Iran-backed militias are in Iraq to stay

On July 1, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi issued a decree directing that militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) take a series of steps to subjugate themselves to the Iraqi state. According to the order, those groups failing to comply by July 31 will be treated as outlaws.

Don’t hold your breath. The odds are high that the deadline will come and go with no meaningful curtailment in the power of the PMF—at least not those Shiite elements allied with Iran, its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, the IRGC’s deadly expeditionary arm. Iran’s proxies in Iraq may pretend to comply with the decree. The Iraqi government may pretend to enforce it. But U.S. officials should be under no illusions. Rather than enhancing the government’s control over the PMF, the order is more likely to have the opposite effect, further entrenching Iran’s chokehold on the Iraqi state.

I very much hope that I’m wrong. Iraq’s success is deeply personal for me—and not just because I was a senior official in the George W. Bush administration who strongly backed the decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power. I know Mahdi well. I consider him to be a friend and a strong proponent of the U.S.-Iraqi relationship. During my time in government, we spent many hours arguing about developments in Iraq, and his assessments generally proved more right than wrong. I very much want to believe that will be the case now as well with respect to his efforts to rein in the PMF. But I fear that it won’t be.

The bottom line is that Mahdi is too weak and Iran’s proxies too strong. The prime minister has the support of no political party. He controls no voting bloc in parliament. He got his position through a negotiated compromise in which Iran and its proxies had a major hand. Although a skilled and restrained technocrat, he’s not a natural political leader capable of mobilizing latent Iraqi nationalism in defense of the country’s rapidly receding independence. But that’s what is most needed if Iraq is to have any near-term chance of resisting Suleimani’s power play.

In total, the PMF numbers about 130,000 to 150,000 fighters. Groups directly answerable to the IRGC make up a significant portion of that force and are far and away its most powerful element. These include the U.S.-designated terrorist militias Kataib Hezbollah and Hezbollah al-Nujaba, as well as the Badr Organization and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. In the wake of the 2003 Iraq War, several of these groups worked hand in glove with the IRGC to kill over 600 U.S. troops. They also systematically intimidated, extorted, terrorized, tortured, and killed thousands of Iraqi civilians with the aim of forcing the population to bend the knee to their vision of a pro-Iranian, Islamist Iraq.

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