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The Rise of Shia Militias in Iraq Will Not Hand the Country to Iran

Shia militia in Tikrit
Fighters of the Shia militia al-Hashd al-Shaby control the streets of Tikrit, where a few members of the ISIS are still entrenched, Tikrit, Iraq, 5 April 2015. Photo Corbis

The fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June 2014 to fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the group’s ability quickly and decisively to assert authority over the city and the vast surrounding areas revealed the incompetence of Iraq’s conventional armed forces.

It is estimated that 50,000 Iraqi soldiers dropped their weapons at the gates of Mosul and fled, quickly giving ISIS a claim not only to their “caliphate” but also territory that would allow them to link up with the large areas they already controlled in Iraq and Syria. Along with a treasure trove of funds, arms, and recruits and the ability to collect taxes, enforce laws, and even issue their own currency gives them a base from which they can launch effective and brutal attacks against Christians, Yazidis, Kurds, and the disorganized Iraqi armed forces. The army is plagued by the rampant corruption and nepotism that has been pervasive in Iraq and its political order since the US invasion.

Almost immediately, a new conglomeration of forty equally zealous, disparate Shia groups that espouse an efficient brutality like that of ISIS and that had previously operated autonomously coalesced under Iran’s guidance and formed the largest militia in Iraq, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), also known as the Peoples’ Mobilization or National Mobilization (al-Hashd al-Shaby). It became in short order the most effective force against the now renamed Islamic State (IS) in Iraq.

As the scenario of the fall of Mosul was repeated again and again in Iraq, from Tikrit to Ramadi, al-Hashd became stronger and more militarily disciplined, with an impressive command-and-control structure, sophisticated weapons, and direct links to the al-Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), under the direct command of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. The command is officially (although nominally) held by the Iraqi Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the Badr Brigade, which he has commanded since 1982, after he fled Iraq to Iran to fight with the Iranians against his own country during the eight-year Iraq-Iran war.

Al-Ameri not only talks about cooperating with American military advisers on the ground and receiving close air support from the Americans, Jordanians, and others but has also claimed that that such battlefield coordination has produced remarkable results against IS. This suggests that IS, by its audacious, ambitious war, has brought together strange bedfellows that may bring about its demise.

The rise of al-Hashd (PMU) has also alarmed Washington’s Iraq watchers and the Sunni countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). They fear that Tehran is cementing its “hegemony” over Iraq and that this will only expand and consolidate Iran’s hegemonic grip on the Middle East.

They argue that Iranian hegemony over Iraq, already visible in every aspect of Iraq’s bloody daily life, will enable Tehran to install a client government in Iraq. The exponents of this view, in Washington and elsewhere, point to the growing power of the Tehran-backed Shia group al-Hashd in fighting IS as proof that Iran is planting a “deep state” in Iraq, allegedly similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Such concerns may be legitimate, as the Shia paramilitary forces are undoubtedly on the rise in Iraq. This may sharpen sectarian fault lines, because these militias resort to a similar brutality against the population when they manage to repel IS. David Petraeus, who commanded US troops in Iraq in 2007-2008, has, in an interview with the Washington Post, voiced concerns over reports of sectarian atrocities committed by the PMU and Iraqi security forces.

Human Rights Watch has accused the PMU of looting and destroying Sunni Arab property. They warn that, although PMU commanders have invariably condemned these acts and promised to bring the perpetrators to justice, their recurrence is likely to exacerbate the chronic distrust between Sunni Arabs and the Shia groups that make up the security backbone of the central government in Baghdad.

There are dozens of Shia militias in Iraq. The oldest date back to the days of the US occupation before 2011 and are clearly proxies of Iran. They receive training and weapons from the IRGC and are dedicated to implementing Iran’s ideological system of governance in Iraq.

But experts on Iraq’s armed groups believe that Iran may not want any of these groups to become powerful enough to break off and pursue its own agenda. To prevent this, it maintains multiple proxy militias competing against each other. Among the main proxies are Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which developed particularly close relations with ex-Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki; Kataib Hezbollah (with its front group Saraya al-Difaa al-Shabi); and the Badr Organization. All three of these organizations have been participating in the Iraqi government’s military efforts in Anbar since the beginning of 2014, when Fallujah and parts of Ramadi first fell from government control.

There are other Iranian proxies too, including Saraya al-Khorasani, Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, and Harakat al-Nujaba. These groups make no attempt to hide their ideological affinities with Iran, featuring portraits of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei on their social-media sites and “martyrdom” funeral banners for slain fighters.

Besides the direct Iranian proxies, there are several other Shia militias, the vast majority of which can be tied to one Shia political figure or another. The best known of these is undoubtedly Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades), the reconstituted Mahdi Army of the Iraqi Islamist political leader Muqtada al-Sadr. The militia known as Liwa al-Shabab al-Risali claims legitimacy through the Najaf-based cleric Ayatollah Mohammad al-Yaqoubi and ties itself to the legacy of Muqtada al-Sadr’s father, Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr. There are also Sadrist-leaning militia brands, such as Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar, that first emerged in Syria but have since withdrawn to Iraq.

Though there are many other groups with close ties to Iran, Tehran’s long-term influence in Iraq is greatly exaggerated, despite the fact that they have coalesced in opposition to ISIS. Perceptions of the reality on the ground may be distorted.

To be sure, there are still significant factors that undermine the prospects of al-Hashd (PMU) becoming a force operating on behalf of Tehran outside the jurisdiction of Baghdad. While it is certain that most of Iraq’s Shia citizens desire a prosperous and successful Iran next door, it would be a stretch to claim that they favour turning their land into an Iranian satellite state.