[size=30]An American report answers... How did Iran-backed groups take over Iraq?
[ltr]2023.03.25 - 14:56[/ltr]
[ltr]2023.03.25 - 14:56[/ltr]
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Baghdad - Nas
The slow process of regime change has focused on taking over US-backed institutions in order to counter American interests, highlighting the threat that zealous and well-funded groups pose to developing democracies.
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The report, which was followed by "NAS", (March 25, 2023), indicated that the invasion and occupation of Iraq led by the United States in 2003 led to a painful and gradual transition from dictatorship to parliamentary democracy full of impurities. This story is now well known. But two decades later, a new process of regime change is underway, backed by Iran, and using a completely different model, timeframe, and toolkit to support a local Iraqi partner force, calling itself the "Islamic Resistance in Iraq" or "resistance."
Below is the text of the report:
Despite severe setbacks in 2020 and 2021 that nearly caused the group's defeat, today the "resistance" controls the Iraqi state. Through "soft warfare" and the use (and misuse) of the legal system and courts, the militia coalition has achieved a successful combination that uses largely non-kinetic tools to build a tripartite power that includes the judiciary, the civil and military sides of the executive, and the legislature as well. Thus, the losers in the 2021 Iraqi elections were crowned as winners in the process of forming his government a year after those elections, i.e. in October 2022. This is the story of the latest processes of change affecting the regime in Iraq.
Actors of Change: The Iraqi "Resistance".
The post-2003 history of Iraq is subject to the hegemony of Iran and the changing fortunes of the "resistance". This alternative coalition arrived shortly after the arrival of the US forces, and worked from the start to ensure that Iraq did not turn into a secular democracy. Instead, he sought to build what he called the "Shiite project," with Iraq being the first country in the Arab world to be dominated by Shiites, with the aim of preventing the re-emergence of a Sunni power base from Iraq.
And the "resistance" is a group of mostly Shiite militias, and since its inception it has received the support of the "Quds Force" of the Iranian "Islamic Revolutionary Guard". Its most widespread militias include Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, all of which are designated foreign terrorist organizations and sanctioned by the US government. These groups and other smaller militias form the nucleus of the "resistance," but they often compete internally. Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq are also openly involved in Iraqi politics through their two affiliated political parties, the Rights Movement and the Sadiqoon Bloc, respectively, and through membership in the Shiite Coordination Framework, i.e. The bloc that brings together the Shiite parties.
These militias and their predecessors had long opposed the United States and its partners during the post-2003 occupation. They also participated actively and enthusiastically in the sectarian civil war in Iraq. Although the Iraqi constitution bans these militias as non-state militias under Article 9(b), they were allowed to gain prominence between 2011 and 2014 under then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who questioned the loyalty of the official Iraqi army. . With the rise of the Islamic State in 2014, the militias became essential reinforcements in the international campaign to defeat the caliphate. In this regard, al-Maliki used executive orders that were later followed in 2016 by a law allowing militias to bear arms and receive support and funding from the government as a new branch of the Iraqi military forces known as the Popular Mobilization Forces.
With the decline of the Islamic State by 2018, the "resistance" shifted its focus to driving the United States out of Iraq and securing control of the Iraqi state. The commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qassem Soleimani, supported Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the de facto commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces and a veteran of Kataib Hezbollah, in order to implement an opportunistic plan to seize the Iraqi state by military means. political and legal. But this plan was thwarted in 2019, first by the emergence of an Iraqi popular protest movement (the “Tishreen Movement”), and then by a series of escalations against US forces that led to the Trump administration’s controversial (and likely illegal) decision to kill Soleimani and Muhandis in January. January 2020, by a drone strike at Baghdad Airport.
The "resistance" was surprised by the protests and strikes that were carried out at the leadership level, and it temporarily lost momentum. Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who was controlled by the "resistance", resigned, and was replaced in May 2020 by Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kazemi, who began a campaign of investigations, arrests and torture that, according to reports, targeted "resistance" militiamen involved in crimes, including the killing of activists and journalists. , carrying out attacks on the United States, and corruption.
