An expert's point of view on a current event.

Iran and the United States Battle It Out in Iraq

Iraq’s Shiite militias are doing Iran’s bidding against the United States. Baghdad won’t be able to dismantle them.

Iraqi Shiite militia banners are seen by a road in the Iraqi town of Baaj near the Iraq-Syria border on June 20, 2017.
Iraqi Shiite militia banners are seen by a road in the Iraqi town of Baaj near the Iraq-Syria border on June 20, 2017. Martyn Aim/Getty Images

Under enormous pressure from the United States, on July 1, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi declared that his country’s Iranian-backed Shiite militias would now be under Iraqi government control.

It is unlikely that he’ll be able to enforce his decree.

Iraq is fast becoming a battleground in the escalating conflict between the United States and Iran—and not by its own choosing. Some of the Shiite militias there, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), are apparently doing Iran’s bidding.

On May 19, a rocket landed near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The United States has blamed Iran and its proxies in Iraq, including the PMF, for that attack.

That same month, the militias allegedly targeted Saudi oil facilities from Iraqi soil, presumably because Iran pushed them to do so in retaliation for U.S. sanctions on its own oil industry. There are doubts about the claim that the PMF was involved. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia is reportedly deploying air surveillance and aerial monitoring systems on the border with Iraq, according to Arabic-language media sources, but this is not yet confirmed with Saudi officials.

In June, the militias reportedly stormed the Bahraini Embassy in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad to protest a conference sponsored by the Bahraini government and held in Bahrain on June 25 and 26. The conference had highlighted an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan devised by the White House. According to Iraqi media reports, the order to storm the embassy was issued by the notorious commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qassem Suleimani.

Even if only some of the claims against Iraq’s Iranian-backed militias are true, some observers in the United States and Iraq believe that Tehran is using its proxies in Iraq to retaliate against U.S. sanctions that have placed the Iranian economy in severe crisis, reduced its ability to fund its proxies, and inspired domestic unrest.

Pronouncements aside, there is little the Iraqi government can do to fight back. Hisham al-Hashimi, Iraq’s most respected security expert, said Iraqi law already required that the Iranian-backed militias be under the control of the Iraqi government but that he is skeptical of any such stricture ever being implemented. And if it is, armed rebellions or infighting among Shiite political figures would quickly undermine it.

For his part, Mahdi faces widespread public skepticism. Iraqi public opinion is split by anger about Iran’s political and military domination over the country and opposition to the predominately Sunni Gulf monarchies. Washington is no better liked; many Iraqis believe that Washington has contributed to the regional Sunni-Shiite rivalry by abandoning the country it invaded in 2003 and leaving Iraq to fend for itself in both the struggle between the United States and Iran and between Iran and the Gulf powers.

According to Mahdi’s order, by July 31, militia groups must close their local headquarters, their economic offices, and any checkpoints they control. That directive goes further than a previous attempt by Mahdi’s predecessor, Haider al-Abadi. He also tried to curb the militias’ influence by making them part of the Iraqi security forces but allowed them to keep their headquarters.

The problem for Mahdi is that the militias’ military and political strength has only grown over time. According to the Washington Post, there are at least 23 militias in operation. And ever since they helped the Iraqi government defeat the Islamic State, they have enjoyed relative free rein in Shiite territories. Now, with the Islamic State reconstituting itself in Iraq’s urban centers, according to Arabic-language media reports and security sources in Baghdad, the militias believe that they still have a role to play and are unlikely to want to give up control.

So why did Mahdi even bother? His decree came on the heels of a surprise visit in May to Iraq by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who threatened that if the Iraqi government did not bring the groups under control, the United States would respond with force. Meanwhile, Mahdi has been under pressure to either curb Iraq’s high unemployment and government corruption or resign. Shiite leader and militia commander Moqtada al-Sadr gave him one year after his appointment as prime minister to fill these pledges or else face massive protests. That year is almost up.

For now, Sadr has announced that he fully supports Mahdi’s declaration, but sources in Baghdad and Bahrain are cynical. Sadr’s motive—as always—is to expand his populist base inside Iraq in order to serve as a counterweight to the current government. Still, his public support for the move is a boost to Mahdi.

To be sure, whatever Madhi and Sadr say, it is unlikely that the militias are going away. It has become somewhat of a cliché to say that the militia rank and file would return to their homes if the government gave them economic incentive to do so. But many local militias are already home. If the United States wants to help free Iraq from Iran’s grasp, declarations are not enough. Washington must continue to train and equip Iraq’s armed services. It should also work to help Iraq become freer of its economic dependence on Iran by supplying alternative energy resources. And finally, Washington should send a message to the Iraqi people that any fight against Iran is not just in the United States’ interest; it is a fight that could boost Iraqi sovereignty, too.

Geneive Abdo is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. Twitter: @AbdoGeneive