Iran’s network of influence in Iraq has taken a battering over the past two months. The loss of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani, was a significant blow. Soleimani Killing
Soleimani was an Arabic speaker with decades of experience operating in Iraq. But his killing came at a time when Iran’s go-to proxy in Iraq, Kata’ib Hezbollah also has been under unprecedented pressure. Its commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was killed with Soleimani in January and was viewed by Iran as its military governor in Iraq. His loss and Kata’ib Hezbollah’s partial suppression mean that Iran and its proxies need to recalibrate their strategy in Iraq, and there are indications that alternative militias may be stepping into the breach.
Kata’ib Hezbollah operates under the umbrella of the Hashd al-Sha’abi (Popular Mobilization Forces or PMF), a coalition of armed groups that formed or expanded in response to calls by Shi’ite religious and political leaders in 2014 to prevent ISIS from capturing Baghdad. Iranian “special groups” — militias formed with Iranian support to resist Saddam Hussein and/or the United States — were the principle beneficiaries of this call to arms. Though hugely successful in pushing back ISIS, these groups initially were illegal under the Iraqi Constitution. This changed with legislation passed in 2016 that incorporated the militias into the armed forces.
Creeping State Capture
Since that time, Iranian-backed elements of the Hashd al-Sha’abi have become increasingly enmeshed in the Iraqi government through prime ministerial executive orders designed to bring the Hashd into Iraq’s security sector, and by illegally participating in and influencing elections (the Constitution also bars armed forces from playing politics). Members of Parliament directly linked (and often still belonging) to the militias now constitute a sizeable bloc that was able to influence the choice of prime ministers in 2018 and has gained control of government ministries and authorities. At the same time, PMF-backed MPs have worked to increase funds going to the Hashd al-Sha’abi, effectively creating a parallel armed force with significant political power.
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