Iranian-backed forces take over Iraq
    International review by Mikhail Shereshevskiy

    ANALYTICS  18 May 2023 - 16:59

    Mikhail Shereshevskiy

    The London-based Middle East Eye recently issued a report on the pro-Iranian forces in Iraq. The report claims that the number of fighters of the armed group Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces or PMF) has doubled in the past couple of years up to 200,000 people becoming the third largest military force in the country.

    The proposed Iraqi state budget for 2023, which the government presented to parliament last month, shows that the PMF is only half the size of the regular armed forces. If the new budget is adopted, the pro-Iranian militias will receive 3.56 trillion Iraqi dinars ($2.7 billion).

    The PMF is an umbrella organisation that includes many separate militias with independent leaders. They are sometimes thought to more or less abide by the decisions of the organisation's leadership, which is something like a council of field commanders.

    Nevertheless, it is questionable whether there is harsh discipline within the grouping. At one time, the most powerful militia within the PMF, Kataib Hezbollah, attempted to consolidate power, but there is no objective information on the extent to which he succeeded. There is, however, no question that the groups are funded by the Iraqi budget.

    According to a Middle East Eye report, these pro-Iranian militias, which in 2018 became an official state-backed paramilitary force, now require $2.7 billion from the treasury. The fighters in most of the formations are paid as civil servants and are considered part of the Iraqi armed forces. In practice, however, they operate independently. Most are not subject to orders from the army commander-in-chief.

    Moreover, some of the militias are highly influential within the state structure. For example, the Badr group, led by Hadi al-Amiri, largely controls the Iraqi Interior Ministry. Moreover, Badr and a number of other militias are linked to the Coordination Mechanism party group, which is now in power in the country as the core of a broad governing coalition. Moreover, these groups control various businesses, including illegal ones, and hold some border crossings under their control.

    But how were the Iranians able to create such a powerful network inside another country that is closely linked to them and is paid from the Iraqi treasury?

    The Iranians are adept at exploiting circumstances of place and time, and they are also good at waiting. The PMF was established in 2014 after a fatwa by the great Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The spiritual leader of Iraqi Shiites is not a supporter of Iran. However, at the time, ISIS was advancing on the capital Baghdad. ISIS posed a deadly threat to Shiites, who make up more than 60 per cent of Iraq's 40 million inhabitants. Sistani, therefore, called on men to stand up for Baghdad. As a result, huge numbers of men, overwhelmingly Shiite, began rallying under the banners of various units.

    The problem was that by then the Iranians had already managed to establish dozens of small armed Shiite brigades in Iraq, led by men close to them. Groups such as Badr had emerged as early as the 1980s. Some, such as Kataib Hezbollah, are closely linked to the Iranian IRGC.

    Some of these groups have threatened Israel for years, such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba group, following instructions from the Iranians. It was these brigades that formed the backbone of the PMF, which then involved some 100,000 militiamen. The militias received military support not only from the Iraqi government but also from the Iranian leadership.

    The CNM was supported and largely managed by the late leader of the Quds Force (elite IRGC units), Qassem Soleimani. Another man close to Iran, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, was at the head of the PMF. Both were killed on January 3, 2020, by a US drone-fired missile. However, the PMF did not go anywhere. Having played an important role in defeating ISIS, they have embarked on other tasks, both domestic and foreign, ranging from expanding political and economic control over Iraq to firing missiles at US bases in Iraq and Syria.

    The tasks that the PMF is undertaking are quite varied. In 2017, for example, Qassem Soleimani and the Iraqi government used them to disrupt the referendum on Iraqi Kurdistan's independence. Shiite militias entered the city of Kirkuk and drove Kurdish peshmerga militias out of there.

    Throughout the Syrian civil war, militias that were part of the PMF assisted Bashar al-Assad's pro-Iranian regime in suppressing the uprising inside the country.

    Today, the various militias that make up the PMF control parts of Iraq. This is essentially the same model of politico-military intervention that the Iranians have used from Syria and Lebanon to Yemen. By supporting and arming strong Tehran-oriented non-state actors, the Iranian leadership is simultaneously weakening local state structures, thereby subordinating an entire country to its interests.

    But the militias, as mentioned above, are also pursuing other goals. In particular, they exert armed pressure on certain forces that are undesirable to Iran, such as the American and Turkish military forces present in Iraq, occasionally attacking their bases.

    The militias have also become a leading force in suppressing protests by the Iraqi poor, working class, and student population. In 2019, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis angered by poverty, corruption, and lack of basic social services (medical care, electricity, clean water, etc.) took to the streets.

    Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Khorasan Brigade took part in the shootings and kidnappings of social movement activists. There is evidence that the Iranian government has also used these groups to repress similar protests on its own territory. In this way, the PMF protects the interests of the ruling classes in the region by suppressing grassroots activism. Lebanon's Hezbollah played the same role in its own country, suppressing protests in 2019-2020.

    Now pro-Iranian groups want even more money for a shadowy militia army. However, it remains unclear whether all these men are actually under arms, or whether they are largely ghost units that exist only on paper. It is known that the actual number of troops in Iraq can be much lower than what is officially reported; as a result, the military leadership embezzles the money allocated to maintain non-existent soldiers.

    So are there really 200,000 fighters in the PMF today? "There is no certainty that these figures accurately reflect the real number of PMF personnel, as they and other security forces units are suspected of inflating the number of people in their ranks in order to siphon government funds for other uses," the Middle East Eye report notes.

    By infiltrating the state systems of Middle Eastern states, the Iranians are not only undermining them but also corrupting them. Another undeclared but very real goal is to siphon funds from the Iraqi budget to enrich a small group of the organisation's commanders and those in Iran associated with them.


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