By John Hannah
August 2, 2019
On July 1, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi issued a decree directing that militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) take a series of steps to subjugate themselves to the Iraqi state. According to the order, those groups failing to comply by July 31 will be treated as outlaws.
Don’t hold your breath. The odds are high that the deadline will come and go with no meaningful curtailment in the power of the PMF—at least not those Shiite elements allied with Iran, its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, the IRGC’s deadly expeditionary arm. Iran’s proxies in Iraq may pretend to comply with the decree. The Iraqi government may pretend to enforce it. But U.S. officials should be under no illusions. Rather than enhancing the government’s control over the PMF, the order is more likely to have the opposite effect, further entrenching Iran’s chokehold on the Iraqi state.
I very much hope that I’m wrong. Iraq’s success is deeply personal for me—and not just because I was a senior official in the George W. Bush administration who strongly backed the decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power. I know Mahdi well. I consider him to be a friend and a strong proponent of the U.S.-Iraqi relationship. During my time in government, we spent many hours arguing about developments in Iraq, and his assessments generally proved more right than wrong. I very much want to believe that will be the case now as well with respect to his efforts to rein in the PMF. But I fear that it won’t be.
The bottom line is that Mahdi is too weak and Iran’s proxies too strong. The prime minister has the support of no political party. He controls no voting bloc in parliament. He got his position through a negotiated compromise in which Iran and its proxies had a major hand. Although a skilled and restrained technocrat, he’s not a natural political leader capable of mobilizing latent Iraqi nationalism in defense of the country’s rapidly receding independence. But that’s what is most needed if Iraq is to have any near-term chance of resisting Suleimani’s power play.
In total, the PMF numbers about 130,000 to 150,000 fighters. Groups directly answerable to the IRGC make up a significant portion of that force and are far and away its most powerful element. These include the U.S.-designated terrorist militias Kataib Hezbollah and Hezbollah al-Nujaba, as well as the Badr Organization and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. In the wake of the 2003 Iraq War, several of these groups worked hand in glove with the IRGC to kill over 600 U.S. troops. They also systematically intimidated, extorted, terrorized, tortured, and killed thousands of Iraqi civilians with the aim of forcing the population to bend the knee to their vision of a pro-Iranian, Islamist Iraq.
The PMF sprung into existence when Iraq’s most venerated Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, put out a call for all able-bodied men to defend Iraq after the Army melted away in the face of the Islamic State’s 2014 invasion. Their role and sacrifice in preventing the fall of Baghdad and helping to drive the Islamic State out of key terrain are indisputable and are widely lauded by the Iraqi public.
The PMF took on a new flavor, though, when IRGC proxies—already in Iraq, well supplied, and battle-hardened from years of fighting Saddam and the Americans—attached themselves to the project and quickly came to dominate its command. The Iran-backed militias have been exploiting the group’s popular legitimacy ever since in a systematic effort to consolidate and expand their military, political, and economic power. They got the Iraqi parliament to declare the PMF an independent arm of the Iraqi security forces in late 2016. In 2018, they ran candidates in national elections, and today the PMF forms one of the strongest blocs in Iraq’s parliament. They earn millions of dollars through various forms of racketeering and extortion.
Mahdi’s immediate predecessor, Haider al-Abadi, issued his own decree in March 2018 that sought to tame the militias, subjecting them to the rules and regulations governing the Iraqi Army and placing them under the prime minister’s direct authority. The result? The Iran-backed groups brazenly defied Abadi’s order while claiming to abide by it, maintaining their primary allegiance to the IRGC and milking the Iraqi state for ever-greater quantities of military and financial resources. With Suleimani still effectively calling the shots, Iraq now forks over more than $2 billion annually to the PMF for salaries and expenses.
The immediate cause for Mahdi’s decree was a dangerous spike in tensions between Iran and the United States since May. With total disregard for the interests of Iraq and the orders of the Iraqi government, the IRGC’s proxies are suspected of having repeatedly fired rockets near U.S. diplomatic, military, and commercial facilities in Iraq. U.S. intelligence has also alleged that Iran’s militia allies in Iraq were responsible for sending armed drones to attack critical Saudi oil infrastructure. U.S. officials clearly worry that—as in the early 2000s—Iraq is the arena where Suleimani and the IRGC are most likely to try to draw significant American blood. That’s why U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned Mahdi of the need to take immediate action to constrain the militias.
Eager to appear responsive to U.S. interests and, even more important, avoid having Iraq become the main battleground of a catastrophic U.S.-Iranian war, Mahdi issued his July 1 order.
In addition to yet another injunction requiring the PMF to submit to the prime minister’s command authority, the decree calls on the militias to close their headquarters, separate from politics, give up their names in favor of Iraqi military designations, and abandon all economic activities.