US-Iranian escalation tests Tehran's militias in Iraq

Rising tensions in the Gulf threaten to undercut the political dominance of Iraq’s Shiite militias as they tone down their anti-American rhetoric to avoid being targeted by the US but also seek to maintain close ties with Tehran.

The escalation between Washington and Tehran thrust the issue of the 100,000-150,000 member Shiite-controlled militias to the fore. As Washington strengthens its forces in the region, some militia factions in Iraq have become an obvious potential early target for US forces seeking to hit Iran in a conflict scenario.

Speaking on a visit to Abu Dhabi on Monday, US National Security Adviser John Bolton warned Iran against more of what he described as “indirect attacks” by its proxies. He was speaking in the wake of mine attacks against four tankers docked off the Emirati city of Fujairah, a drone attack on Saudi oil pumping stations and a rocket that landed close to the US embassy in Baghdad earlier this month.

Iraq’s Shiite militias operate under a loose grouping called the Popular Mobilisation Forces, known by the shorthand of their Arabic name – the Hashd. The 40 or so distinct factions range in the strength of their ties to Iran as well as in their ideological leanings, which are linked to the Shiite religious authorities they follow in Iraq or Iran.

Despite opposition in Iraq to any kind of regional conflict, Iran will not be short of proxies willing to carry out strikes on US forces if war breaks out, Iraqi sources with connections to the Hashd told The National.

After a visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Baghdad on April 7, the public stance of most Hashd factions fell in line with the Iraqi government that Baghdad should remain neutral in any conflict. Iraqi political analyst Hiwa Osman said Washington had made it clear to Baghdad that the militias it regards as enemies would be a target if war broke out.

“I think Pompeo told Iraqi officials that you either deal with the militias as Iraqis or we deal with them as Iranians. After behaving more Iranian than Khamenei, the militias have backtracked,” Osman, who is a Kurd, said from Erbil.

“Phase one of any war would be hitting Iran outside Iran and in such phase, these militias would be on top of the list but the de-escalation of rhetoric we have seen could well be coming from the Iranians since they are their masters.”

In another sign of pragmatism, main Hashd figures distanced themselves from the firing of a rocket that landed about a kilometre from the US embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone on April 20. The Badr Organisation, the most dominant Hashd militia, said Iraq must stay away from any war. The group was founded in Iran in the 1980s as the Badr Brigades and is closely linked to Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran’s elite overseas Quds Force.

Smaller factions owe more pronounced allegiance to Iran. Among them are Kataeb Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl Al Haq, foot soldiers of Iranian-backed military operations in support of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in Syria. However, some factions are privately wary of Iran, especially those whose members tend to follow the religious authority, or marjia, of Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, Iraq’s most eminent Shiite cleric.

The Iraqi government named the Hashd a component of the national security forces during the fight to reclaim Iraq from ISIS between 2014 and 2017. Since the victory, they have overshadowed the Iraqi army and the political system. The members of the militias are mainly Shiites but there are a minority of Sunni and Christian members but they are largely in uninfluential positions.

Collectively they are estimated to receive $2.5 billion annually from the government in salaries and the parliamentarians who belong to the Hashd or owe allegiance to its militia’s amount to the largest unofficial bloc in the legislature.

But practically, the Hashd’s support base has been limited by suspected involvement of several major factions in high-profile corruption cases and criminal activity. There is also the lingering memory of mass killings of Sunni civilians during the war on ISIS, a group that massacred Shiites and minorities as well as Sunnis opponents. Battles over turf, illicit business and cartels have increasingly taken root among the Hashd’s ranks over the last year as the drudgery of a post-war militarised life left thousands of armed members across the country idle.

Some Hashd factions are not in favour of the deep Sunni exclusion that had characterized Iraqi politics since the US scaled back its military presence in Iraq under the Obama administration. Among them are groups allied with Moqtada Al Sadr, the Iraqi cleric who pitches himself as an anti-establishment figure and stature as kingmaker rose when his bloc won 54 seats out of the 329-seat Iraqi parliament in May 2018.

Known for a duality approach to politics, Mr Sadr plays militias allied to him against each other and sometimes appears anti-Iranian while affirming his ties with Tehran. Mr Sadr responded to overtures by Saudi Arabia by visiting Riyadh in 2017 although his relations with the Saudi monarchy later cooled.

An Iraqi cleric in Najaf familiar with the various power centres in the Hashd said ideological loyalty to Iran and backing by Tehran would make it difficult for most of the militias to refuse to hit US targets in Iraq if specifically requested by Iran.

“They take salaries and weapons from the Iraqi state but practically they are not subject in any way to it. If they want to take action individually or otherwise in support of Iran they have the tools and the allegiance, although they are afraid of a US hit. They won’t take into consideration any popular pressure,” said the cleric who wanted to remain anonymous.

“The militias might have had a noble cause once but they became addicted to violence. A lot of their members are the abject poor and joined because of ideology but have been used by less scrupulous parties,” he added.

Amid the fears of Iraq becoming involved in a new conflict, some hope that 88-year Mr Al Sistani, the most influential cleric among the Iraqi Shiite religious establishment in the city of Najaf, could curb the more pro-Iranian factions in the Hashd by issuing an edict, or fatwa, demanding neutrality. In March, Mr Al Sistani told a visiting President Hassan Rouhani that Iraqi sovereignty must be respected and weapons must be kept by the state but he has not issued a Fatwa calling on the Hashd to disarm.

Few in Iraq criticise Mr Al Sistani publicly and while the Najaf based cleric who spoke to The National declined to address the ayatollah’s strategy, he indicated that the religious leader may well have lost much of his say over the militia forces he had helped unleash.

“Najaf’s religious authorities as a whole are too weak and too influenced by corrupt players linked to the Hashd,” he said.

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