Iran’s game plan for its increasingly disobedient Iraqi militias

Historically, Iran’s game plan has been to use Iraqi militias to implement both its short-term plans and long-term strategies. The death of Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the de facto commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), created a vacuum that militia leaders are scrambling to fill.

Qais al-Khazali, leader of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq said in an interview: ”I sent a clear and frank message to Mr. Esmail Qaani, current commander of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force… the matter is related to us, regardless of other calculations…from now on…we ask that no one talks to us and we won’t listen to anyone.”

leader of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, had never talked about Qasem Soleimani, Qaani’s predecessor, in this way—not on national TV. But Soleimani is gone now and things have changed in Iraq, at least to an extent.

In his Nov. 19, 2020 interview, Khazali was speaking about the Quds Force’s attempts to persuade some Iraqi militias to stop provoking then-President Donald Trump to avoid any reaction from the United States. At the time the Islamic Republic’s policy was to de-escalate tensions with the United States and wait for the new administration to start negotiating on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA and sanctions.

Khazali seemed adamant that the decision to attack U.S. forces and interests in Iraq is made by Iraqi militias “regardless of other calculations” in other words, regardless of Iran’s game plan to temporarily reduce tensions with the United States at the time. He followed through on his plans and his group continued firing rockets at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

The attack prompted Qaani to travel to Iraq the next day to calm AAH down. He was successful in preventing Iraqi militias from carrying out serious attacks against the U.S. embassy in Baghdad to show that the Quds Force still has control over its proxies in Iraq.

The successor of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis has so far failed to fill the void, creating space for characters such as Khazali to try to take on a leading role among Iran-backed militias. This can explain why he chose to reveal the content of his message to Qaani live on air. In this environment groups such as AAH, Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), and Harakat al-Nujaba (HN) both coordinate on matters like attacking U.S. interests and compete for prominence among the militias.

At this stage Iran seems to have included its Iraqi proxies in plans to lift U.S. sanctions. Going forward, the Islamic Republic may use escalation against the United States in Iraq to exercise leverage in its dealings with Washington on the JCPOA.

Source: Middle East Institute
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