Iran-backed militia fighters march in central Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, June 29, 2021. (AP)

By Track Persia

September 28, 2021

The assassination of Iran’s former Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis a leader of the most powerful Iran-aligned Shiite militias in Iraq by an American drone strike near Baghdad airport in early January 2020, was expected to weaken the Shiite Iran-aligned militias in Iraq but it seems this has not happened.

Since the assassinations of these leaders, Iranian-backed Shiite militias which are part of Iraq’s Hashid al-Sha’bi or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) have increased their mobilisation to avenge their deaths by seeking more sophisticated ways to target the U.S. troops and U.S. allies in Iraq. They also have targeted Iraqi military forces which these militias consider as enemies too because they are working with the Americans to fight the extremist group Islamic State (IS) in Iraq. However, the differences between the U.S. and the Iranian-backed militias began to boil after the defeat of the IS militants in 2017.

In late 2019 and before the assassinations of Soleimani and Mohandis, Iraq witnessed a series of tit-for-tat attacks between the U.S. and the Iranian-backed militias. One of the militias’ attacks that targeted the U.S. presence resulted in the death of an American contractor. The killing of the American citizen prompted the former U.S. President Donald Trump administration to attack the Iranian-backed militias leading to the killing of 27 militants from the powerful Iranian-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah. The killings also prompted this militia to mobilise an angry mob to burn and vandalise the gate of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad during a two-day siege over the New Year’s Eve of 2020.

The PMF was officially formed in June 2014 to fight the militants of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq alongside the US-led coalition forces despite the animosity between the two and the closeness of the Shiite militias within it to Tehran. Being part of the state, have made the PMF financially supported by the state and have been nominally incorporated into the Iraqi security forces through a law in 2016 and a decree in 2018.

Most of the militia groups within PMF are under the control of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who has the final say over religious and political matters in Iran and over Iran’s proxies in the region and across the globe.

By getting this official status, these Iranian-backed militias have obtained an official status that allows them to secure legitimacy, public funds and weaponry. This year, for instance, the Iraqi government increased budget allocation for the PMF by about 46% compared to the 2019 budget to reach $2.5 billion.

Before the recent announcement of U.S. President  Biden about the withdrawal of all his country’s troops from Iraq, Iran-backed Shiite militias within the PMF had increased targeting the besieged U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq. These attacks suggest that the assassinations of Soleimani and al-Mohandis by the former US President Donald Trump administration failed to prevent further arracks against the foreign troops led by the U.S. in Iraq. Trump said that the airstrike that killed Soleimani and Mohandis aimed to prevent a war and it was based on intelligence that Soleimani was plotting imminent attacks against U.S. interests.

The assassinations of the two men prompted the Iraqi parliament to vote to oust all U.S.-led coalition troops from Iraq. Iraq’s parliament is dominated by Iranian-backed Shiite factions, some of them are members of the Iranian-aligned militias within the PMF. In the beginning, the United States agreed to reduce its troops from 5000 to 2500 but with even smaller number left could be in the danger of retaliatory operations by the Iranian-aligned militias made these troops venerable.

The important question that needs to be addressed is why has the U.S strike that targeted Soleimani and al-Mohandis encouraged the Iran-backed Shiite militias to intensify their military operations against the U.S. and its allies in Iraq? And why have these militias managed to consolidate their grip on the leadership of the PMF and the political system in this country?

The Biden administration has recently decided to downsize his country’s combat military presence in Iraq after seven years of fighting the extremist group IS in Iraq and Syria. However, this administration ordered two strikes this year against the Iranian-affiliated Shiite militias in retaliation for the attacks by the latter on the U.S. troops, as well as U.S. diplomatic facilities.  Consequently, the Shiite militias in Iraq have decided to reaffirm their strength by increasing their attacks not just on U.S. interests but also on Iraqi activities and protesters, in addition to Iraqi security members.

According to Iraqi Human Rights Commission, 81 assassination attempts have been reported since October 2019. While the UN published several reports on crimes committed by these Iran-backed Shiite militias against protesters and activists. The powerful militias have also increased their operations to subvert the Iraqi state and erode the confidence of Iraqis in the Iraqi state’s ability to assert rule of law. They are currently overtly displaying their strength in the streets. They have recently tasked vigilante groups with unlawful activities and organised crimes.

The Iranian-backed militias have also used their power to seize control of Iraq’s lucrative sectors of the economy. This has allowed them to become independent financially from the Iraqi state and operationally from Tehran. Several hardline militias within PMF are operating under the banner of what they call the “Islamic resistance” whose coordination committee is focusing on their strategies such as how to target the Iraqi state and the U.S. presence in Iraq. This committee was formed after the assassinations of Soleimani and Mohandis. It includes most hardline militias in Iraq that are aligned with Tehran such as Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada and Harakat al-Nujaba. Surprisingly, some of these militias, such as Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada have not been designated as terrorist organisations by the United States.

The latest tactics used by these militias over the past months have focused on using more sophisticated drones in their attacks against the U.S. presence and coalition facilities in Iraq. Most of these drones are guided by GPS such as suicide drones which are Iranian-made. This type of drone prompted the US to procure defense systems that can detect such drones.

Last June, two U.S. contractors were injured by a pair of drone attacks by the Iranian-backed militias. The U.S. military did not retaliate but decided to focus on self-defence strategy instead and also suspend air support to the Iraqi security forces because the U.S. became frustrated with the Iraqi government’s lack of response to these militia attacks and its inability to protect facilities it used in Iraq. This has had negative impacts on Iraq’s capability of fighting IS sleeper cells in some areas in Iraq.

The withdrawal agreement between the Biden administration and the Iraqi government under the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is a largely symbolic move as most of the U.S. troops will be classified into non-combat troops with non-combat roles. This vague arrangement is in fact a face-saving strategy for Kadhimi because the Biden administration realised that Kadhimi has been put under tremendous pressure by these militias to force him to remove all foreign troops from Iraq to appease Tehran.

During the June parade that marked the seventh anniversary of the formal formation of the PMF, the powerful Iranian-aligned factions within the PMF made a spectacle to signal their recovery from the setback from the assassinations of Soleimani and Mohandis and to stress their determination to force US-led coalition forces outside Iraq.

Showing off their equipment and training at this parade was a message to the Biden administration that they were not weakened, on the contrary, they were well-resourced and have deeply penetrated and controlled the Iraqi state and its institutions. The militias’ keenness that the Iraqi prime minter would attend the parade was aimed to underscore their legality as a state institution.

The parade, however, coincided with a wave of attacks on the U.S. troops and facilities in Iraq by these militias. It seemed that the Iraqi security forces were clearly unable to keep these militias in check as the U.S. compact troops were being downsized by the Biden administration.

Unsurprisingly, pro-Tehran critics, blame the Trump administration for the recent rise of the Iranian-backed militias claiming that the assassination of Soleimani and Mohandis is an indication of the U.S. government’s failure to understand Iraq’s complex internal dynamics. In their view, the killings of these two leaders have encouraged the militias to stage more attacks on U.S. citizens and interests in Iraq. These attacks, according to them, have eventually exacerbated the fragile and unstable situation 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.