The U.S. killing of Qassem Soleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force commander, along with the deputy chair of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, altered the political balance in Iraq. But the killings took place against a wider backdrop of political unrest and protests that forced the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi at the end of 2019. With Iraq potentially headed for early elections, the country is set for significant changes as political actors vie for a seat at the table. U.S. and coalition forces in the region will inevitably be affected, and the coming months will determine the future of both Iranian proxies and the coalition presence in Iraq.

The PMF is recalibrating following the deaths of Soleimani and al-Muhandis

Soleimani and al-Muhandis were exceptionally skilled at navigating the divisions in Iraq’s domestic politics while keeping the PMF sufficiently united to maximize the militias’ political effectiveness. On Feb. 29 representatives of the major Iranian-backed militias selected Abu Fadak al-Mohammadawi, the secretary-general of Kata’ib Hezbollah and a former Badr Organization intelligence official, to replace Abu Mahdi as PMF deputy chairman. It is far from clear, however, if he or any other individual will be able to coordinate Iran’s proxies in Iraq as effectively as Soleimani and al-Muhandis. And Abu Fadak is also taking up his new role at a time when the relative strength of the various Iran-backed PMF brigades may be shifting. This will add to the challenge of effectively coordinating the groups.

In the aftermath of the Jan. 3 strike, al-Muhandis’ Kata’ib Hezbollah (part of the PMF and Iran’s proxy of choice in Iraq) was forced to keep a relatively low profile, likely for fear of further retaliatory strikes. By contrast, other PMF units cultivated by Iran, such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib al-Imam Ali, Saraya al-Khurusani, and Harakat al-Nujaba, may take a more active role in resisting the U.S.-led coalition. Over the past month this has included threatening statements as well as attacks against U.S. bases across Iraq and the embassy complex in Baghdad. As a result, it may be difficult to identify which brigade launched any given attack, and whether the attack was ordered by (or coordinated with) Iran. Policymakers will need to fully understand the differences between the PMF brigades, their respective leaders, and their potential motives to calibrate effective responses to attacks and to exploit potential fissures within units and between individuals.

Can Iran-backed PMFs maintain their position in government?

Iran-backed PMFs fear the ongoing anti-corruption protests in part because they have become deeply enmeshed in the government. In late 2016 the PMF was legally incorporated into the Iraqi armed forces. The militias then illegally participated in the 2018 elections: Article 9 of the Iraqi Constitution and Article 74 of Iraq’s Military Penal Code Law explicitly prohibit members of the armed forces from political activities. Despite this, militia members campaigned in the election, notably on behalf of Hadi al-Ameri’s Fatah bloc — gaining significant influence in the Iraqi Parliament in the process. That influence gave them a major role in choosing Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi, and allowed them to take control of a number of key ministries and governmental authorities.

But the protests threaten the PMF’s position in government. Abdul-Mahdi was forced to resign late last year, and protesters have actively targeted Iranian consulates and PMF headquarters. His replacement, Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, failed to form a government within the allotted 30 days and on March 1 withdrew his nomination, leaving the country’s political parties back where they started and looking for a new candidate. Following Allawi’s failure, the PMFs have worked to protect their position, attempting to preemptively discredit and block Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the head of Iraq’s Intelligence Services and a prospective candidate for PM. Al-Kadhimi is viewed by the militias as willing and able to curtail their expansion.

With elections likely to be held in the next 12 months and protesters dissatisfied with PMF and Iranian meddling, Iran-backed militias will now search for ways to future-proof their position. Cracking down on protests is a part of that strategy, as is finding ways to delay elections. Meanwhile, PMF-linked politicians are likely to use the chaos to weaken elements of the Iraqi state not already influenced by the PMF. These politicians have previously attempted to maximize budget expenditures for the PMF, increasing the organization’s financial and military power relative to the official armed forces. This will almost certainly continue, and support for any new PM and cabinet could be conditioned on similar budgetary measures or key appointments.

Ultimately, it is up to Iraqis to find solutions for these domestic political problems. However, the current role of Iran-backed PMF brigades within the Iraqi government poses a threat to the country’s long-term independence and stability, while also risking the success and safety of coalition forces conducting counter-ISIS operations in Iraq. PMF brigades unwilling to subordinate themselves to the rule of Iraqi law should be demobilized, disarmed, and reintegrated into society. This project cannot be achieved overnight, but it is important to set the conditions for success now, recognizing the process could take Iraqis many years to realize. An important start is to freeze the political structures, size, and budget of the Hashd al-Shaabi, in order to arrest any further expansion in power and authority. The coalition should also encourage new governments to promote non-IRGC linked individuals into key roles in the Hashd al-Shaabi Commission, rather than allowing Iran-backed militias to make unilateral appointments to Iraqi government offices. Meanwhile, wherever appropriate Iraqi politicians should be supported in efforts to prevent the PMF from supplanting the Iraqi Security Forces. Lastly, human rights abusers within the formation should continue to be named and sanctioned, while Iraqi officials should be reminded that so long as the militias are incorporated in law as part of the Iraqi armed forces, the government of Iraq is responsible and liable for illegal actions committed by its people.

Could the Iraqi Parliament vote to remove coalition forces?

In January, elements of the Iraqi Parliament passed a non-binding resolution demanding the removal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Despite threats by Kata’ib Hezbollah against MPs to compel them to turn up to vote, Kurdish and Sunni parliamentarians largely abstained and many Shi’ite MPs were also absent. But their reluctance should be unsurprising. Criticizing the coalition may be politically popular for many constituencies in Iraq, but in private few politicians want see a full withdrawal at this time. Many Iraqis accept that a sudden withdrawal would be a gift to ISIS and harmful to Iraq’s tenuous stability.

