March 16, 2020
Is Iraq on course to becoming a failed state? The Kataib Hezbollah militants (part of Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi) who killed several coalition troops last week are closely allied to Iran, as well as to powerful elements within Iraq’s parliament. This is just one of many warning signs of how Iraq is devolving from nation state to a warring cluster of paramilitary fiefdoms under Iranian hegemony.
Iraqis demand effective governance and an end to institutionalized corruption. Yet, whoever is appointed to the premiership faces insurmountable pressures to dole out ministries among clientelistic factions as lucrative cash cows and sources of employment for unqualified foot soldiers. Prime minister-designate Mohammed Allawi was angrily rejected by Iraq’s Shiite-majority protest movement, yet he tried and failed to cobble together a government anyway. The fragmented outcomes of the 2018 elections make it well-nigh impossible for any candidate to gain a functional majority. The Shiite political house is intransigently divided, with diametrically opposed views on fundamental issues like ties with Iran and the demobilization of militias.
Following America’s killing of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in January, cleric and political kingpin Muqtada Al-Sadr has avariciously sought to become the dominant beneficiary of Iranian patronage. Overnight, he flip-flopped from patron of the protest movement to dispatching his foot soldiers to crush the uprising. Given Al-Sadr’s political weight, this has tipped the balance of power among the Shiite camp decisively in Iran’s favor.
With the latest deadline for the selection of a new prime ministerial candidate about to expire, a seven-person committee — monopolized by the principal Shiite factions — has taken upon itself the challenge of government formation. Iranian National Security Council secretary Ali Shamkhani has, over the past couple of weeks, been in Baghdad helping steer this process, while also seeking to consolidate Iranian control over Al-Hashd paramilitary factions and agitating for the eviction of US forces. Just as in Lebanon, lengthy periods of political paralysis have become the norm, while self-serving parliamentary factions wrangle over government positions.
Shamkhani is one of a succession of senior Iranian and Hezbollah personnel who — post-Soleimani — have sought to restore order among Tehran’s brood of transnational proxy militia forces. While the nominal loyalty to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei of Al-Hashd militias like Kataib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq is unquestioned, in the absence of assertive leadership this plurality of entities (on paper there are about 60 factions) consume their energies in turf battles.
Although these militias were initially mobilized and armed by Iran, since 2014 they have principally been bankrolled by Iraq’s state budget (to the tune of about $2.1 billion annually). Staggering under the burden of US sanctions, Iranian largesse has diminished further. These militias have consequently mutated into criminal networks, carving out territories throughout Iraq’s cities and provinces, extorting money from citizens and businesses, along with other revenue-generating enterprises like drugs, arms, prostitution, oil smuggling, money laundering and much more besides. Like Latin American drug cartels, these forces threaten to outgun the state, terrorizing citizens and battling to establish themselves as the de facto powers throughout Iraq. In recent months, these unaccountable militias were mobilized to kill hundreds of protesters.
Since 2003, it has been Tehran’s foreign policy priority to dominate Iraq, while keeping it weak and politically fragmented. Hezbollah was established as the unrivaled agent of Iranian hegemony in Lebanon. Conversely, in Iraq, Tehran nurtured a plethora of rival Shiite militias and political factions, which dance to Iran’s tune while nursing conflicting agendas and bitter rivalries.
Meanwhile, there has been negligible progress in rebuilding cities following the Daesh conflict. In Mosul alone, about 138,000 homes were severely damaged. Major displaced peoples’ camps in Nineveh province have been forcibly closed, with some 186,000 people departing these camps during 2019, often with no habitable homes to return to. This has major implications for the rehabilitation of Sunni communities. Unemployment is sky-high, families have lost everything. They often encounter institutional obstacles to obtaining citizenship documents for receiving basic services — faced with the broad-brush stigma of Daesh association. If these communities fail to be treated as citizens by an administration that is widely perceived (not unjustifiably) as having sectarian Shiite and pro-Iran leanings, this bodes ill for Iraq’s future coherence. While the socioeconomic situation of Kurdistan is arguably better, integration with the Iraqi state is even weaker.
Provocations by Iran and its proxy elements against international targets during 2019 often went unanswered, which emboldened the ayatollahs further. US President Donald Trump appears to have learned from this mistake. The strike against Soleimani constituted a major psychological shock for Tehran, while the US’ responses to the latest missile strikes make it crystal clear that the rules of the game have changed: Iran and its franchises can no longer strike foreign targets with impunity.
Iraq’s authorities do nothing to restrain these militias from striking foreign personnel, many of whom are fulfilling a necessary role assisting Iraqi forces in seeking to halt Daesh’s re-emergence. Yet, when the US responds to these attacks — targeting militants on Iran’s payroll — Iraqi leaders wake up and begin issuing noisy condemnations and threats to refer the issue to the UN; reminding us how so many senior politicians are effectively in Tehran’s pocket.
Iraq has long since ceased functioning as a sovereign state. It is increasingly devolving into an ungoverned arena where Iran’s playthings jostle for control, expending Iraqi lives to further the policy agenda of a foreign nation with hostile intentions. Iraq does not have a functioning government, a coherent national identity, primacy of the armed forces, or uncontested sovereignty. Furthermore, amid the perfect storm of mass protests, coronavirus, declining oil prices and macroeconomic mismanagement, Iraq’s economy is in deep trouble.
Iraq has already plunged over the precipice into civil conflict several times in the past two decades. Without urgent intervention in support of cross-sectarian, nationalist and effective governance, it will only be a matter of time before the international community is compelled to go in and pick up the pieces all over again.