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

By Track Persia

July 28, 2021

While Iraqi Prime mister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was meeting with US President Joe Biden in Washington to discuss the end of US combat operations in Iraq on 26 July, a pro-Iran Shiite militia claimed that its storage facilities in Iraq’s Najaf has been attacked by  US drone. The pro-Iran Imam Ali Division militia released a statement earlier on July 26 claiming that the storage site had been hit by two “enemy drones” roughly two hours apart. The militia also claimed the drones had scouted out the base earlier in the morning.

However, Iraq’s military rejected the claim saying that an explosion on July 26 at the site “was caused by poor storage” and high temperatures and that no breach of Iraqi airspace had been detected. n the meantime, The US-led military coalition in Iraq said it did not launch any airstrikes in Iraq or Syria on July 26.

Over the past months, a series of similar large explosions at munitions storage sites across Iraq occurred in the summer of 2019. Iran-linked militias in Iraq have been targeted by hundreds of airstrikes across the border in neighbouring Syria. These strikes were supported by the United States in a bid to prevent Iranian weapons from reaching militias close to Israel’s borders.

Although the Iraqi government in 2019 grounded all US-led coalition aircraft upon request from pro-Iran political groups and Iraq’s Prime Minister al-Kadhimi and US President Biden agreed to end US combat operations in Iraq, the agreement between the two parties does not seem to convince these militias that the US troops will leave the country by the end of the year because some 2500 US military advisers will remain, according to this agreement.

Following a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the White House, the US President Biden told reporters that troops would remain “to continue to train, to assist, to help and to deal [with] Isis as it arises”, adding: “We’re not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat zone.”

Most importantly, Iran’s proxies of Shiite militias will likely continue attacking US personnel because they think that the agreement of the end of conflict US operations does not change the US role in the country. Indeed, this thinking might have some tangible evidence since the US troops in Iraq have already shifted towards training tasks such as providing advice, training and support in recent years. This means that the US withdrawal from Iraq will mainly take place on paper. It seems that the Biden Administration thinks that the removal of 2500 US troops that are currently deployed in the country will prevent the United States from continuing its counter-terrorism operations there.

Iran-aligned Shiite militias reactions to US withdrawal plan

Over the past few months and after the deaths of the powerful militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhadis who was killed when accompanying Qasem Suleimani, the head of Quds Force, the external military wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iraq’s Prime Minister al-Kadhimi has tried to check the power of these militias and wanted to please a large number of pro-Iran parliamentarians who voted in favour of the expulsion of US troops to guarantee his control over them, but he failed. He has ended up being caught between the two most influential external parties in Iraq, Washington and Tehran.

However, after the announcement about the agreement between Biden and Kadhimi on U.S. troops departure from Iraq, Abu Ali al-Askari, a senior in the pro-Iran Shiite militia Kata’ib Hezbollah  Brigade said on Tuesday that his group was liaising with other parties to come up with a position that considers the amount of “fallacies” in the US-Iraqi announcement.

Askari’s statement indicates the rift between members of the coordination committee of pro-Iran militias in Iraq such as Kata’ib Hezbollah Brigade, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Hezbollah al-Nujaba’a and the Badr organization is widening. The Shiite ‘Fath’ political alliance which is dominated by Badr hailed the US Iraq agreement as a “national achievement”.

Meanwhile, the spokesperson of the political office of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq’s Sadeqoun said that all celebrations about the agreement with the United States are meaningless, unless “all foreign forces” leave Iraq.

Qaani: The wrong man in the wrong position

Most Iraq observers think that Esmail Qaani, an Iranian commander of the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force – a clandestine group at the apex of the Iranian military’s foreign operations, which had been instrumental in Iraq’s affairs through war, insurrection and now relative peace has a difficult job ahead to keep Iran-aligned Shiite militias in order.

Qaani spent twelve years serving the Quds Force’s operations in Afghanistan. This means that he had no experience in Iraq or Syria and does not speak Arabic. More importantly, he does not have a rapport with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamanei, or his office. On paper, the role he plays is the same as his predecessor Qasem Suleimani, a unique combination of Special Forces commander, intelligence chief and presidential envoy. Suleimani was killed in Iraq by a US drone near Baghdad airport on 3 January 2020. However, Qaani clearly lacks the latter element – the most essential of the trilogy.

This renders Qaani to be too weak to convince the pro-Iran Shiite militias that it was not in their interests to continue to fire rockets at the US embassy in the Green Zone in Baghdad, or at Erbil airport in northern Iraq, where US forces remain.

Most importantly, a large number of pro-Iran groups know that Qa’ani is not necessarily carrying the Supreme Leader’s word. So, they’re prepared to defy him, thinking they are in an equal contest for Khamenei’s attention.”

Over the first six months of the Biden administration, the Shiite militias have increased their power display, defying the national army and a government that had staked its mandate on reining them in. Despite the firm tone taken by Iraq’s prime minister al-Kadhimi, when he took office 18 months ago, his government’s responses have remained largely rhetorical. The reluctance to control these militias has empowered them more and encouraged them to accumulate more arms and further penetrate state institutions.

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.