Still, the issue of withdrawal remains unresolved. Once Parliament returns from recess in mid-March, there will almost certainly be a renewed attempt to expel coalition forces. PMF leaders have indicated that they are exercising restraint toward coalition forces to give Parliament the opportunity to expel them using the political process. Should Parliament fail to do so, militia leaders have threatened to treat coalition forces as “foreign occupiers.”

On the one hand, in the event that Parliament does vote to expel coalition forces in March, the U.S. may be tempted to remain in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) to the north. However, limiting U.S. military presence to KRI will fail to satisfy the IRGC or its proxies, which have vowed to drive America from the entire region. On the other hand, if Parliament votes to allow U.S. forces to remain (or attempts to delay the vote), there is little doubt that Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi units will intensify their attacks on the coalition. Attacks in January and February, though more frequent than before, were largely small in scale — the intention was, it appears, to demonstrate PMF capabilities and test coalition responses rather than to inflict significant loss of life. But absent a swift and complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, attacks from Iranian-backed PMFs are very likely to increase with the intention of pressuring coalition forces to leave the country.

The role of Muqtada al-Sadr

Muqtada al-Sadr, the populist Iraqi Shi’ite cleric, has changed political course multiple times in recent months. He belatedly joined the anti-corruption protests, only to withdraw support after the Soleimani strike, ordering his “Blue Hats” supporters to target protesters. Having been critical of Iran and Iranian influence in Iraq, he seems to be realigning himself — at least for now — with Tehran and the PMFs. Though a long-standing opponent of U.S. interventionism in Iraq, al-Sadr has become even more vocal in the past month, and has joined calls to remove coalition forces.

These political moves are an attempt by al-Sadr to reposition himself and his political movement to take advantage of the power vacuum left by al-Muhandis’s death. Though far from universally popular, al-Sadr is probably now the single most influential Shi’ite political leader in Iraq. Al-Sadr knows this, and is seeking to consolidate this position to win greater influence with both Iranian and Iraqi officials.

But the Sadrist movement is also conscious that elections are coming, and will look to maximize its vote share at the expense of the PMF-backed Fatah political bloc. In the last election the parties achieved similar vote shares, with Sadr’s Sairoon gaining 54 seats to Fatah’s 48. In the run-up to a new ballot Sadr will continue to cast the United States as a bad actor in Iraq that should be expelled, positioning his own bloc as a moderate part of the anti-U.S. resistance movement while suppressing any anti-corruption protests that threaten the existing system.

How will unrest affect ISIS?

ISIS will attempt to take advantage of any disruption. In recent months, ISIS fighters have launched attacks against Kurdish and Iraqi forces, and may be attempting to reestablish a presence in southern Syria and parts of Iraq. U.S. CENTCOM reported in February that ISIS has “remained cohesive, with an intact command and control structure, urban clandestine networks, and an insurgent presence in much of rural Syria.” Both Iraqi Security Forces and the PMF are bearing the brunt of ISIS attacks in Iraq, and continue to engage in active operations (with coalition support) aimed at suppressing the organization. On March 8, two U.S. Marines were killed and four others wounded while accompanying Iraqi Security Forces during an anti-ISIS mission in north-central Iraq.

ISIS would, in all likelihood, benefit from a quick coalition withdrawal. As a result, any proposed drawdown of non-Iraqi forces will have to be slow and measured. Alternatively, the U.S. presence could be rebranded as a NATO operation. But with Iran and its proxies demanding a complete U.S. withdrawal as soon as possible, we are unlikely to see a perfect solution that would reinforce the decline of ISIS while also deescalating tensions with Shi’ite militia groups.

The U.S. should resist a hasty withdrawal and encourage reforms to preserve Iraq’s stability

U.S. forces in Iraq will probably face difficulties in the months ahead as Iran-backed PMF militias launch further attacks of increasing intensity. Meanwhile, pro-Iranian politicians will encourage anti-U.S. protests and call for resistance against the coalition presence to distract from the anti-government corruption protest movement, which has refused to leave the streets in spite of violent crackdowns. But despite this hostility, coalition leaders must be wary of a hasty withdrawal. Though the U.S. must not remain in Iraq forever, there is still value in a continued presence — for now. With ISIS resurgent and peaceful protests being brutally suppressed, Iraq’s stability and its people’s safety hangs in the balance. Meanwhile, Iranian-backed PMFs are actively threatening that stability. By attacking coalition interests, which are still present as guests of the government, while suppressing peaceful demonstrators seeking reform, certain militias are demonstrating that they are more interested in consolidating power and serving Iranian goals than protecting Iraqi interests. It is vital, therefore, that Iraqi politicians listen to demands of their people and resist PMF efforts to capture even more government functions. The coalition should support and encourage this reform for as long as it remains welcome. Failing to do so — now — risks the creation of an Iranian client state, dominated by armed groups and unresponsive to the needs and hopes of its people. For a nation which has suffered greatly over many years of conflict, this would be yet another tragic development.

 

Crispin Smith is a researcher focusing on Iraqi security and law of armed conflict issues, and is a serving officer in the British Army Reserve. Any opinions expressed are his alone. He has previously written on the Iraqi security forces and the status of ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria, and led in-field research in Iraq’s disputed territories as a contractor for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. 

Photo by CAPT. ROBYN HAAKE/US ARMY/AFP via Getty Images