Mustafa al-Kadhimi is better placed than many of his predecessors to cement the Iraqi state’s authority, but independent armed groups are pushing back.
[You must be registered and logged in to see this image.]
When Mustafa al-Kadhimi was sworn in as Iraq’s new prime minister on May 7, one of his main pledges was to bring every armed group in the country under state control, after almost two decades of nonstate actors wielding significant influence over the government.
Recent arrests in Baghdad show just how difficult that will be.
Overnight on June 25, members of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service raided the southern Baghdad headquarters of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), a state-sponsored umbrella organization that includes several quasi-independent paramilitary groups. They arrested over a dozen members of the PMU’s 45th Brigade, which answers to the Iran-linked Shiite armed group Kataib Hezbollah.
Kataib Hezbollah is one of the PMU’s largest individual groups and is controversial in Iraq because it has long received funding, training, and other forms of support from Iran’s military and religious establishments and it makes no secret of its loyalty to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It has been accused of engaging in extrajudicial activities, killing and kidnapping protesters, activists, and other civilians. The United States officially designated it a terrorist organization in 2009 for “committing or posing a significant risk of committing acts of terrorism.”
The June arrests came in the wake of repeated attacks on Iraqi facilities hosting international coalition troops, presumably by armed groups linked to Iran operating around the country. Details of this particular raid are murky, but most of those detained had been released by June 29.
A statement issued by the Iraqi Army’s Joint Operations Command claimed that 14 “defendants” had been arrested, noting that “[a]ccurate intelligence was available on people who had previously targeted the Green Zone and Baghdad International Airport with indirect fire several times.”
Kataib Hezbollah spokesperson Jaafar al-Husseini told Foreign Policy in a WhatsApp voice message that those who had been arrested were involved in logistical support for the group.
He warned that “there is no local, regional, or international power that will be able to take the weapons out of the hands of the muqawama,” referring to the “resistance” axis spanning from Iran to Lebanon. He accused Kadhimi of simply “trying to impress the Americans.”
Kataib Hezbollah is widely considered the greatest challenge to the Iraqi government’s aspirations to exert a monopoly of force over its territory, and moves against it will likely serve as a test case for other Iran-linked groups operating in the country.
The PMU was officially formed in June 2014 through a fatwa issued by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani after the Islamic State took over the Iraqi city of Mosul and has since been incorporated into the state’s official forces. The group was deployed widely by the government during its campaign against the Islamic State and played a significant role in retaking large swaths of Iraqi territory. Despite the government’s attempt to extend its authority over the organization, many of its affiliated groups continue to operate at least partially outside of state control.
In its attempt to exert the state’s authority, the government has granted the PMU some of the protections and benefits usually reserved for other national forces, such as the right to an internal judge and court, as well as government salaries and pensions. The aim of these initiatives, presumably, is to absorb some of the moderate elements more deeply into the state and, therefore, bring them under tighter government control.
There are other signs that Kadhimi’s government is working to undermine the influence of individual PMU factions that continue to act autonomously. Foreign Policy reported in May that four PMU groups linked to Iraq’s holy shrines “would be placed directly under the prime minister’s office,” signaling “an attempt to draw some of the factions from the more than 100,000-strong motley fighting force further away from Iranian and Kataib Hezbollah influence.”
Kadhimi’s government is also prepared to crack down on their resource stream. Smuggling has long been a lucrative source of income for whoever controls unofficial routes between Iraq, Syria, and Iran, and sources on Iraq’s western border said smuggling routes in the area have been controlled by Iran-linked nonstate actors since the defeat of the Islamic State there in 2017. Many of these groups have been accused of partially using these activities to fund themselves.
On July 11, Kadhimi visited Iraq’s Mandali border crossing with Iran as part of a campaign to fight corruption in the customs services. “The first phase [of this campaign] is to protect border crossings with new security forces,” Kadhimi said during his visit. “The second is to fight ‘ghosts’ trying to blackmail Iraqis,” he added, using a term that has at times been used to refer to Kataib Hezbollah.
[You must be registered and logged in to see this link.]