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The Iraq Report: US military drawdown will embolden Iran's proxies

The United States will withdraw thousands of its troops from Iraq. [Getty]

Date of publication: 18 September, 2020

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Iran-backed militias will feel emboldened by a reduction of capable enemies on their doorstep, and could seek to expand their power and influence even further.
With the announcement earlier this month that the United States will withdraw thousands of its troops from Iraq, Iran and its Shia Islamist proxies have hailed the decision as a victory of their "Axis of Resistance". 

Undoubtedly, this will mean that the Iraqi Shia militias who work hand-in-glove with Tehran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) will feel emboldened by a reduction of capable enemies on their doorstep, and will seek to expand their power and influence even further.

However, this also raises a question of the relevance of the Shia militias in Iraqi politics, particularly those who serve under the banner of the Baghdad-sanctioned but Tehran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).

A large part of their existence is based upon their rhetoric of resisting a foreign occupier and combating the Islamic State (IS) group which has been formally declared as defeated since 2017.

With their raison d'être now undermined, and early elections called for 2021, fears are growing that the PMF and Iran are simply seeking to entrench a pro-Tehran regime in Baghdad, completely undermining Iraqi self-determination and sovereignty.

US withdrawal both emboldens and undermines Iran

The United States Central Command (CENTCOM) announced that it would cut its military footprint in Iraq by almost half earlier this month, in a move set to both embolden and undermine Iran's presence in Iraq. 

Fears are growing that the PMF and Iran are seeking to entrench a pro-Tehran regime in Baghdad, completely undermining Iraqi self-determination and sovereignty

General Frank McKenzie, the head of CENTCOM, announced in a visit to Iraq on 9 September that troops would be reduced from 5,200 to 3,000 after a determination was made that the Iraqi military was now in a better position to fend for itself. 

"We are continuing to expand on our partner capacity programmes that enable Iraqi forces and allow us to reduce our footprint in Iraq," McKenzie said, according to Reuters. "This reduced footprint allows us to continue advising and assisting our Iraqi partners in rooting out the final remnants of ISIS in Iraq and ensuring its enduring defeat," he added.

The Iraq Report: France asserts itself as US withdraws

The move is being interpreted as part of President Donald Trump's re-election efforts to show that he is making good on his promise to bring American soldiers home from foreign entanglements in "endless wars".

After initially withdrawing during the Barack Obama administration in 2011, that same administration redeployed American soldiers to Iraq in 2014 to counter the existential threat posed to the Iraqi government by IS that was threatening not only Baghdad but also Erbil, the seat of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). 

The US provided arms, training, and extensive air support to Iraqi military units and even indirectly to PMF militiamen linked to Iran. Washington also organised an international coalition under its leadership to distribute the burden of countering IS in both Iraq and Syria.

In January, the Trump administration authorised the assassination by drone strike of both IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and his Iraqi lieutenant Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis following repeated attacks on American military and diplomatic facilities by IRGC-linked militias.

This cascaded into not only Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei demanding an end to the US presence in Iraq and the wider region, but the Iraqi parliament – nominally a sovereign legislature – immediately followed suit and demanded the withdrawal of American forces. 

Iraqi PM Mustafa al-Kadhimi will undoubtedly look to frame the US decision as part of his successful diplomacy with his country's primary benefactor

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi will undoubtedly look to frame the American decision as not only a part of his successful diplomacy with his country's primary benefactor, but also that he is not one of Washington's stooges, contrary to the allegations against him made by pro-Iran actors.

However, the White House's decision does also raise significant questions about the relevance of pro-Iran militias and, in particular, the PMF. The PMF was formed as an umbrella group sanctioned by Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Shia Islam's highest religious authority who resides in Najaf, after IS conquered a third of Iraq in a lightning offensive in 2014.

Dozens of Shia militias, most of whom have extensive links to the IRGC, banded together under the banner of the PMF, and fought alongside the Iraqi security forces and the US-led coalition to push back against IS and ultimately defeat them in 2017. 

