Elephants in the Room
Iran-Backed Militias Are In Iraq to Stay
Prime Minister Mahdi is trying to bring the Popular Mobilization Forces under control of the government, but even he probably knows it won’t work.
On July 1, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi issued a decree directing that militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) take a series of steps to subjugate themselves to the Iraqi state. According to the order, those groups failing to comply by July 31 will be treated as outlaws.
Don’t hold your breath. The odds are high that the deadline will come and go with no meaningful curtailment in the power of the PMF—at least not those Shiite elements allied with Iran, its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, the IRGC’s deadly expeditionary arm. Iran’s proxies in Iraq may pretend to comply with the decree. The Iraqi government may pretend to enforce it. But U.S. officials should be under no illusions. Rather than enhancing the government’s control over the PMF, the order is more likely to have the opposite effect, further entrenching Iran’s chokehold on the Iraqi state.
I very much hope that I’m wrong. Iraq’s success is deeply personal for me—and not just because I was a senior official in the George W. Bush administration who strongly backed the decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power. I know Mahdi well. I consider him to be a friend and a strong proponent of the U.S.-Iraqi relationship. During my time in government, we spent many hours arguing about developments in Iraq, and his assessments generally proved more right than wrong. I very much want to believe that will be the case now as well with respect to his efforts to rein in the PMF. But I fear that it won’t be.
The bottom line is that Mahdi is too weak and Iran’s proxies too strong. The prime minister has the support of no political party. He controls no voting bloc in parliament. He got his position through a negotiated compromise in which Iran and its proxies had a major hand. Although a skilled and restrained technocrat, he’s not a natural political leader capable of mobilizing latent Iraqi nationalism in defense of the country’s rapidly receding independence. But that’s what is most needed if Iraq is to have any near-term chance of resisting Suleimani’s power play.
In total, the PMF numbers about 130,000 to 150,000 fighters. Groups directly answerable to the IRGC make up a significant portion of that force and are far and away its most powerful element. These include the U.S.-designated terrorist militias Kataib Hezbollah and Hezbollah al-Nujaba, as well as the Badr Organization and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. In the wake of the 2003 Iraq War, several of these groups worked hand in glove with the IRGC to kill over 600 U.S. troops. They also systematically intimidated, extorted, terrorized, tortured, and killed thousands of Iraqi civilians with the aim of forcing the population to bend the knee to their vision of a pro-Iranian, Islamist Iraq.
The PMF sprung into existence when Iraq’s most venerated Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, put out a call for all able-bodied men to defend Iraq after the Army melted away in the face of the Islamic State’s 2014 invasion. Their role and sacrifice in preventing the fall of Baghdad and helping to drive the Islamic State out of key terrain are indisputable and are widely lauded by the Iraqi public.
The PMF took on a new flavor, though, when IRGC proxies—already in Iraq, well supplied, and battle-hardened from years of fighting Saddam and the Americans—attached themselves to the project and quickly came to dominate its command. The Iran-backed militias have been exploiting the group’s popular legitimacy ever since in a systematic effort to consolidate and expand their military, political, and economic power. They got the Iraqi parliament to declare the PMF an independent arm of the Iraqi security forces in late 2016. In 2018, they ran candidates in national elections, and today the PMF forms one of the strongest blocs in Iraq’s parliament. They earn millions of dollars through various forms of racketeering and extortion.
Mahdi’s immediate predecessor, Haider al-Abadi, issued his own decree in March 2018 that sought to tame the militias, subjecting them to the rules and regulations governing the Iraqi Army and placing them under the prime minister’s direct authority. The result? The Iran-backed groups brazenly defied Abadi’s order while claiming to abide by it, maintaining their primary allegiance to the IRGC and milking the Iraqi state for ever-greater quantities of military and financial resources. With Suleimani still effectively calling the shots, Iraq now forks over more than $2 billion annually to the PMF for salaries and expenses.
The immediate cause for Mahdi’s decree was a dangerous spike in tensions between Iran and the United States since May. With total disregard for the interests of Iraq and the orders of the Iraqi government, the IRGC’s proxies are suspected of having repeatedly fired rockets near U.S. diplomatic, military, and commercial facilities in Iraq. U.S. intelligence has also alleged that Iran’s militia allies in Iraq were responsible for sending armed drones to attack critical Saudi oil infrastructure. U.S. officials clearly worry that—as in the early 2000s—Iraq is the arena where Suleimani and the IRGC are most likely to try to draw significant American blood. That’s why U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned Mahdi of the need to take immediate action to constrain the militias.
Eager to appear responsive to U.S. interests and, even more important, avoid having Iraq become the main battleground of a catastrophic U.S.-Iranian war, Mahdi issued his July 1 order. In addition to yet another injunction requiring the PMF to submit to the prime minister’s command authority, the decree calls on the militias to close their headquarters, separate from politics, give up their names in favor of Iraqi military designations, and abandon all economic activities.
These are right words, for sure. But if Abadi—the leader who oversaw the defeat of the Islamic State—was so easily ignored, it’s hard to believe that Mahdi will enjoy greater success at a time when Iran’s proxies have only grown more powerful and entrenched.
Once the July 31 deadline passes without real compliance by Iran’s proxies—as it surely will—Iraq would be in its right to dismiss pro-Iranian militia commanders, withhold funds from offending groups, and seize militia positions and shut down their illicit checkpoints.
