On 4 November the US state department posted a message on Twitter saying that “the Iranian regime must respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi government and permit the disarming, demobilisation and integration of the Shia militia.”
The unusually blunt statement came as the Trump administration unveiled the full extent of its new sanctions on Iran targeting vast sectors of the Islamic Republic’s economy including oil, banks, the national airline and the shipping industry.
But by stepping up the rhetoric against the Iran-backed groups in Iraq, the Trump administration is drawing a line in the shifting sands of Iraq where disposing of tens of thousands of militiamen will be a drastic game-changer for the beleaguered nation and probably the entire Middle East.
With so much at stake, disbanding the Shia militias has several pitfalls mostly related to the fact that the groups are now working under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) that Iraq’s government recognises as a legitimate organisation and part of its armed forces.
Outlawing the militias could complicate the government’s relations with the militias whose political arms are now represented in the national parliament while still retaining tens of thousands of armed members and supporters.
The idea of dissolving the Iraqi militias has been kicking around for a long time and is part of a larger scheme, which the Trump administration certainly shares with Iraq’s Arab Sunni neighbours, but has been shunned by its Shia government.
Iraq has come out with a sharp rebuke to the US demands, which were also retweeted by the US Embassy in Baghdad. A statement by Iraq’s Foreign Ministry dismissed the remarks as “interference in Iraq’s internal affairs.”
The US demands come at sensitive time for the new Prime Minister of Iraq Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who has been struggling for weeks to fill half of his government’s portfolios amid wrangling over the distribution of the ministries.
Washington seems to be exploiting the vulnerability of the new government to increase the pressure on Abdul-Mahdi to dispense with the militias or at least to stifle their wide-ranging power.
One concrete suggestion that has been put on the table is to integrate the PMF into Iraq’s security forces that are under Abdul-Mahdi’s personal control.
Iraqi media have reported that the Trump administration has made it clear to Iraqi officials that the dissolution of the militias is a precondition for Washington to ease the burden of the Iran sanctions on Iraq.
Two other conditions to exempt Iraq from the burden of the sanctions have also been reportedly made by Washington: Iraq should distance itself from Iran’s aggressive policies in the Middle East and stop Tehran from meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs.
Washington has already granted Iraq a temporary waiver from the sanctions on Iran, giving Baghdad until the end of December to end its imports of Iranian natural gas and electricity.
Assim Jihad, a spokesman for Iraq’s Oil Ministry, has made it clear that Baghdad has no alternative to purchasing natural gas from Tehran, however. Iraq imports some 1,300 MW of electricity from Iran, and its already strained power grid will be hard pressed to find an alternative source.
For Abdul-Mahdi, the increasing US rhetoric is bad news as he is struggling to complete his cabinet list and establish his government’s authority over the country and its foreign relations.
Coming to office through the support of pro-Iran Iraqi militias and the blessing of Tehran, Abdul-Mahdi can hardly try to undermine Iran’s enhanced role in Iraq, a country that Iran has long seen as falling within its sphere of influence.
Since he assumed the premiership last month, Abdul-Mahdi has made it clear that he has no intention of getting rid of the PMF, which he considers to be an official state institution. In a meeting with PMF leaders last week, Abdul-Mahdi rejected the notion that the PMF was a “temporary” institution.
“I stress that the Hashd Al-Shaabi [the Arabic name of the PMF] is necessary, and it is here to stay,” he said. “To keep the Hashd is one of our utmost duties, and I will support its presence with all my might,” Abdul-Mahdi reportedly said.
Indeed, Abdul-Mahdi’s government has already doubled its support for the militia forces. The 2019 Iraqi budget that has been sent to the parliament for endorsement has allocated some $2 billion for the PMF, or about 25 per cent of the Ministry of Defence budget and three times that of the US-trained Anti-Terrorism Organisation in Iraq.
Abdul-Mahdi has also agreed to increase the salaries of PMF members and make them equal to their counterparts in the Iraqi military, a move his predecessor Haider Al-Abadi was reluctant to take.
The empowerment of the militias could complicate Iraqi-American relations as the United States is seeking the disbandment of the Iran-supported militias in Iraq that make up a large part of the PMF.
In a clear sign of discontent, the US treasury on 13 November blacklisted Iraqi militia leader Shibl Muhsin Ubayd Al-Zaydi along with several Lebanese Hizbullah operatives in its Specially Designated Global Terrorists list.
Washington said the men targeted in the action led the group’s operational, intelligence and financial activities in Iraq. It described Al-Zaydi as the financial coordinator between Iraq’s militias and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Al-Quds Force in Iran.
In addition, the US Embassy in Baghdad reported last week that unspecified militia leaders had discussed plans for kidnapping US citizens attending the Baghdad International Fair scheduled for 10-19 November. It said it had no further information regarding the timing, target or method of the planned actions.
The escalation has provoked a sharp response from militia leaders, who have described US troops in Iraq as “invaders” and promised to ask the new parliament to order their expulsion from the country.
Some militias have even threatened to target US forces in Iraq over the dispute. The United States probably has about 7,000 troops left in Iraq after Washington assisted the Iraqi security forces in the war to expel the Islamic State (IS) group from several provinces.
US commanders have said that US forces will stay in Iraq “as long as needed” to help stabilise regions previously controlled by IS. The US is also leading a mission by NATO to “train and advise” Iraqi security forces to help stabilise the country after three years of war against IS.
Iran, meanwhile, seems to be defiant. Its supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told visiting Iraqi President Barham Salih that Baghdad should strongly resist any “interference in Iraq’s internal affairs” and boost relations with Iran.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also said on Saturday that Iran and Iraq could raise their annual bilateral trade to $20 billion from the current level of $12 billion.
During a meeting with Salih, Rouhani disclosed plans by Iran to increase investment in Iraq and to establish a free-trade zone along the border with Iran and a new railway line that would link southern Iran with Iraq’s Shia holy city of Karbala.
To illustrate Iran’s business in Iraq, head of the Security and Foreign Policy Committee in the Iranian parliament Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh said Tehran’s non-oil trade with Iraq equalled its trade with the 28 members of the European Union.
Iraq imports a wide range of goods from Iran, including food, agricultural products, home appliances, air-conditioners, cars, spare parts, textiles, construction materials and cosmetics.
Most importantly, Iran has steadily expanded its strategic influence in Iraq in large part due to its cultivation of a network of proxies with both political and military wings.
These are the same proxies that the Trump administration thinks it can force Iran to abandon through its new strategy of anti-Iranian rhetoric and sanctions.
However, Iran’s entrenched presence in Iraq became a reality largely due to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the empowerment of Iran’s clients by the American Occupation Authority.
While the Shia militias have established operational primacy across Iraq, they are now also integrated into the US-funded and equipped Iraqi security forces. Moreover, they are also now the second-largest bloc in the Iraqi parliament with several seats in the cabinet.
There is little reason to believe that Washington’s drive to undermine Tehran’s presence in Iraq will succeed. This raises the question of whether there is an alternative strategy that could terminate or at least weaken the Iranian influence in the beleaguered country.
The answer is that there is probably no such strategy, and in the wake of the broad strategy to revise the post-invasion US-sponsored “political process” in Iraq and bring non-sectarian Iraqi politicians to the fore, Iran’s influence in Iraq will continue to grow unchecked.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 22 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: US turns up the heat on Iraq’s militias