Iran’s network of influence in Iraq has taken a battering over the past two months. The loss of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani, was a significant blow. Soleimani was an Arabic speaker with decades of experience operating in Iraq. But his killing came at a time when Iran’s go-to proxy in Iraq, Kata’ib Hezbollah also has been under unprecedented pressure. Its commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was killed with Soleimani in January and was viewed by Iran as its military governor in Iraq. His loss and Kata’ib Hezbollah’s partial suppression mean that Iran and its proxies need to recalibrate their strategy in Iraq, and there are indications that alternative militias may be stepping into the breach.

Kata’ib Hezbollah operates under the umbrella of the Hashd al-Sha’abi (Popular Mobilization Forces or PMF), a coalition of armed groups that formed or expanded in response to calls by Shi’ite religious and political leaders in 2014 to prevent ISIS from capturing Baghdad. Iranian “special groups” — militias formed with Iranian support to resist Saddam Hussein and/or the United States — were the principle beneficiaries of this call to arms. Though hugely successful in pushing back ISIS, these groups initially were illegal under the Iraqi Constitution. This changed with legislation passed in 2016 that incorporated the militias into the armed forces.

Creeping State Capture

Since that time, Iranian-backed elements of the Hashd al-Sha’abi have become increasingly enmeshed in the Iraqi government through prime ministerial executive orders designed to bring the Hashd into Iraq’s security sector, and by illegally participating in and influencing elections (the Constitution also bars armed forces from playing politics). Members of Parliament directly linked (and often still belonging) to the militias now constitute a sizeable bloc that was able to influence the choice of prime ministers in 2018 and has gained control of government ministries and authorities. At the same time, PMF-backed MPs have worked to increase funds going to the Hashd al-Sha’abi, effectively creating a parallel armed force with significant political power.

This creeping capture of government by militias and their political wings is a part of Iran’s strategy for Iraq. If this trend is not arrested, Iraq may ultimately be headed towards client state status, where the official government has become — in practice — subordinate to a militarized shadow-government loyal to Iran.

Of course, this would disenfranchise large parts of Iraqi society, recreating many of the problems that facilitated the rise of ISIS in the first place. This strategy may explain Iran’s and the PMF’s fear of ongoing anti-government and anti-corruption protests in Iraq. Citizens protesting against the status quo and calling for fresh elections threaten the influence networks built at the heart of the Iraqi government. Al-Muhandis and other PMF leaders, with the support of the IRGC, set up a crisis cell last year in order to coordinate the violent response to the demonstrations.

What next? 

To maintain their position in government, Iran-backed Hashd al-Sha’abi units will have to take a number of actions. The first is to continue to demoralize and divide anti-corruption protesters. This has been ongoing for a number of months, with numerous violent attacks carried out, including the murder of journalists attempting to cover the protesters’ demands or working to expose Hashd al-Sha’abi corruption or human rights violations.

But different Iran-backed Hashd al-Sha’abi units will likely respond in different ways, largely determined by their position within the Iraqi state. Groups with significant parliamentary representation, such as the Badr Organization or Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, may look toward the likelihood of early elections in the next 12 months, and so will work to shore up their electability. This will include suppressing domestic critics (and protests), engaging in civil outreach and engagement projects in local communities, and maintaining patronage networks that can help get out — or suppress — voters.

Iran and its resistance network may also need a new go-to militia to engage in kinetic activities against the United States and its coalition. Previously this was Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), but these brigades have lost their leader and a number of fighters, and their bases have been hit repeatedly by airstrikes over the last two months. KH knows it is under extreme scrutiny (just this week, another of its leaders, Secretary General Ahmad al-Hamadawi, was listed as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist by the State Department) and as a result the group is likely to feel increasingly constrained.

Still, removing the United States from the region remains an absolute priority for the militias. As predicted, there has been a steady stream of attacks against U.S. interests in Iraq in the weeks since the Soleimani strike, including a number of attacks on the embassy in Baghdad. If parliament and the government of Iraq fails to remove U.S. forces politically by mid-March, it is highly likely that those attacks will increase in frequency and lethality.

And there may be a wait for a political decision by Iraqi leaders to expel U.S. forces. Parliament is in recess until early March, and new Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi is yet to have had his cabinet approved. Moreover, many Iraqi politicians are reluctant to see a hasty withdrawal that could pave the way for an ISIS resurgence or broader unrest.

