When the United States claimed this week that American forces in Iraq confronted threats from Iranian “proxies,” it had been talking about the armed groups that helped fight the Islamic State and have bedeviled Iraq ever since.
The Iraqi armed groups, some with ties to Iran, have a footprint in every Iraqi province. Whether they function as Iranian proxies, but, is far from settled.
“The word ‘proxy’ suggests that these are tools of Iran, and they aren’t,” claimed Anthony H.Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“You have a variety of groups in Iraq’s Popular Mobilization: Some are Sunni, some are pro-Iraqi government, some have ties to the Quds force and the Islamic Guard,” he claimed.
The question is further clouded by the truth that these groups are recognized and funded by the Iraqi government. This week, the United States ordered an aircraft carrier and then bombers to the Persian Gulf in response to what it is referred to as threats from the groups.
There are certainly roughly 30 of the militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, with a minimum of 125,000 active-duty fighters.
Their relationships with Iran vary widely, in accordance with experts and government officials in Iraq and Washington. Certain Popular Mobilization groups keep their distance from Iran while others — including some of the most powerful — are deeply intertwined with it.
Now that the battle against the Islamic State has dwindled, the problem facing Iraq is exactly what to do with these groups. While there has been talked of having them disband and disarm, only a couple of them seems willing to do so.
Even though the militias have been absorbed into the Iraqi security forces, they are not under the command of either the Defense or Interior Ministries. Instead, they enjoy a special status, reporting to the prime minister.
A few of the groups seem relatively benign and also carry out almost exclusively local responsibilities, providing policing services where the police are in short supply.
But, others are corrupt, behaving like mafias, and also numerous have been accused of human rights abuses. And also while they report to the prime minister, it is certainly not clear that anyone can really restrain them.
“If they have armed wings and are corrupt, nobody is able to control them,” former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi claimed in an interview this year.
A significant issue among some officials is that, much like Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, they will go into business, however with the unfair advantage of having armed men behind them and the implicit protection of senior figures in the Iraqi government.
“In Iraq if you don’t put controls on these groups, you would have these guys morph into networks that will range from semi-criminal entities to politically predatory forces that would act as a state within a state,” claimed Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
It is the four or five groups with the closest ties to Iran that are seen as exercising unauthorized power. Some run kickback schemes on a local level, using coercion to force business people to give them a piece of the action or compel citizens to use their services.
most of these groups have lots of representatives in the Iraqi Parliament, where the power to designate ministers is divided among the political blocs. If a bloc or a party controls who becomes a minister, they have an opportunity to influence who gets beneficial contracts or jobs.
These groups also can act as a lobby for Iranian interests within the Iraqi state.
Senior Iraqi government officials worry privately regarding the influence of the groups that have proved closest to Iran and are impervious to efforts to bring them under the government’s control, however, the officials are usually hesitant to speak publicly about it.
The Defense Ministry was angry when some of the Popular Mobilization’s brigades moved to the Syrian border in November, taking up crucial positions, however, the ministry worked out a way of avoiding a battle with them.
Likewise, soon after the United States Treasury Department declared in March it had been listing one of the Popular Mobilization groups, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, as a foreign terrorist organization, the Iraqi government made clear it disagreed.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi did not defend the group by name – al-Nujaba has verified complicated for the Iraqi military to work with at times – however, he actually did assistance the Popular Mobilization groups.
“The Americans can certainly make the decisions they want, however, the Americans see things differently from the way we do, and also our attitude toward the Popular Mobilization is popular and also clear,” he claimed in March. “We trust all of the groups of the Popular Mobilization that made sacrifices.”