By 2021, the militias are exhausted. US forces remained in Iraq, and militia-backed candidates failed in the October 2021 national elections, adding to the humiliation of the "resistance". Together with the "Shiite coordination framework", it tried to overthrow the election results several times, first through legal means, then by launching paramilitary attacks on government areas in Baghdad, and finally by attempting to assassinate Al-Kazemi in November 2021. These efforts failed and the "resistance" came close to On defeat. Then everything changed.
Regime change through legal warfare
At the end of 2022, the "resistance" abandoned direct objection to the election results and came up with a new and more successful strategy centered around the "Supreme Judicial Council" in Iraq and its president, Judge Faeq Zaidan. In a series of legal rulings issued between January and February 2022, the Council changed the rules of the game regarding government formation, making it almost impossible to form a government without a supermajority that includes militias and the Shiite coordination framework. In a key ruling issued in February 2022, the Council effectively raised the required quorum in the House of Representatives to vote to choose a president and form a cabinet, by reinterpreting Article 70 of the Iraqi constitution, which was previously understood to require the presence of a majority of two-thirds of the deputies. To vote (the requirement for a quorum for the House of Representatives is a simple majority of the total members). This gave the "Shia coordinating framework" and followers "
Subsequently, the "resistance" factions split the majority coalition that opposed them: first, the "resistance" terrorized other political opponents such as the Kurds through legal attacks (including influencing the Supreme Court to dust off a ten-year-old legal case that was not debated After that, I ruled that the Kurdish government in Erbil should hand over all the Kurdish region’s oil to the Baghdad government. This coincided with the bombing of missiles, missiles and drones belonging to Iran and the "resistance". Subsequently, the militias used the blocking third to impatience with their main Shiite opponent, the populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who withdrew his deputies from Parliament, which led to a redistribution of their seats in favor of candidates allied with the militias in the first place. Then the redistribution process allowed the "Shia coordinating framework"
The law and the courts played a major role in the emergence and fall of the "resistance", and then its emergence again. This cannot be explained without understanding the militias' obsession with soft warfare and legal warfare. While kinetic missile, drone, and improvised explosive device attacks against US forces receive the most Western attention, the use and abuse of law and the courts are a key strategy pursued by militias, and they have played a crucial role in the country's takeover effort over the past five years.
Together with our colleague Hamdi Malik, we shed light on this use of legal warfare two years ago, pointing to the time and effort devoted by the "resistance" in order to announce its interest in the law and its role as its defender. This stems from the militias' awareness of the possibilities of using local and international legal institutions to constrain and discredit their most powerful opponents militarily. In 2021, we indicated that:
The legitimacy of the “resistance” extends beyond mere topics of discussion, but has become an essential part of the groups’ strategy to achieve its goals. Legal conferences are organized in Iraq to raise awareness about the legal positions and ideology of the “resistance.” Today, it constantly threatens its opponents with legal action. Legal arguments form part of it. increasing information and propaganda operations of the militias.
Soft warfare has proven to be far more successful than kinetic efforts. By seizing the courts, then the legislative authority, and finally the prime minister's office, the "resistance" returned to power without getting close to obtaining the elected majority. The militias are now rewriting the law to ensure their continued hold on power.
Fostering State Capture: The Struggle for Legitimacy
The "resistance" and its affiliated political movements are explicit about their influence in the new Iraqi administration led by Prime Minister Muhammad Shi'a al-Sudani. In December, Qais Khazali (leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which the United States classifies as a terrorist organization) described the Sudanese prime minister as a "director general," adding that "a distinction has been made between state decisions and government administration... He should not monopolize The prime minister is the state’s decisions, but [he] has to refer to the “coordinating framework” [allied with the militias]...to take strategic decisions, whether political, economic or security.”
Meanwhile, in January, MP Ali Turki of Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq described al-Sudani's government as a "government of resistance," adding that "the 'resistance' has come to represent Iraq's official viewpoint, and it is the one running the wheel today." No government official has corrected his statements. In fact, Al-Sudani appointed a member of Asaib Ahl al-Haq as the director of his media office. Therefore, it becomes clear that the "resistance" believes that its word has become decisive in the decision-making process in the Iraqi government, a situation completely opposite to what prevailed only twelve months ago when its influence was diminishing.
