members of the militia associated with Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq, one of the most militant groups on the scene today with direct ties to Iran.

Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq and Kataib Hizbullah in Iraq have been responsible for the country’s destabilisation, especially after the killing of Soliemani. Both have been accused of targeting the Green Zone in Baghdad, with katyusha aimed at the US embassy there. So ineffective the government has been in protecting diplomatic and government offices that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened last month to close down the embassy unless the attacks are halted.

Both militant groups have stopped their attacks for now. But driven by Iran they continue to pose a threat to US presence at a time when Washington is increasing its diplomatic and economic pressure on Tehran.

The attack on the Kurdistan Democratic Party office in Baghdad is said to have come after former Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari called on Kadhimi to clean Iraq from the PMUs. But observers believe that the real reason was the agreement reached two weeks ago between the federal government and Erbil authority to co-manage the Sinjar district, thus ending militia presence and allowing thousands of mainly Yazidi refugees to return to their homes. The pro-Iran militias have been in Sinjar since 2015, refusing to allow displaced residents to return and using the district as a gateway to Iran.

But dismantling the militias is proving to be an impossible task for the Baghdad government. Last month, Iraq’s top cleric, Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, called for the disbanding of all militias, six years after urging his followers to form the militias in response to the threat of Daesh. But just like in Lebanon Kataib Hizbollah has become a state within a state with its own agenda that is in line with that of Tehran.

The challenge for Kadhimi now is the trust gap with his own commanders. Over the years, and especially under the rule of former Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, pro Iran activists were allowed to infiltrate the army and security bodies in addition to key government ministries. Kadhimi may have the political will to purge Iran loyalists from the government but does he have the means to do it?

Any future clash between government forces and the militias will be bloody, messy and unpredictable. Failing to drive the militias out of Sunni provinces will fan the flames of sectarian violence. The irony is that a majority of Iraqis, even in Shiite provinces, are fed up with Iranian interference. Massive corruption and abuse of state resources can be traced to pro-Iran politicians and activists.

As Kadhimi ponders his options, the US too finds itself in an unenviable position. On the one hand, President Trump wants to end Washington’s costly military adventure in Iraq, while on the other he does not want to abandon Iraq to the Iranians. This sums up Iraq’s predicament today and after all is said and done these militias are ticking bombs that threaten to unravel what is left of the Iraqi state.


Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman


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