A picture published by the Tasnim agency showing Iranian Quds Force commander Qasim Soleimani (C) in Najaf, Iraq. (Supplied)

By Track Persia

August 20, 2019

Since the US-led invasion of Iraq, Iran has become embedded in Iraq’s security system through its proxy Shiite militias it helped develop and continued to support. At the inception of the invasion Iran- trained and -backed militias sought to infiltrate the new forces, turning them into tools in a sectarian power struggle.

When the Islamic State (IS) occupied Mosul and a large part of northeastern Iraq in June 2014, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest religious Shiite authority in Iraq, issued a fatwa calling on Iraqis to defend their country and its sacred places.  Then Prime Minister al-Maliki, a staunch Iran’s ally,  exploited Sistan’s fatwa by establishing the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) or the hashd from some Shiite militias he had formed during earlier years in his office.

The war against IS has provided Iran with another opportunity to remain a dominant player in Iraq through its support for Iraq’s hashd. With its long-standing ties to political actors as well as militant proxies, Iran has been able to make a smooth transition from politics to military battle. Iran’s Qods Force was openly engaged in supporting Iran-allied militias against the IS militants.

After the Islamic State lost its territorial control, these groups began fighting one another for power, legitimacy, and resources. Iraqis have begun criticizing the paramilitary groups’ unlawful activities.  For example, in Basra, the home of an estimated one-third of hashd militants, there were widespread protests against the group for operating as a parallel state blaming them for killing 20 or so protesters on September 8 and 9, 2018.

Iran has also begun to use Iranian organsiations in Iraq that are operating under charitable activities such as vocational training courses or food distributions for disadvantaged Shiite people to promulgate its revolutionary ideology of wilayat al-faqih (the right of a cleric to rule) and interfere in the Iraqi affairs for its own interests.

One of these organisations is the Imam Khomeini Agency which has several regional branches and directly connected to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This organisation is used to run high-profile operations targeting Shiite populations in the region. However, after the US designated the foundation’s branch in Lebanon a foreign terrorist organisation for its connection to the Shiite Lebanese Hezbollah, the foundation no longer states its connections to its allies. The denial also came as a result of the growing discontent of Iranian people affected by the rise of taxes at a time there were revelations that vast state sums were directed towards funding the regime’s allies in the region.

In Iraq, the Imam Khomeini Relief Agency has been running since 2006. It has signed contracts with Iraq’s Ministry of Sport and Youth and Ministry of Labour. The organisation targets Iraqi cities that have holy Shiite shrines, in particular, Najaf, Karbala and Khadhemiya.

During the war on IS in Iraq, the Imam Khomeini Relief Agency took the initiative to raise money to support Iran’s allied- militias within the hashd. However, in reality, the Iranian regime uses such organisations as a means to interfere in the affairs of the regional countries and to promulgate its ideology of wilayat al-faqih (the right of a cleric to rule) which is the basis of the Iranian theocracy.

The war on IS has almost ended in Iraq and Syria and the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) and re-imposed sanctions on Iran, have hardly hit the Iranian economy forcing the regime to change policy related to its allies.

In Iraq, the regime has encouraged its proxies to develop more autonomy and to find new sources of funding rather than depending on the regime’s financial support. Now powerful groups within the hashd have officially been recognised as part of the Iraqi state security apparatus, especially they have gained a landslide victory in May 2018 elections, despite Iraqi law prevents them from participating in any elections.

The Iranian-baked militias within hashd have successfully controlled Iraq’s economy through exploitation, corruption and using force and intimidation. They have become notorious for extracting trade tariffs, signing government’s contracts even those, related to Iraq’s oil resources. In doing so, the hashd has become self-sufficient and less dependent on Iranian funding.

The Imam Khomeini Relief Agency, however, created public controversy in Iraq when prominent leaders in the hash heeded Iranian leaders’ call such as Qods Force leader  Qassem Soleimani to help the Iranians affected by the flooded hit Iranian areas in April 2019.

To decrease public anger and appease the Trump administration, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on July 1 issued an official decree that the hashd would be fully integrated into the national armed forces, emphasising that the groups would be abandoning their individual names and other political affiliations, instead, adopting brigade and battalion numbers. They would also close their economic offices and commit to following the command of the prime minister as commander in chief.

However, because of owing power to the Iranian-allied paramilitary groups within the hashd that backed his candidacy, Mahdi seems he is incapable of forcing the hashd to implement his official decree. Firstly these groups have already gained influence over the prime minister and his office. Secondly, these militants have controled all aspects of Iraq’s Ministry of Interior, from the minister to the federal police. In reality, Mahdi’s decree can serve as a step for the hashd to pursue integration with the state and at the same time maintain its autonomy and the loyalty of its fighters and members. After all, the hashd fighters’ main goal is to become part of the state while consolidating power and gain ing control of the state.

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.