Iraqi cliff-edge looms

Salah Nasrawi , Saturday 7 Sep 2019

Iraq is likely heading into an even worse crisis, with signs of strain growing over the role of the country’s Popular Mobilisation Force following recent Israeli raids, writes Salah Nasrawi

As he was taking office last October, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi promised that his government would “continue building the foundations of the united federal state and its republican, parliamentary and democratic system.” 

The pledge by the newly appointed prime minister echoed mounting fears that Iraq was still facing daunting challenges, including instability, political conflict and the sectarianism that fuelled the extremism and costly war against the Islamic State (IS) group terrorists.

However, as so often in Iraq’s post US-invasion politics, Abdul-Mahdi has failed to follow through on his promises. One year after he came to office, Iraq is still caught in a stalemate of political chaos, factional feuds, social divisions and regional rivalries.

The deadlock, now involving Shia factions rather than the Sunni-Shia sectarianism that followed the 2003 US-led invasion, is raising concerns of further chaos and uncertainty in a nation sharply divided along religious and ethnic lines and whose communities are waging increasingly bitter power struggles.

The growing dispute between powerful Shia Muslim factions over the fate of the Iran-backed Shia militias’ increasing influence in Iraq is paralysing efforts to steer the country towards recovery after years of sectarian wars, political conflicts, government dysfunction and economic stagnation.

Worse, there are increasing signs that the deadlock may drive Iraq further into simmering regional conflicts amid rising tensions between the United States and Iran, the two powers which are seen as the most influential foreign players in Iraq.

At the centre of the controversy is the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF), the state-sponsored paramilitary organisation which was assembled from dozens of pro-Iran militias in Iraq in 2014 to help government forces in the fight against IS.

The most-recent crisis was triggered by a series of mysterious explosions at bases, positions and weapons’ depots belonging to the PMF across Iraq. The blasts reportedly killed several personnel, including two Iranian military engineers and wounded dozens of others.

The more serious explosion occurred on 20 August at a military base controlled by an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia near Balad north of Baghdad that also hosts US forces, trainees and contractors.

In addition to the bombings of the PMF’s ammunition storage and facilities, an attack on 25 August also targeted a convoy near Al-Qaim on the Syrian border that killed a senior PMF commander and seriously wounded another.

No one has claimed responsibility for these attacks, and the Iraqi authorities have yet to make public the results of an official probe into the source of the blasts.

Yet, the attacks have opened a crack in the Shia ranks over the PMF’s role, which has now broken into the open and threatens to set off a wider fissure in the religious majority community that has run the country since the fall of the Sunni-dominated regime of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

But while the government has remained tight-lipped over the possible perpetrators of the attacks, pro-Iran militia leaders and politicians are now blaming the United States and Israel for possible involvement and have vowed retaliation.

PMF Deputy Commander Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, better known by nom de guerre Abu Mahdi Al-Mohandis, was quick to condemn the United States for the attacks and threaten strong retaliation.

Other Iran-backed militia leaders slammed Abdul-Mahdi’s government for allegedly showing little public support for the PMF and its failure to name Israel as the perpetrator. They also accused the government of failing to take stronger action than it has so far.

Meanwhile, the Fatah Coalition, which represents Iran-backed militias in the Iraqi parliament, has been aggressively pushing the government to expel thousands of US troops that are helping the Iraqi security forces in battling IS in Iraq.

While the Pentagon has categorically denied any involvement in the attacks, US officials confirmed Israel’s responsibility for some of them in interviews with the New York Times on 22 August. Indeed, Washington has showed no sign that it had discouraged Israel from expanding the scope of its military activities in Iraq.

It is generally acknowledged that Israel was the perpetrator of the attacks. On Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted of Israel’s role as part of his strategy to expand the country’s long-running campaign of airstrikes in Syria and Lebanon into Iraq.

The question arises of why Israel is trying to turn up the heat in Iraq at this juncture, however.

