A poster shows the faces of Khamenei, Qassem Soleimani, Ayatollah Khomeini and Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, in Baghdad, Iraq, May 20, 2020. (Twitter)

By Track Persia

March 30, 2021

For more than a decade and a half, Tehran has built a powerful network of political, religious and Shi’ite militant groups to increase its influence in Iraq. Since then Iran has been used its militia proxies to materialise its will in this country. However, it appears that Iran’s proxies there have recently had deep divisions and that reflects in losing its control over these proxies.

In the last few days, a group of militiamen belonging to the Iran-backed Shi’ite militia Kata’ib Hezbollah paraded the street of Baghdad carrying arms in a show of power move. The group is said to be part of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella of mainly government-recognised Shi’ite militias allied with Iran.

Most of these Shi’ite militias pledge allegiance to Iran and its Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rather than Iraq. The paraded group presented itself under the newly-invented name ‘Rab’allah’ which by parading with heavy arms indicates there is a new stage of evolution of this group. In its previous parade a few months ago, the members of this group had presented themselves as an unarmed vigilante group.

On 23 December, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, another powerful Shi’ite militia backed by Iran, threatened to take to the streets demanding the release of one of its members who had been accused of firing rockets at the US embassy in Baghdad.

Despite Khata’ib militia tried to present the parade as being against the government’s poor performance and inflation, all evidence shows that the militia was feeling threatened by the government anti-corruption campaign which would target them for their illegal activities.

On 23 November, Rab’allah, raided a massage parlour in Baghdad filming the attack of their victims, who were mostly female employees, and smashing the contents and furniture of the place. However, after the raid, some Shiite militant groups condemned the act. Kata’ib Hezbollah militia’s cultural mobilisation council issued a statement supporting the attackers and condemning what it called the ‘decline in moral demeanour’ in Iraq. Another group affiliated with Kata’ib Hezbollah militias calling itself ‘Sadiq Seminary’ in Baghdad stated it was supporting the act of Rab’allah by saying that people have the right to fulfil their religious duties.

Sabreen News, a media channel that belongs to Iran-backed militias, claimed that Rab’allah was responsible for the raid circulating several videos also showing military training for this group. Some observers see the reason why Kata’ib Hezbollah militants are using different names such as Rab’allah in their attacks is that they intended to take part in the next elections and because they do not want to show the public that they harm women. Unlike the parade last December, the recent armed parade of Kata’ib Hezbollah/Rab’allh was supported by other Iran-linked militant groups.

The different positions of the Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq towards such attacks indicate a growing rivalry among them and show that Tehran has been sending conflicting orders to its network in Iraq that it has been building since the occupation of Iraq by the US-led invasion in 2003 and the fall of Saddam regime.

The Iranian regime has employed different Iranian agencies and intelligence organisations to control different factions in Iraq including armed groups, political and religious leaders. The group directly linked to Iran’s Khamenei appear to be convinced that if they increase violence against US troops and attacking US interests in Iraq they will press the Americans to return to negotiations table over Iran nuclear deal which the US left under the former US President Donald Trump and lift the US economic sanctions on Iran. They believe that the new US administration of Biden is too weak to respond to the attacks of Iran’s proxies in Iraq and it will accept all Tehran’s conditions.

Before the death of Gen Qassem Soleimani, the former chief of IRGC’s Qods Force, who was killed on 3 January 2020 US drone strike near Baghdad Airport, all Iran-backed militias in Iraq were answering to Soleimani. However, the situation has changed since the death of Soltimani.

Soleimani found the control of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group over large stretches of northern and western Iraq and the dramatic collapse of the Iraqi army in June 2014 a huge opportunity. It was when the highest-ranking cleric in Iraq and the Islamic Shi’ite world Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani mobilised the Iraqis by his jihad fatwa which called upon them to take up arms against IS. By issuing this jihad fatwa against the IS militants, Sistani unintentionally offered an ideological umbrella for Iran to form militias to fight IS. This was justified by forming Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) which mainly consists of militant groups linked to Tehran and were later recognised as being part of Iraq’s armed forces by the Iraqi government, although these militias are loyal to Tehran rather than Iraq.

Soleimani played a major role in mobilising Iran’s militant proxies against IS militants in Iraq and contributed to their defeat in 2017. However, these militias have had major divisions over because of their illegal activities and crimes they committed against civilians of the liberated lands. Most importantly, the Iran-backed militias exploited this victory to gain status above the Iraqi state. Nonetheless, Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the former de facto leader of PMF who was also killed in the US airstrike in Baghdad on 3 January that killed Soleimani, managed to mitigate the impacts of these divisions until their death.

The Iranian regime has failed to compensate for the loss of Soleimani and Muhandis so far. To mitigate the impacts of this failure, the regime has tied different Iraqi factions to different Iranian organisations. This has resulted in deep divisions among Iran’s proxies in Iraq and this is reflected in their recent positions and performance.

Finally, the succession of General Esmail Qaani of Soleimani as the new chief of Qods Force does not improve the situation, given that Qaani lacks strong connections in Iraq and his powers are limited compared to Soleimani. No wonder why Khamenei has decided to hand over Qaani responsibilities to other Iranian agencies directly linked to his office such as the Beit Rahbari. Asghari Hejazi is the head of Beit Rahbari and he is also Khamenei’s security adviser who is directing most prominent Iran-backed armed groups in Iraq including Kata’b Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Nonetheless, the Iranian regime has still been struggling to find someone who can fill Soleimani’s shoes in Iraq.

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.