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Kadhimi’s Push Against Iran-Supported Paramilitaries

Since former Iraqi intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kadhimi took office on May 7, 2020 as Prime Minister he has increased pressure against the Iran-led ‘axis-of-resistance’ paramilitaries. The paramilitaries have brigades within the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Leveraging the U.S. ‘maximum pressure’ campaign aimed at Iran and an anti-Iran sentiment in the protest movement that started in October 2019 in central and southern Iraq, Kadhimi is using economic pressures and pushing out members and supporters of the paramilitaries from state institutions to weaken these groups.

Kadhimi has struggled to clamp down on the paramilitaries widely believed to be responsible for launching dozens of projectiles at Baghdad’s Green Zone and Iraqi facilities hosting U.S.-led coalition forces. The attacks ticked up in November 2019 and intensified after the January 2020 U.S. assassination of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the PMF’s deputy chief, and Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC-QF). The attacks have served two purposes: to pressure U.S. and foreign troops to withdraw from the country and to retaliate against the assassinations. While the number of reported attacks against coalition forces involving improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and projectiles were estimated at four in May, they surged at about 18 in August.[1]

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is likely heading toward a confrontation with the Iran-backed paramilitaries, which could threaten his fledgling coalition.

While the foreign forces had planned to transition into an advisory capacity instead of a combatant role, by late August, the attacks contributed to accelerating the withdrawal of eight coalition forces from Iraqi bases and the consolidation of remaining forces into three more protected bases. During his August 19 meeting with Kadhimi, President Donald Trump said that he plans to withdraw troops within three years—although he backtracked the following day, refraining from specifying a date. Paramilitaries have, meanwhile, continued to call for a full withdrawal and maintained their attacks.

Kadhimi came into office with the intention to crackdown on paramilitaries. He has incrementally increased pressure on them using coercion, among other means. However, the targeted paramilitaries lashed back using force, and other staunchly pro-Iran paramilitaries increased their rhetorical attacks on Kadhimi’s government through their affiliated media and television channels. For example, on June 25, the U.S.-trained Iraqi Counter Terrorism Force (ICTS) raided a PMF facility in Baghdad belonging to the 45th brigade controlled by Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), a top-tier paramilitary allied with Iran. The ICTS arrested fourteen of the paramilitary’s personnel suspected of involvement in the launching of projectiles at the Green Zone. KH retaliated to the raid by sending forces to lay siege over the main ICTS headquarters and another ICTS facility within the Green Zone.[2] The vast majority of Kadhimi’s administration believes that KH was responsible for launching rockets prior and during the Iraq-U.S. Strategic Dialogue with the aim of embarrassing him, and of putting pressure on the United States to withdraw troops. To a segment of domestic and international audiences, Kadhimi’s succumb to pressure from KH constituted a major setback.

Prime Minister al-Kadhimi is attempting to counter the paramilitaries on multiple fronts. Financially, he sought to strengthen government control over border crossings to fight corruption and smuggling. Border crossings are used by paramilitaries, including those reportedly active at Diyala’s border crossing into Iran. If the government effectively controls these vital channels, financial inflows from smuggling will decrease in the long term. During a visit, Kadhimi sent the PMF and the Rapid Deployment Forces to take over the two border crossings at Diyala into Iran, according to the Joint Operations Command (JOC). Subsequently, on July 25, the JOC dedicated forces to control fourteen overland and sea port border crossings. Furthermore, to limit the opportunity for corruption, Kadhimi shortened the rotation of border crossing employees from six to three months.[3] However, unofficial border crossings that are designed to dodge government oversight exist and tend to generate greater revenues for paramilitaries than the official crossings,[4] but Kadhimi has not previously cracked down on them. In August, the prime minister formed a committee to “investigate corruption and major cases” and assigned the ICTS to execute its orders, in an effort to further curtail the paramilitaries’ income sources.

