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The Iraq Report: Mustafa al-Kadhimi takes aim at pro-Iran militias

Many believe Mustafa al-Kadhimi is taking action against a fringe group to placate demonstrators. [Getty]

Date of publication: 15 May, 2020

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While hailed as a show of force by Iraq's new premier against malign Iranian influence, the arrest of pro-Iran militants may be little more than a token effort.
In what is being trumpeted as a promising start for Iraq's new prime minister, Iraqi security forces conducted a raid on a pro-Iran militant outfit in the southern oil-rich city of Basra earlier this week. 

While hailed as a show of force by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi against malign Iranian influence, in reality, it may be little more than a token effort. Meanwhile, military commanders and United Nations officials have blamed the coronavirus for a recent uptick in attacks by Islamic State (IS) militants. 

According to officials, IS is seeking to stage a comeback by exploiting a lull in security caused by the virus. However, perhaps the root cause of IS' ability to take advantage of national crises is the fact that sectarian policies are still the norm in Iraq, allowing extremism and radicalisation to stay alive and well.

Kadhimi arrests Shia militants in Basra

Mustafa al-Kadhimi has barely been in office for a week before seemingly jumping into action and ordering the arrest of Iran-backed Shia militants belonging to a little-known group called Thaer Allah, or the Vengeance of God.

Kadhimi took to Twitter on Monday to announce that, under his direction, Iraqi security forces raided the headquarters of the Thaer Allah group in the southern oil-rich city of Basra after a protester was killed during a live fire incident.

Mustafa al-Kadhimi had barely been in office for a week before seemingly jumping into action and ordering the arrest of Iran-backed militants

According to reports, protesters had gathered outside the Shia militia's offices late on Sunday night to demonstrate against a political elite they view as corrupt and what they say is Iran's malign influence that was undermining Iraqi sovereignty.

Following a pattern that has been repeated often since protests first erupted in October last year -leading to the deaths of at least 700 protesters - the militia opened fire on demonstrators. One 20-year-old man was shot in the head and later died in hospital.

Hours later, security forces stormed Thaer Allah's headquarters, arresting five men on suspicion of shooting protesters, and seized large quantities of automatic weapons and ammunition.

Read more: The Iraq Report: Mustafa al-Kadhimi takes the helm in
stormy political waters

"We arrested five men who shot at protesters from the [Thaer Allah] headquarters," Bassem al-Maliky, the press officer for Basra's security forces, told AFP.

The arrests marked a rare incident of a swift official response to protest-related deaths, for which only a handful of security forces, usually low-level commanders, have been held to account. The arrests have also raised hopes that Kadhimi may finally be dealing with the epidemic of armed Shia Islamist groups loyal to Iran who have wreaked havoc across Iraq since 2003.

However, this is unlikely to be the case. Unlike more powerful Iran-backed militias such as Kataib Hezbollah, the Badr Organisation, and Asaib Ahl ul-Haq (AAH), Thaer Allah are not part of the Iran-sponsored but Iraq-sanctioned Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). 

The PMF are a largely Shia dominated paramilitary organisation that is now an official branch of the armed forces yet rarely takes orders from the Iraqi defence ministry or prime minister's office, instead answering to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

While Thaer Allah has been active since 2003 and follows a decidedly Khomeinist ideology that espouses the beliefs of the Islamic Revolution that took control of Iran in 1979, its activities are focused primarily in Basra and it has no major political representation in the Iraqi parliament.

There is therefore strong reason to believe that Kadhimi is taking concrete action against a fringe and poorly-supported group to win the trust of demonstrators, while failing to tackle the main culprits of anti-protester violence, who are namely units within the PMF as well as militias loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shia clerical leader of the Sairoun bloc who commands the largest number of seats in parliament.

There is strong reason to believe that Kadhimi is taking concrete action against a fringe and poorly-supported group to win the trust of demonstrators, while failing to tackle the main culprits of anti-protester violence

Kadhimi's reticence in tackling these groups is clear. Like his predecessors, he was appointed as prime minister by the parliament rather than enjoying the support of a political party that he led to electoral victory. He is therefore at the mercy of blocs whose interests he would be diametrically opposed to if he took action against powerful pro-Iran outfits like Badr, Kataib Hezbollah, or AAH.

Targeting Thaer Allah could therefore be viewed as an acceptable "sacrificial lamb" to enhance Kadhimi's credentials and keep the wheels of the status quo turning without harming Iran's main players in the Iraqi political game.

Coronavirus blamed for IS resurgence

A commander within the US-led anti-Islamic State coalition said on Wednesday that the militant group could be staging a comeback by taking advantage of the coronavirus epidemic in Iraq.

Lt Col Stein Grongstad, the commander of the Norwegian contingent within the coalition, told Norway's VG newspaper that IS units were mainly focused in sparsely populated rural areas that spared them the effects of coronavirus infection.

Grongstad has said that a recent uptick in attacks against Iraqi forces in recent weeks coincided with an intensification of the spread of the coronavirus and also came at a time when Iraqi forces "are not currently coordinated to the same extent as before the virus struck."

Read more: The Iraq Report: Islamic State grows in power amid coronavirus outbreak

The Norwegian commander's statements echo those of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, who indicated last Friday that IS and other armed groups could carry out more attacks against civilians by taking advantage of a lull in security caused by the coronavirus.

However, analysts have criticised such statements as providing cover for autocratic and sectarian regimes, as in Syria and Iraq, by allowing them to blame the coronavirus rather than their own policies for an increase in radicalisation and terrorism.

IS has long looked to disenfranchised and impoverished Sunni communities who have been persecuted by the Iraqi government for recruits.

Years of data has shown that the Iraqi political system has been dominated by a string of sectarian governments that have persecuted minorities and created the perfect environment for radicals to thrive

International human rights organisations and academic experts have warned for more than a decade how sectarian abuses against Iraq's Sunnis would force a desperate community to seek any means to defend themselves against what they view as existential threats emanating from a violently anti-Sunni and sectarian Shia-dominated political order.

Despite known sectarian politicians such as former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki being replaced by more – at least overtly – moderate premiers since 2014, promises made to the Sunni community have repeatedly been broken and human rights abuses and war crimes have gone unpunished.

Read more: From genocide to pandemic: Yazidis in Iraq face looming
mental health crisis as Covid-19 spreads

Late last year, a mass grave filled with the corpses of 643 Sunni Arab civilians who had been missing since a pro-government Shia militia rounded them up near Fallujah in 2016 made for a horrifying discovery. To date, no one has answered for this war crime.

Since IS was declared defeated in 2017, the root causes behind their rise have not been addressed. Cities lie in ruins, sectarian militias rule the streets and extort and murder with impunity, and hundreds of thousands of displaced Sunnis still live in squalid displacement camps and are not allowed to return home.

The Iraqi government's failure to "drain the swamp" of extremism and radicalisation has meant that IS could survive precisely to take advantage of an opportunity afforded them by the coronavirus. 

However, the coronavirus itself is not the root cause as to why the group still exists, as IS would have taken advantage of any crisis, much as they did when a rash of protests broke out across Iraq last year.

Years of data has shown that the Iraqi political system, which is divided across a sectarian quota system, has been dominated by a string of sectarian governments that have persecuted minorities and created the perfect environment for radicals to survive and thrive.  

Failure to address these underlying causes will mean Iraq is doomed to continuously face wave after wave of extremist movements.

The Iraq Report is a fortnightly feature at The New Arab.

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