Analysis: Iraq’s dilemma over Iran’s proxies

Salah Nasrawi , Tuesday 6 Feb 2024

Shia militias pose a unique conundrum for Iraq as their rise risks drawing the country further into the Iran-US conflict.

Iraq s dilemma over Iran s proxies


As the US launched its largest air campaign against Iraq’s Shia militias this week, a lingering question has arisen: what should Iraq do about the major challenge that Iran’s growing army of proxies poses to the country’s stability?

The humiliating encroachment on Iraq’s sovereignty has marked a dramatic escalation in a country already at the crossroads of several regional conflicts and suffering from deepening sectarian divisions and political uncertainty.

In hindsight, the US attacks on the Shia militias in Iraq signal the abysmal failure of successive post-US invasion Iraqi governments to halt the growing influence of the militias in the country and the threats they pose to its security.

When Mohamed Shia Al-Sudani took office as Iraq’s prime minister in October 2022, he vowed that one of his government’s top priorities would be to disarm the armed factions that have been wreaking havoc in the country.

In his government’s programme, Al-Sudani pledged to address the country’s deteriorating security conditions, including by dealing with the problem of “uncontrolled weapons” owned by non-state actors.

All Al-Sudani’s predecessors have made similar promises since the US-led invasion in 2003 when Iraq has undergone periods of instability, with armed groups taking advantage of the country’s power vacuum, government dysfunction, and rampant corruption.

Yet, all efforts to contain these militias have failed, and they have since amassed considerable military, political, and economic power and even grown into paramilitary forces able to outgun the state.

While they have continued to seek to grab power and stoke tension in the country, the Iran-backed militias have brought back to the fore the question of who controls Iraq.

The militias’ awkward actions, especially their attacks on US facilities in Iraq and the pivotal role they play in the ongoing Iranian proxy wars in Syria, have embarrassed the Iraqi government and spelled danger for its authority to establish full control over the country.

The 28 January drone attack by an Iranian-backed militia that killed three US troops in Jordan and injured scores of others was the last straw, as the militias have extended their activities into other countries and mired Iraq in broader regional conflicts.

The attack in Jordan took the militias’ attempts to control the Iraqi state to an entirely new level, with Al-Sudani’s government in a state of paralysis and unable to stifle the groups without starting an all-out confrontation.

The US has tried limited military responses before in a series of strikes against the militias’ camps, but it has had little success in deterring the groups, which have attacked US facilities hundreds of times.

However, the fatalities suffered by US soldiers in the drone attack triggered a response that showed the unfolding of the Biden administration’s reaction to the militias’ daunting challenge.

In the first round of this response last Friday night, US Air Force B-1B bombers joined by fighter jets and drones struck more than 85 targets of the Iran-allied militias in both Iraq and Syria, dropping more than 125 munitions on them.

US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby said the mission had two primary objectives: retaliation and to send a message to Iran that the militias’ war of attrition against US bases in the region with suicide drones and missiles would not be tolerated.

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin suggested that the US strikes were just the beginning of its response. The White House did not provide an exact timeline for the mission’s next phases, but US officials said that a series of strikes would occur over the span of a few days.

The carefully planned raids were the largest yet against the Iranian proxies, but the Biden administration has been careful to say that it is not seeking a broader conflict even though US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan did not rule out the possibility of strikes in Iran.

In Washington’s thinking, the raids were both retaliatory and tactical and aimed to show its determination to restore military supremacy and deter the ability of the Iran-backed armed groups in the region to attack its troops.

When he was a candidate for the US presidency in 2020, President Joe Biden promised to “end the forever wars” in the Middle East and vowed to seek a quick return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal reached by the Obama administration.

The strategy seemed to ignore the fact that Tehran’s proxies had been proactive in advancing the Islamic Republic’s regional agenda, including the role of allied groups that challenge the US and its regional allies.

The approach was incoherent even before the latest horrific flare up of violence between the US and Iraq’s Iranian-sponsored groups. For years, Washington has simply been circling around the issue without having a clear strategy to deal with the militias’ challenge.

The folly of Washington’s policy started with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which allowed Iran to gain strategic advantages in its beleaguered neighbour and expand its regional influence.

Though the growth of Iranian political, security, cultural, and economic influence in Iraq led to a backlash, Washington’s approach to the challenge continued to oscillate between animosity and appeasement.

After the Islamic State (IS) group’s rise in 2014, the US, which led an international coalition to fight the terrorist group, found an ally in the conflict in the Iran-backed Shia militias and began looking favourably on the long-term enemy.

Brett McGurk, the Obama administration’s point man on Iraq at the time and the current White House coordinator for the Middle East, commended the militias’ “heroism” and their “partnership” with US forces.

The US policy towards its old adversary even began moving in an affirmative direction when a State Department-sponsored meeting in Washington hosted members of the Iraqi Popular Moblisation Force (PMF), an umbrella organisation consisting of many different militias, as a partner in the war against IS.

But the most dramatic shift in the US strategy in Iraq came when Western diplomats working closely with Washington met secretly in Beirut with PMF leaders in August 2016 to discuss future relations.

The moves were seen as signs of pragmatism and suggested that Washington had found a new friend in Iraq’s Shia militias with whom it could do business in Iraq other than its traditional friends and allies.

But the conciliatory approach towards the Shia militias soon proved to be selective and situational when the groups began to consolidate and institutionalise their power at the expense of other political factions.

Soon after the defeat of IS in key towns and cities in Iraq in 2017, the militias started pounding US facilities in the country and demanding that US troops withdraw.

Since then, the frequency of the attacks has increased, and the US finally agreed to start talks with Baghdad on the future of its troops in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Washington resorted to financial levers including sanctioning banks and entities owned by militia leaders in a bid to dry up the cash going to the groups and to push Baghdad to help control Iran’s funding for the militants.

Alongside the embargo on bank transactions, the measures have had a dire impact on Iraq’s financial and trade sectors, and continuing the sanctions could further damage the already weak economy of the country because of Iraq’s heavy reliance on US dollars.

The standoff has become the biggest challenge to Al-Sudani’s government, which has thus far failed to rein in the armed groups and gain control of the country’s overall security.

During Al-Sudani’s tenure under the Shia-led coalition, the Iran-backed armed groups have grown in wealth and power and have benefited from state institutions and state coffers, with some even being incorporated into the Iraqi security forces.

Some of these groups have said that they have halted attacks on US troops after three US soldiers were killed in the drone strike on a base in Jordan that triggered the US campaign.

But the militias that have taken at least partial control over many of Iraq’s government, security, and economic sectors and are closely connected to Iran can hardly be taken at their word.

With no intention by the Biden administration to engage Iran directly, Al-Sudani now finds himself in a predicament similar to the one faced by his predecessors: how to respond to the provocations of the militias without starting a confrontation with powerful paramilitary and political forces and a conflict with their backers in Iran?

* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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