Kadhimi has also sought to strengthen the ICTS as a tool against corruption and against pro-Iran actors directly undermining his authority. At the same time, Kadhimi sought to weaken Iranian loyalists like Falih al-Fayyadh, the incumbent head of the PMF, who extraordinarily headed two other critical security bodies, the National Security Advisory and the National Security Agency. On July 4, Kadhimi appointed Qassem al-Araji, a minor actor and member of the pro-Iran Badr Organization to head the first body. Kadhimi appointed Abdul-Ghani al-Asadi, a former chief of the ICTS who has a good working relationship with the PMF, as the chief of the latter security body. On September 14, Kadhimi appointed Khaled al-Obaidi, the former defense minister and a loyalist of former Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, who is critical of Iran-allied paramilitaries, to the Iraqi National Intelligence Service. Kadhimi also appointed Falih Younis Hasan, a Sunni political figure who has no links to Iran-allied paramilitaries, as al-Asadi’s deputy in the National Security Agency. With these moves, Kadhimi seeks to strike a balance in security institutions away from Iran-allied forces.

On the political front, Kadhimi seems to enjoy more support for his security agenda than his predecessor Haidar al-Abadi. The Council of Representatives (CoR)’s Al Hikma’s block of twenty members transformed from an opposition group to support Kadhimi. The group reconstituted itself as ‘Iraqiyoon,’ with around forty members in parliament by the inclusion of independent MPs and small blocs. However, the cornerstone of the Prime Minister’s political backing remains President Barham Salih who nominated him for the premiership. Mohammad al-Halbusi, CoR speaker, also supports Kadhimi against paramilitaries. Even Iraq’s Supreme Shia authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has implicitly supported Kadhimi’s efforts. On July 2 in a Friday sermon—one week after the ICTS raid against the KH facility—al-Sistani’s representative, Ahmed al-Safi, said that “the government should be able to retain the state’s prestige and execute necessary measures to hold early elections in a reassuring atmosphere far from side effects of money, illegal weapons, and external interventions.”

Even as he cracks down on Iran-backed paramilitaries, Kadhimi wants to maintain the same economic ties with Tehran, if not strengthen them by keeping Iraqi markets open to Iran. While Iranian non-oil exports passing through key border crossings halved in the current year compared to last year, due to weaker Iraqi market demand and the halting of the passage of Iranian pilgrims, there are indications that a rail connection between Iraq and Iran through Shalamcheh might be established to advance trade and mobility. Such a project might not be needed because of weak demand for trade and mobility but it aims to satisfy Iran. During a visit by the Iranian Energy Minister on June 3, Iraq released $400 million to Iran—half of the electricity debt accumulated under U.S. sanctions. While electricity export contracts between Iran and Iraq are typically renewed on an annual basis, this time they were renewed for two years. Kadhimi hopes Tehran will welcome these efforts to build stronger economic ties, either by supporting or at least turning turn a blind eye to his crackdown on the paramilitaries. Yet, Tehran has been clear that it has less authority over its allies, who operate with greater leeway after the assassination of the IRGC-QF’s Qassem Soleimani. This was emphasized as multiple projectiles fell near the U.S. Embassy during the Iranian Foreign Minister’s visit to Baghdad on July 19.

Prime Minister Kadhimi’s ultimate goal during the interim premiership is to weaken paramilitary-supported parties prior to the next election to allow the next prime minister to weaken the grip of Iran-allied paramilitaries over Iraqi security forces. And as coalition forces reposition themselves in Iraq, new rounds of confrontations with paramilitaries are likely to weaken Kadhimi’s coalition-building as they seek to drag him into a hasty confrontation for which he is unprepared. The potential for disagreement between Kadhimi and other political forces over sharing state institutions, electoral laws, and the timing of the next CoR elections is growing.

Tamer Badawi is an associate with the Middle East Directions Programme at the European University Institute, focusing on Iran’s foreign policy toward its neighbors. Follow on Twitter @Tamerbadawi1. 

[1] Author’s calculations based on open source materials.

[2] A Baghdad-based journalist that spoke to the author via WhatsApp, July and September 2020.

[3] An Iraqi governmental source and a Baghdad-based journalist that spoke to the author via WhatsApp and Skype, July 2020.

[4] An Iraqi governmental source that spoke to the author via WhatsApp, September 2020.

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