In Brief

Iran-Backed Militias in Iraq Poised to Expand Influence

Any sharp drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq grants Iran a golden opportunity to expand its influence there and threatens to inflame sectarian tensions.

Many Iraqi lawmakers vowed to evict U.S. troops from their country after a U.S. air strike near the Baghdad airport in early January killed Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, commander of the Iran-backed, mostly Shiite militias collectively known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). That hasn’t happened, but the Donald J. Trump administration could be in the middle of evicting itself.

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The United States recently announced plans to reduce the U.S. troop contingent in Iraq from 5,200 to 3,000, and in late September, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to evacuate the entire U.S. Embassy in Baghdad if attacks by Iran’s proxy forces continued. Since then, rocket attacks on the U.S. embassy and U.S. military installations in Iraq appear to have stopped, but IED attacks on Iraqi-operated convoys supplying U.S. diplomatic and military forces have continued. This de-escalation is probably due to Iran’s desire to avoid a preelection crisis that could help reelect President Trump. Now the militias have offered to suspend rocket attacks on U.S. troops if the Iraqi government presents a timetable for their withdrawal.

Countering Iran in Iraq

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It could make sense for the United States to downsize its diplomatic mission in Baghdad—the largest in the world­—as suggested by my CFR colleague Steven A. Cook. But it would be foolhardy to withdraw all of its troops or diplomats from Iraq. That would, in fact, give Iran precisely what it wants. As long as U.S. forces remain in Iraq, they can counter Iran’s influence, which remains undiminished despite all of the sanctions the Trump administration has imposed on Tehran.

Iran is trying to “Lebanonize” Iraq: to allow a pro-Western government to rule in theory while real power is wielded by Iran-backed militias. In Lebanon, that force is Hezbollah. In Iraq, it is militias such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. The most important work on mapping the influence of Iranian militias was performed by Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi scholar who had advised the Iraqi government and at one time fought as an insurgent against U.S. forces.

Hashimi found that “the gradual state capture by the militias, premised on reconstruction and reconciliation after a civil war, is one part sectarian warfare, one part expropriation and organized crime, and all parts Iranian hegemony.” The militias, he showed, “have wrested pervasive control over much of the Iraqi economy: from airport customs, construction projects, oilfields, sewage, water, highways, colleges, public and private property, tourism sites, presidential palaces; and the extortion of restaurants, cafes, cargo trucks, fishermen, farmers, displaced families.”

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Hashimi paid for his research with his life: on July 6, he was assassinated by gunmen outside his home in Baghdad in what was widely seen as an operation carried out by the PMF. His findings, quoted above, were reported by his friend, Syrian-American security analyst Hassan Hassan, who spoke to Hashimi two hours before his death.

The Islamic State’s Looming Threat

Ever since the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s caliphate in Iraq was largely smashed in 2017, Iraqi prime ministers have been trying, with little success, to reduce the power of the PMF, whose raison d’être was to fight the Sunni extremists. The latest to try is Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a former head of Iraqi intelligence who ascended to the prime minister’s office in May following popular protests over corruption and unemployment. In late June, he ordered the arrest of fourteen members of Kata’ib Hezbollah. But after gunmen in pickup trucks drove into Baghdad’s Green Zone (the seat of government) and demanded their release, most of the men were let go. They were then filmed burning U.S. flags and stomping on photographs of Kadhimi.

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A member of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces waves a flag while standing on a vehicle with two other fighters
Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces march during the funeral of members of Shiite group Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq in 2019. Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

The United States should continue to support Kadhimi, the most pro-Western prime minister Iraq has had since the fall of Saddam Hussein. He is the best bet not only to rein in Iran’s proxies, but also to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State—a terrorist organization that is still reported to have ten thousand fighters in Iraq and Syria and at least $100 million in financial reserves. The two goals are closely linked: the more that Iran-backed militias control the Iraqi state, the more that Iraqi Sunnis will turn to Sunni extremist groups such as the Islamic State for protection. Conversely, the more that the Iraqi state can appear to be nonsectarian, the more likely Sunnis are to reject the Islamic State’s blandishments.

The United States should continue to push for a more nonsectarian state by assisting the training of Iraqi security forces, helping to advise Iraqi leaders, and providing crucial assistance in areas such as intelligence, targeting, and logistics. That can only be done if the United States maintains a substantial presence on the ground—three thousand troops minimum—despite the risks of Iran-backed attacks.

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