But expectations should be low. After a trip to Iran last week, Mahdi felt the need to reassure PMF leaders that the decree’s intent was not to undermine them. “[T]here is no way we will weaken or ignore the [PMF] paramilitias,” he declared. “No one who believes in Iraq’s security and stability would aim to do that.” And in a transparent effort to back away from the July 31 deadline for compliance, Mahdi acknowledged that the process of integrating militias faced many obstacles and that, “The implementation of the decree will take a long time. It won’t be easy, either.”
It’s hard not to sympathize with Mahdi’s plight. I vividly recall two earlier efforts by pro-American governments to take meaningful action to challenge powerful IRGC proxies. Both occurred in the spring of 2008 during my time in the Bush administration. Neither bodes well.
In late March of that year, one of Mahdi’s predecessors, Nouri al-Maliki, launched an assault on the militia of Moqtada al-Sadr, which at the time was closely aligned with Iran and dominated the security landscape in the oil-rich city of Basra and in other areas of southern Iraq and Baghdad. Maliki failed to coordinate the offensive with the United States, and it nearly ended in disaster for him and the Iraqi Army. Only with massive assistance from the more than 150,000 American troops in Iraq were they able to reverse the tide and eventually defeat Sadr’s forces.
Less than two months later, the Lebanese cabinet challenged the Iran-allied Hezbollah’s de facto control over Beirut’s international airport and the independent communications network that was critical to the group’s military and intelligence operations. Within a matter of days, Hezbollah fighters responded and laid bare the true balance of forces in Lebanon, taking control of large swaths of Beirut, killing many anti-Hezbollah activists, and humiliating the U.S.-friendly government.
It’s not hard to guess which of these two scenarios would be more likely to confront Mahdi if he decided to truly press his luck with the PMF. Certainly, no U.S. cavalry is coming to his rescue if he gets into trouble. Beirut, not Basra, is almost surely the more relevant precedent.
This is why the chances are high that his decree is much more about form than substance. Iran’s proxies may go through the motions of taking on additional symbols of the state—designations, uniforms, facilities—but will jealously maintain their autonomy as independent military, political, and economic actors outside of state control. They’ll gladly accept the political and legal cover of being an integral part of the state, and the greater access to state assets that comes with it, while rejecting any true accountability to the Iraqi government.
Mahdi no doubt believes that the act of issuing the decree, and perhaps enforcing parts of it against less powerful PMF elements, will buy him time and credit with the United States. And indeed, in the past few weeks, I’ve heard U.S. officials praise the prime minister’s order as a modest, but positive step in the right direction. The Iraqi leader is also surely suggesting to Washington in private that defeating Iran’s powerful proxies will be a long-term process—one that requires patience, the avoidance of direct confrontation, and the slow but steady process of strengthening state institutions that will eventually smother and neutralize the PMF through largely peaceful bureaucratic maneuvers.
Unfortunately, if history is any guide, it’s not at all clear that time has worked in favor of those seeking to oppose the IRGC’s entrenchment in weak Arab states using powerful Shiite militias. Lebanese Hezbollah is of course the archetype. Despite ever-greater amounts of Western assistance to strengthen legitimate state institutions, in particular the Lebanese army, Hezbollah’s primacy as Lebanon’s most dominant actor has only expanded—to the great peril of Israel, the Middle East, and U.S. interests.
It’s hard not to see the Lebanon parallels in the steady consolidation of power and influence by Iran’s proxies in Iraq in recent years. Time has not been an ally of those seeking to curtail militia power. Suleimani and his Iraqi allies only appear to have grown stronger. It’s not at all clear what could prevent the full “Hezbollah-ization” of Iraq at this point—but it’s unlikely to be the weak tea of Mahdi’s decree.
U.S. officials are facing an unpleasant reality. The facts are quite stark when laid out. The United States considers the Iraqi government to be an important security partner, providing its military with billions of dollars of support and advanced equipment. But that same partner has welcomed a group of Iran-backed militias—all sworn enemies of the United States, some designated terrorist groups, and most with American blood on their hands—into the Iraqi security forces as a largely independent, parallel army. The Iraqi government now generously funds those groups through the national budget.
This is not a sustainable U.S. policy toward Iraq—no matter how well intentioned Mahdi or other Iraqi leaders may be. Congress, much less U.S. President Donald Trump, is unlikely to continue indefinitely indulging an Iraqi government that is at best tolerating and at worst abetting the systematic expansion of Iranian imperialism. At a minimum, pressure will grow to impose sanctions against a much larger group of Iraqi entities deemed to be supporting the IRGC, including those now officially part of the Iraqi security forces, government, and parliament. U.S. support for Iraq’s Army could quickly dry up. In such a hostile environment, the withdrawal of several thousand potentially vulnerable U.S. troops—perhaps to Iraqi Kurdistan—would probably not be far behind.
Whether an American decision to start targeting Iranian influence in Iraq more aggressively would actually better serve U.S. interests is certainly open to debate. But if the Iraqi government continues to prove utterly incapable or unwilling to stand up in defense of its own sovereignty, that is likely where U.S. policy is eventually headed. The days when the United States was prepared to save Iraq from itself are long gone. For better or worse, it’s now up to the Iraqis.