Having taken over the state, the militias are now seeking to consolidate their gains, but that will require them to overcome an acute lack of legitimacy. The "resistance" has realized (first through the "October" protests in 2019 and then from the clashes with the Sadrist movement until 2022) that it does not have majority support even among Iraqi Shiites. I also realized under Al-Kazemi's administration that the state and its laws could be used against the "resistance" project. Today, it cannot point to electoral victory as a source of its legitimacy. As a result, the militias are using their new powers to review laws and re-staff agencies to silence critics, reduce the risks posed by democratic elections, and strengthen the "resistance"'s parallel security services and give them full legal status.
Addressing the problem of legitimacy of the "popular crowd"
Questions have been raised about the legal status enjoyed by the “Popular Mobilization Forces” since its establishment in 2014 when calling for arms to resist the “Islamic State” organization. These questions included whether a militia outside the control of the Iraqi armed forces was legal under the constitution, and partial answers were provided with the adoption of Law No. 40 of 2016: the Popular Mobilization Authority Law. Specifically, the government has been unable to control these armed units, which are most likely subservient to Iran or internationally sanctioned militias such as Kataib Hezbollah, but not to the Iraqi government. This led to regular rumors, particularly among the militias themselves, about the government's intention to reform or even disband the PMF.
Today, the opposite is true. As Iran wanted, the PMF increasingly resembled the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In one of its first actions, Sudani's new government granted the PMF the right to form a contracting company called "The Engineer," after the slain terrorist leader. Both former Iraqi prime ministers have previously confronted this company, which clearly resembles the construction company Khatam al-Anbiya (which is subject to United Nations, United States, and European Union sanctions) and is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Today, the Popular Mobilization Forces can even deploy in Syria as part of relief efforts after the earthquake that struck the country. Al-Hashd units have previously deployed in Syria in support of the "resistance" and Iranian efforts without obtaining permission from the official Iraqi chain of command. In February, the “Popular Mobilization Forces” received legal orders to enter Syria along with its two highest-ranking commanders, namely its president, Faleh al-Fayyad, who is classified on the American list of human rights violations, and its chief of staff, Abdel Aziz al-Muhammadawi (Abu Fadak), who is classified on the American terrorist list. Formalizing the PMF's extraterritorial reach will almost certainly improve its cross-border coordination with the Syrian Assad government, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Iranian facilitation networks.
Silencing the critics
Iraqi government agencies are now also being used to silence critics. In 2022, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and other militias put pressure on the Communications and Media Commission, effectively controlling its six-member board of directors. Since then, the CMC has increasingly tried to silence opponents of the "resistance" by imposing restrictions and other controls on media channels and their presenters.
The "resistance" is increasingly resorting to techniques of legal warfare, in particular defamation lawsuits. In December, a lawyer linked to the "resistance" filed a lawsuit in an Iraqi court against a TV presenter known for covering taboo topics on his talk show, asking the judiciary to ban him from entering the country. The same lawyer, together with one of the "resistance" officials, filed a joint lawsuit against Ahmed al-Bashir, a political critic known as "Iraq's Jon Stewart" who often takes on Iraqi political extremists.
Perhaps the most ambitious way in which the "resistance" seeks to silence its critics is to nullify as many of their voices as possible. The October 2021 elections were a humiliating blow for many militias. Candidates backed by Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah performed poorly, exhausting the Iran-aligned bloc in Parliament. Only the intervention of the Supreme Judicial Council saved the militias from remaining completely outside the government. In order to improve the performance of the "Shia coordination framework" in future elections, this framework introduced legislation designed to amend the Iraqi election law. This amendment passed its first parliamentary reading in February and, if enacted, would re-adopt the Saint-Légue electoral method of allocating seats between political parties based on a party-list proportional representation system. Existing parties, such as the parties of
The current electoral system in Iraq, which rejected the St. Legault method, was adopted in response to the October protests in 2019 and was designed to encourage independents and small parties in an effort to improve voting rights and political expression in the country. It is almost certain that attempts to amend this law aim to consolidate the control of the "coordinating framework" on power, while Al-Sudani promises to hold early elections as soon as the election law is approved.
expel the occupiers?