In the process, the PMF – recognised as an independent arm of the Iraqi armed forces in 2016 and formalised in 2017 – was repeatedly alleged to have committed sectarian war crimes against Sunni Arabs and using the IS threat as cover for their brutal excesses. 

The Iraq Report: Anti-corruption activists assassinated with impunity

Many of the Shia militias involved in sectarian crimes are not only present across much of Iraq's security apparatus, but they also enjoy political representation through political blocs such as Binaa and the Conquest Alliance of Shia Islamist parties. 

Their rhetoric, particularly before and since the assassination of Iranian General Soleimani, has been one typical of other Iranian proxies, extoling the virtues of the "Axis of Resistance" against the United States and Israel, and pledging to expel all Western forces. 

Notably, they are silent when it comes to expelling Iranian military and political presence with the obvious reason being that they are a proxy of Iran operating under official Iraqi government cover. 

But with a reduction in American troops and the disintegration of IS' so-called caliphate, questions will arise as to why the PMF, who have predicated their existence on the previous two threats to Iraqi sovereignty, do not simply fall in under the regular Iraqi chain-of-command.

A large part of the PMF's existence is based upon their rhetoric of resisting a foreign occupier and combating the Islamic State

Early elections will test patriotic rhetoric

The PMF and other Iranian proxies' rhetoric will be significantly challenged now that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has thrown his religious authority behind Kadhimi's attempts to call for early elections next summer.

"The parliamentary elections scheduled for next year are of great importance," said Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, 90, in an online statement after meeting with a senior official from the United Nations last Sunday. 

Iraqis should be encouraged to participate "widely", he added, while warning that failing to hold the polls on time or in a free and fair way would "threaten the unity and future of Iraq's people."

Shia Islam's highest religious authority also wields significant political influence, and his edicts are powerful enough to even lead to the creation of military formations numbering tens of thousands of men under arms, as in the case of how the PMF was created.

It will therefore be extremely difficult for Shia militias and their parliamentary representatives to openly undermine the wizened cleric's explicit recommendations that polling goes ahead next year as suggested by Kadhimi. 

Iraq's reign of fear: Inside the violent power struggle
killing Basra's activists

However, they may undermine the elections and the government by continuing to engage in acts of intimidation and violence against civil society and protesters who have been calling for greater transparency and accountability since last October.

Over the past year, pro-Iran militias and government security forces have killed almost 600 anti-corruption activists. Others have been abducted and tortured, while high profile targets such as Iraqi counterterrorism expert Hisham al-Hashimi were assassinated to send a message to the opponents of Shia militants. 

On Tuesday, a prominent female demonstrator, Sheelan Dara, who has been active in the protest movement, was stabbed to death alongside her parents in Baghdad.

Baghdad police captain Hatem al-Jabri said in a press release that "unidentified gunmen have stormed a house in the Al-Mansour district, west of Baghdad, on Tuesday evening, and slaughtered the pharmacist Sheelan Dara and her parents." 

While the authorities have since framed the gruesome killings as being related to a violent robbery and home invasion, activists who knew Dara are sceptical and fear foul play on the part of the militias.

Tariq al-Husseini told Turkish state media Anadolu that the militias had sought to "liquidate Sheelan" who had been active in the popular protests against the ruling elite and their corrupt patronage networks linked to foreign benefactors, particularly Iran.

Husseini, not his real name for security reasons, called upon Prime Minister Kadhimi to fulfil his pledge to bring perpetrators of violence against protesters to justice.

The murder of Dara is the latest in a long line of targeted assassinations of pro-democracy and anti-corruption activists. The message being delivered in brutal fashion to these activists is that the system cannot protect them and that they ought to stay silent.

The implication behind such a message is clear – Iraqi democracy will be entirely undermined. The last elections in 2018 saw a paltry turnout of less than 45 percent. With violence against pro-democracy voices increasing, it would not be surprising if Iraqis boycott elections altogether, which would sound the death knell of democracy in Iraq and perhaps the return to all out civil war.

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

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