Four recent incidents in Iraq, in which Iranian-backed paramilitary bases were struck or exploded mysteriously, have brought to the foreground a quiet conflict that has been brewing. Iran’s role in Iraq has expanded over the last decade and a half, raising questions about Tehran’s goals and how it views Iraq.
On the one hand, Iran pays lip service to the concept of Iraq as an ally. It has sought high level meetings with Iraqi officials and discussed joint defense. In March, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani traveled to Iraq. Bilateral agreements have been signed, including economic agreements and also visa-free travel for Iranians doing pilgrimage to Shi’ite sites in Iraq.
However, Iraqis have also protested against Iran’s role. In the summer of 2018, protests targeted Iran and Iranian-backed paramilitaries in Basra. There are complaints about Iran hogging resources that could go to Iraq’s electrical grid. Also, there are rumors that Iran enabled drug smuggling to Iraq.
It is not a simple picture, though. Iranian-backed paramilitaries helped defeat ISIS, and many locals are loyal to different groups within the Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Forces. These paramilitaries, sometimes called “militias,” helped arm locals and provide security.
Young men see work in the militias as a way out. But those groups are also accused of involvement in corruption and even running secret prisons. For some, this is a form of justice against alleged ISIS members. But for other Iraqis who fled the ISIS war in 2014, it means they have difficulty returning home, fearing reprisals from these paramilitaries.