Since the founding of the Iraqi "resistance", its main stated goal has been the expulsion of US forces from Iraq. Although the United States returned to Iraq in 2014 to help fight the Islamic State, American forces have been involved in the gray zone conflict with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and "resistance" forces in Iraq and Syria since at least 2018. The legal status that Washington enjoys in Iraq is based mainly on the approval of the Iraqi government. In 2021, the Kadhimi administration agreed to "transition to the role of training, mentoring, assistance, and intelligence sharing, [with] no US forces in a combat role in Iraq by December 31, 2021."
Currently, in the presence of a prime minister friendly to the "coordinating framework" and the militias, that is, al-Sudani, both may finally have the ability to withdraw approval, as well as the legal basis for the continuation of any American presence, which is what the militias have called for since the killing of Soleimani and the engineer in January 2020. For now, Al-Sudani has signaled his willingness to maintain the status quo, a position that political parties affiliated with the militias have cautiously supported. But even short of a complete expulsion, the United States' freedom of action inside the country is almost certainly restricted.
Lessons learned for the future
Twenty years ago, the United States and its allies overthrew the ruling Baath Party. Since then, Tehran and its proxies have worked to usurp the flawed democracy that replaced Saddam Hussein's regime. Despite two decades of Western investment and training, Iranian-backed Iraqi militias succeeded in taking over the country.
This new change in the system shows that regimes can be usurped through the careful exploitation of the legal and political institutions that the United States helped develop after 2003. In other words, the institutions that the United States supported such as the judiciary and anti-corruption bodies were taken over after 2003 and come into conflict with American interests.
At the same time, the demonstrated ability of the "resistance" and the IRGC's ability to engage in irregular, unconventional warfare demonstrates the power of cleverly applied non-kinetic and non-conventional effects. The intention of the "resistance" for years was to seize the Iraqi state through concerted military, social and political means. Setbacks notwithstanding, achieving this goal highlights the threat posed by overzealous, nimble, and politically disruptive groups within fragile or developing democracies. After tasting success, the militias will likely continue to leverage the judicial and political systems to increasingly consolidate their power.
The success of the militias poses a threat to Iraq's nascent and flawed democracy, as well as to US interests in the region. In the future, Washington will have the difficult task of balancing confronting this threat with respecting Iraqi sovereignty. To this end, the United States should take the following steps:
Maintaining the flow of information. In order to help Iraqi democrats move forward again, the United States first needs to maintain clarity of vision in Iraq. As was shown in 2003, faulty intelligence can lead to ill-founded policymaking. In order to maintain the flow of accurate information, the United States must continue to apply pressure on Iraq to ensure that journalists and investigative officials are protected from groups now in power that previously targeted those who expose militia corruption or wrongdoing. Washington should also fund, train, and support these journalists and investigators where possible, since it is their efforts that will now provide much of the information Iraqis need to hold their government (and militias) to account.
Understanding the state takeover effort. The United States should also tailor its open-source and classified intelligence-gathering in Iraq—which remains critical—to an understanding of the militia's methods of taking over the country. This means tracking efforts to gain control of specific, sector-specific government departments, as well as activities that include taking over the judiciary, designing legislative reforms, and efforts to rehabilitate convicted criminals or sanctioned individuals and organizations.
Resist rehabilitation of rights violators. It is especially necessary to resist such rehabilitation efforts in the absence of a genuine commitment to democratic processes and the rule of law. Limits must be set to what the United States will accept: most of the sanctioned individuals have been punished for having committed gross human rights abuses or killed US personnel. Their actions should not be overlooked, as this will likely only increase their power and influence, and the victims will be humiliated in this case, while the deterrent effect of sanctions will weaken.
Monitor a potential legal war closely. Finally, judicial rulings and proposed legislation should be scrutinized with particular care whenever opportunity allows, and specialized programs should receive US support to monitor Iraq's corrupt judiciary. Efforts to entrench militia power, or otherwise harm democratic institutions in Iraq, should be widely publicized to prevent the current minority-led regime from permanently establishing its grip on Iraqi life.
Crispin Smith is a researcher focusing on Iraqi security and the law of armed conflict. And any opinions expressed are private only to him. Michael Knights is the Bernstein Fellow at The Washington Institute and co-founder of the Institute's Militia Spotlight platform.
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