While Israel’s anti-Iran policy is the primary objective and raison d’être of the attacks on the PMF positions in Iraq, the strategy also seems to have a broader objective of stopping Iran from trying to establish an overland arms-supply line through Iraq and northern Syria to Lebanon.

Israel’s bid to hit PMF targets in Iraq has also fuelled speculation that may add to theories about a US-led regional alliance aiming at confronting Iran in Iraq through targeting its proxies. Washington has already imposed economic sanctions on PMF leaders, and it is said to be considering designating the group as a foreign terrorist organisation.

As regional tensions soar, the Israeli anti-PMF campaign is bringing a fresh wave of confusion to Iraq’s already chaotic politics, with some Shia factions perhaps poised to challenge Abdul-Mahdi’s ability to tackle the crisis triggered by the Israeli attacks and the future of the powerful paramilitary force.

Views on the PMF’s fate differ among Iraqi Shia political groups, with radical pro-Iran factions pushing to boost its political, security, economic and cultural influence, if not promoting its outright hijacking of the state, and moderates wanting to ensure that the PMF does not become a back door for Iranian influence in Iraq or a state within a state.

The fear that the crisis will blow further wind into the PMF’s sails has already caused more moderate Shia leaders to urge Abdul-Mahdi to put a break on efforts by pro-Iran militia leaders to build a “deep state” in Iraq and steer it further into regional conflicts.  

Powerful leader of the Iraqi Sadrist Movement Muqtada Al-Sadr has warned against making “reckless incendiary statements” and taking “unilateral decisions,” for example. He has demanded that all PMF weapons depots be placed under government control and the withdrawal of all Shia militias from Syria. 

Meanwhile, former Iraqi prime minister Haider Al-Abadi, who heads the second-largest parliamentary bloc in Iraq, blamed “self-interested” and “undisciplined” factions for the escalation. Al-Abadi said that “Iraq’s territory should be put under [government] control to avoid entanglement in proxy conflicts.”

Head of another key parliamentary bloc and veteran Shia politician Ammar Al-Hakim also told a public gathering on Friday that “Iraq’s territory should not be a warehouse for foreign weapons.” He warned of “attempts to drive Iraq into a battle zone of futile proxy wars.”

By any standards, the vocal opposition of Shia leaders of such high calibre should be a stern warning to Abdul-Mahdi to avoid dancing to the tune of radical pro-Iran militia leaders scheming to capture the Iraqi state and drag the country into regional conflicts.

The three leaders have enough votes in parliament to table a vote of no-confidence in Abdul-Mahdi if he remains unwilling or unable to stop the militias’ thirst for power. Moreover, the anti-militia discourse they have been using appeals to Iraqi nationalism and could foment public resentment of both Abdul-Mahdi and Iran’s proxies.

The current standoff between the Iraqi factions seems at first glance like a replay of the games of chicken that have characterised Iraqi politics since the US-led invasion in 2003. But it is not. Iraq now faces a thorny political dilemma in deciding whether to continue trying to rebuild a failed and dysfunctional state or fall into the trap of the creeping Iranian occupation.  

Much of what now happens will depend on Abdul-Mahdi’s behaviour and whether his actions will be directly out of Iran’s and its proxies’ playbook or whether they will come from common sense and patriotism.

The failure of Abdul-Mahdi last month to make one Iran-backed paramilitary group in Mosul in the north of the country comply with his orders to fully integrate into the Iraqi armed forces is just one case in point about this dilemma of inaction.

Unless Abdul-Mahdi takes concrete steps to rein in the PMF and stop pro-Iran factions taking control of political decision-making in their attempts to align Iraq with Iran, fears of Iraq becoming the main battleground for Iran’s wars will not dissipate and the crisis will not ease.

The country will be thrown further into a political standoff and even worse. This could cause chain reactions that would be difficult for the government and Iraq’s political factions to control.

Perhaps this is exactly the goal of Israel and its anti-Iran supporters, however: a strategy of “chaos and deflection” that will make Iraq a proxy battleground to weaken and isolate Iran instead of a head-on collision with the Islamic Republic.

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