Iranian-backed Hashd al-Sha’abi brigades are becoming impatient, however, and will not wait forever. Brigades comprising Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq (AAH), Kata’ib al-Iman Ali, and Saraya al-Khurusani are all possible candidates for leading kinetic attacks on the United States, although AAH may be wary of jeopardizing its domestic political position. The other groups and their leaders also have domestic economic interests (such as the control of checkpoints and financial networks) that they may wish to preserve — conflict with the United States and the risk of even more sanctions would be bad for business and counterproductive to capturing the Iraqi state.

Harakat al-Nujaba Taking Up Mantle As Lead Kinetic Forces In Anti-U.S. Resistance?

But one Iran-backed militia is becoming particularly vocal in its counter U.S. rhetoric. Over the past month, Harakat al-Nujaba has issued regular statements threatening U.S. forces. It has posted images purporting to show its fighters conducting reconnaissance on the coalition with captions like “we are closer than you think, and it has threatened a military countdown to a point at which it would attack U.S. forces.

Though the militia is part of the PMF, Harakat al-Nujaba’s leadership has always been particularly contemptuous of the Iraqi government and the militia’s position since 2016 as a (legal) part of the Iraqi armed forces. The movement also is less enmeshed in government. It does not have a parliamentary branch and is less interested than other Iran-backed PMF brigades in participating in domestic politics. By contrast, Harakat al-Nujaba has always had an expeditionary streak. Long involved in the Syria conflict (where it deployed without the permission of the Iraqi chain of command), the group also created a sub-unit in 2017 called the “Golan Liberation Brigades” (ostensibly to assist the Syrian government should it ever attempt to retake the Golan Heights from Israel).

Harakat al-Nujaba’s leader, Akram al-Ka’abi, also has an expeditionary outlook. He has met and been photographed with Lebanese Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah a number of times, and was the first Iraqi PMF commander to meet Ismael Qaani, Soleimani’s successor as commander of the IRGC Quds Force. Close links like these show al-Ka’abi to be well-connected with Iran’s regional axis of resistance. He has also personally made threats against U.S. forces, stating his intention to drive them out of Iraq entirely and claiming that the “countdown” to achieve Iraq’s sovereignty [by expelling the U.S.] has begun.

And last week at an Iran press conference, Akram Ka’abi sent a particularly audacious message, holding up a map purporting to show American MQ-1 and MQ-9 flight paths from between late 2019 and Jan. 3, 2020. Considering Iranian-backed militias have controlled the Iraq Civil Aviation Authority since at least early 2019 (the Badr Organizations’ Ali Taqqi has been Deputy Director of ICAA since early 2019, and recently became its functional head, giving the IRGC significant access), that press conference stunt may be a stark example of how government capture by the Hashd al-Sha’abi’s political wings provides direct benefit to the military wings and their IRGC backers who seek to resist Coalition Forces.

Regardless of the accuracy and origin of the data, the message being sent by Harakat al-Nujaba is clear: U.S. forces are being monitored carefully. And by sending these messages, the militia wants its opponents to believe that it has not yet demonstrated its full capability to target U.S. interests.

Policy Implications 

Understanding the differences in the motivations, strengths, and capabilities of the various leading Iranian-backed PMF brigades is vital if U.S. and Iraqi policymakers are to come up with effective responses to violence and aggression over the coming months. It will be particularly important to understand the growing role of Harakat al-Nujaba and its leadership: it appears the movement is leading the way in taking up the mantle left by Kataib Hezbollah and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis by taking responsibility for militarily resisting Iran’s enemies in Iraq.

At the same time, the importance of other groups in Iraq’s political arena must also be better understood. In part, this will help policymakers understand how PMFs benefit from their positions in government in terms of influence, finances, and intelligence collection.

The PMF-Iraqi goverment-parliamentary nexus also helps explain the repeated human rights and legal violations committed by PMF-linked forces against anti-corruption protesters. That violent crackdown is almost certain to worsen as Iraq moves towards early elections demanded by protesters and promised by the parliament and politicians. Iraqi and international policymakers should be ready to prosecute or sanction individuals and groups directing these abuses.

Failure to fully understand who is doing what in Iraq risks miscalculations and ineffective responses, and also permits human rights violators to continue to use anonymity and privileged positions in government to go on harming civilians.

IMAGE: Iraqi anti-government protesters rest beneath graffiti at Tahrir Square in Baghdad as nationwide protests entered a third month on December 5, 2019. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have taken to the streets demanding replacement of Iraq’s corrupt, sectarian political system, despite a crackdown partly orchestrated by Iran and Iran-backed Shiite militias that by that point had left more than 450 Iraqis dead. (Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images)