Iraq plays with Iran and United States over control of its Shia militias

Iraq plays with Iran and United States over control of its Shia militias
In-depth: Iran is arming anti-American Shia militias, including one labeled a terrorist organization, through the Iraqi government, an American ally, writes Austin Bodetti.
5 min read
16 November, 2017
A member of the PMU militia in Iraq [AFP]
News media reports have portrayed Iran and the United States at odds over ultimate control of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) - a motley coalition of law enforcement agencies, military branches, and militias.

According to these reports, Iran backs the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and the Interior Ministry, while the US equips and trains the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (ICTS), the most capable unit of the ISF. Both countries compete for influence over the Iraqi Army.

Stuck in the middle, the Iraqi government has learned to play Iran and the United States against each other to reap the most power for itself.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi exercises direct control of the ICTS and the PMF by law. Analysts and journalists however contend that the PMF, an umbrella organization dominated by Shia militias, owes its allegiance not to the prime minister in Baghdad but to its financiers and arms dealers in Qom and Tehran.

The New Arab's interviews with militia fighters reveal the overlap behind both claims: according to them, Iran allegedly arms and funds the PMF but channels its support through the Prime Minister's Office, which disburses the military aid.

"Neither weapons nor any other kind of help can enter Iraq except through the Iraqi government, and the government is in turn supported by the PMF and the Army," asserted Yusuf al-Kalabi, a PMF official specializing in law.

"The PMF is a popular military body linked to the general command of the armed forces and participates in the military organization of the state."

Al-Kalabi added that Iranian advisors such as Major General Qasem Soleimani, of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, entered Iraq the same way.

"All advisors, whether Iranian, American, or otherwise, may only come with the permission of the Iraqi government as they are needed," Kalabi said.

Commanders in the Badr Organization and Kataib Hezbollah, two of the largest Iranian-backed militias in the PMF, confirmed al-Kalabi's assertions to The New Arab.

"We receive ammunition and weaponry from the Iranians but through and with the knowledge of the Prime Minister's Office," said Omran Wali, a Kataib Hezbollah commander based near Fallujah.

Iran helps us more than the central government does

Omran's colleague Arfad continued: "Many Iranian advisors are staying with us, and their presence has been continuous. The Prime Minister's Office has requested them."

"There is an agreement between Iran and Iraq about security, and there is only one route for Iranian weapons: through the Prime Minister's Office," noted Sadiq al-Hussein, a Badr commander on the outskirts of Fallujah.

Hussein stressed the limited size of the Iranian contingent accompanying him to the front lines.

"The number of Iranian advisors is small: around ten," he added.

Udai Adnan, a high-ranking Badr commander in the eastern province of Diyala, thanked Iran for all that it had provided the PMF.

"We won't forget the help from Iran, and we are extremely grateful," he told The New Arab, noting the role of coordination with the ISF.

"The Iranian forces managed to stabilize our own forces and stop their disintegration. The Iranian government only deals with the Iraqi government, which then distributes the support and weaponry to the different factions."

Saad al-Hadithi, a spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office, ignored several questions sent over WhatsApp Messenger about the extent, legality, and role of Iranian support to the PMF, instead telling The New Arab the PMF remains under the command of the Prime Minister.

Read more: Iraq set to import Kirkuk oil to Iran

"This body forms part of the ISF, receives salaries for its employees from the Iraqi government, and gets its equipment through the Defense Ministry," Hadithi said in a statement.

If true, these claims would suggest that the Prime Minister's Office is funneling through official channels not only American support to the ICTS, often viewed as a competitor to the PMF, but also Iranian support to its Shia proxies to reassert its nominal control of both.

"I don't see how there can't be an implication of an attempt to control the militias, particularly if the Ministry of Defence is involved," Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a specialist on violent nonstate actors at the Middle East Forum, told The New Arab.

"It's clear Abadi and those aligned with him want to exercise leverage over militias—so far this has mainly taken the form of salaries for PMF fighters and a committee that should answer to his office."

Iran and the Prime Minister's Office have struggled with awkwardness and tension before. Abadi has often pushed against Soleimani, Iran's point man in for Iraq, and his plans for the PMF, excluding Soleimani and the PMF from the Battle of Ramadi last year.

The Kirkuk Crisis, which saw Iran, the PMF, and the Prime Minister's office cooperate to retake the city from Iraqi Kurdistan last month, might have improved this dynamic. Still, some PMF militiamen are playing favorites.

"There are some Iranian advisors here," said Zakr Khmar Hussein, a militiaman based near Kirkuk.

"Iran helps us more than the central government does."

Austin Bodetti is a freelance journalist focusing on conflict in the greater Middle East and a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College majoring in Islamic Civilization and Societies and studying Arabic and Persian. 

He has reported from Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, South Sudan and Thailand, and his writing has appeared in Motherboard, The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, Wired, and Yahoo News.