IRBIL, IRAQI KURDISTAN: Iran-backed Iraqi militias have rejected the results of the Iraqi parliamentary elections in October, in which their political wings fared poorly, and elements among them may well have been behind the assassination attempt on the life of Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi earlier have month.
But on a practical level, can anything be done about the vicious threat posed by Iraq’s pro-Iranian militias?
For years there have been widespread fears that the Iran-backed elements of Hashd Al-Shaabi (or Popular Mobilization Forces) have amassed enough fighters and weapons to outperform the Iraqi security forces and pose a Hezbollah-style threat to the Iraqi government and state .
This could lead to a “Lebanonization” of Iraq – a situation in which a powerful, well-armed Iranian deputy, borrowing Hezbollah’s game book, forcibly imposes his will on the country at the behest of Tehran.
How likely is such an outcome in Iraq today, where powerful armed opposition elements are questioning the outcome of an election monitored by the UN and even praised by the Security Council?
“The militias are a serious threat, but the Iraqi government and security forces are stronger – unlike Lebanon and Hezbollah,” David Pollock, Bernstein Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Arab News.
Nevertheless, the fight against the militias could prove to be a challenge, even if they are not militarily stronger than the state. As a result, Baghdad may need foreign support. But who could help?
The US has maintained a small troop presence in Iraq as part of the multinational coalition it led against Daesh.
According to an agreement with the Iraqi government, however, from the end of this year these troops will only be allowed to serve as advisors and trainers for Iraqi and Kurdish security forces.
NATO is taking on a more active mission in Iraq, but this will also be a non-combat training mission to help Iraqi forces fight Daesh and prevent its resurgence.
“The main responsibility rests with Iraq, not foreign aid. But friendly powers support Iraq, and the US armed forces will only continue this mission after this year with a new title, “said Pollock.
“Arab governments should also contribute more to Iraq’s economy and public life in order to offset Iran’s interference by its militias. The trend has even been positive over the past two years, and the election results largely confirm this. “
Al-Kadhimi made significant diplomatic efforts during his brief tenure to foster closer ties between Iraq and other Arab countries. He has forged improved ties with Egypt and Jordan, leading to a state visit by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to Iraq this summer, the first trip by an Egyptian guide to Iraq in 30 years.
The general consensus is that closer economic and political ties with these Arab countries, along with the Arab Gulf states, could, over time, help lessen Tehran’s gross influence on Iraqi affairs.
Joel Wing, author of Musings on Iraq, believes it is premature to make comparisons between Lebanon and Iraq.
“In Iraq every group wants to be part of the state so that it can exploit the oil money,” he told Arab News.
The Iraqi Shiite militias are, of course, not a single monolith eager to fulfill Iran’s commandments in the country. The influential Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada Al-Sadr, for example, has often opposed Iran’s influence in the country and called for the dissolution and disarmament of militias outside of state control.
His alliance was victorious in the elections and won far more seats in parliament than the Iranian-backed political blocs.
Wing pointed out that the sadrists and the Iran-backed factions had fought each other in the past.
“The Sadrists and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq had a long struggle for control of southern Iraq during the US occupation,” he said.
“Operation Charge of Knights in 2008 was Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s attempt to eliminate his rival Muqtada Al-Sadr. So you already have a precedent for Shiite parties fighting each other. “
Wing also noted that the militias have been running amok in Iraq for nearly 20 years. “Militias have had the power to do what they want to a large extent since 2003. This is because they were part of the government and were supported by it. That doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon, ”he told Arab News.
Still, Wing believes that foreign support to the Baghdad government and security forces remains important to Iraq’s future.
“The role of the West is to continue to support the Iraqi government and security forces,” he said.
“This is not a perfect formula because there are all sorts of problems with both of them, but withdrawing would give pro-Iranian forces even more leverage in the country.”
Emily Hawthorne, Stratfors senior analyst for the Middle East and North Africa at RANE, told Arab News that there appears to be no evidence that the Iraqi militias are “putting aside their aggressive tactics despite government pressure.”
“But continued violence will mean they will have to tolerate wider, public backlash against their actions, which will negatively affect their popularity in the elections,” she said.
Much like Wing and Pollock, Hawthorne doubts Iraq is on the verge of becoming another Lebanon.
“Both the Lebanese and Iraqi governments are struggling to exercise full control over state authority,” she said.
“But one big difference between Iraq and Lebanon is that the Iraqi federal armed forces are more closed, well armed and well trained compared to the non-state militias operating in the country. In Lebanon, however, Hezbollah is heavily armed and could challenge the Lebanese federal forces if it wanted to. ”
Hawthorne does not rule out the possibility of an intra-Shiite civil war in Iraq, but says that it will “be more political than a violent conflict on the streets.”
She believes that while Iraq must take the lead in any anti-militia initiative, foreign aid remains a very important factor.
“It is true that Baghdad will be largely alone in its struggle with the Iran-backed militias for control,” Hawthorne told Arab News.
“But the international support that the Iraqi government has and that the militias lack is helping Baghdad obtain the financial and military aid that will help the federal government get the upper hand.”