Rogue operators: An in-depth look at Iraq’s powerful militias

Iraq's militias have effectively woven themselves into the fabric of the state apparatus

A Shiite fighter from the Hashed al Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) patrols in the village of Ayn Nasir, south of Mosul, on October 29, 2016.
A Shiite fighter from the Hashed al Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) patrols in the village of Ayn Nasir, south of Mosul, on October 29, 2016.

Rogue operators: An in-depth look at Iraq’s powerful militias

The United States has responded militarily against Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria, targeting 85 sites on Friday night.

US Central Command (Centcom) said it hit Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp Quds Forces and affiliated groups it blames for launching more than 170 attacks on American military sites in Anbar, Nineveh, and Syria since 7 October.

Long-range bombers were used by the US, with targets reported to include the command-and-control centres, intelligence centres, rockets and missiles, drone storage sites, and logistics and supply chain facilities of militia groups.

It follows a drone attack against the US base known as Tower 22 in Jordan, near the Syrian border. Three US service personnel were killed and 41 injured. Washington says the drone used to attack the base was made and supplied by Iran.

The flurry of action in recent days has led to a sharpened focus on the militias based in the lawless areas of Syria and Iraq, with particular attention paid to the latter.

Malignant and armed

The Shiite factions justify their assaults on the Americans as retaliation for Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. They see the US and Israel as two sides of the same coin.

A significant portion of Iraq’s Shiite ruling parties operate armed militias in direct contravention of the Iraqi Parties Law. Leveraging their political affiliations, these militias have effectively woven themselves into the fabric of the state apparatus.

Read more: The conspicuous rise of Iraq's mafia class

Iraq's militias have effectively woven themselves into the fabric of the state apparatus.

This integration was facilitated by enacting the Popular Mobilisation Authority (PMA) law, endowing them with substantial political and security leverage.

Consequently, and in the absence of a functioning national army, these armed groups have risen to become Iraq's principal military force, surpassing the capabilities of the official security forces, which are ill-equipped to challenge them.

Armed groups have proliferated. Iraq now hosts a constellation of 67 armed militias, including those that identify as Shiite, Sunni, Christian, Turkmen, and Shabak. They can broadly be categorised into two main groups.

Directed from afar

The predominant group comprises militias that recognise the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as their spiritual or political leader and supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. These factions represent the military wings of influential political parties and wield significant authority within the government.

Diana Estefanía Rubio

Notable among these are the al-Fatah Alliance, under Hadi Al-Amiri; the Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, led by Qais Khazali; the Jund al-Imam Brigades, under Minister of Labour and Social Affairs Ahmed al-Asadi; the Christian Babylon Movement; the Hezbollah Brigades; the Harakat al-Nujaba; and the Salah al-Din Brigade.

The second category includes militias not linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guard. These include the Peace Brigades, led by influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Atabat Mobilisation Forces, under the auspices of the supreme Shiite Marja, Ali al-Sistani.

These groups operate under the Federal Ministry of Defence, distancing themselves from directly associating with the Popular Mobilisation Authority.

The PMA was established in 2014 as a critical response to the vacuum left by the collapse of Iraqi security forces against Islamic State (IS).

This conglomerate includes various militias, some of which were established in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, others during the American occupation in 2003, and still others during the initial IS period.

Militias such as Harakat al-Nujaba, Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, and Hezbollah Brigades have been designated as terrorist organisations by the United States.

Army alternatives

Iraq's militia fighters now number more than 238,000, according to state figures. They account for 52% of the total forces of the Federal Ministry of Defense and operate under the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) umbrella.

In 2023, the Iraqi government allocated more than $3.4bn to support these forces, covering salaries, weapons, and equipment.

The Badr militia, the largest in Iraq, led by Hadi al-Amiri, comprises 15 brigades spread across several provinces, including Diyala, Anbar, Salah al-Din, Kirkuk, and Nineveh.

The Hezbollah Brigades operate three brigades in the Anbar desert extending to Jurf al-Sakhar in Babylon province.

The Badr militia, the largest in Iraq, has 15 brigades spread across several provinces like Diyala, Anbar, Salah al-Din, Kirkuk, and Nineveh.

Asaib Ahl al-Haq has three brigades in the Saladin Governorate. Typically, each brigade consists of around 4,000 fighters. They have more than 15 military bases across Sunni governorates and access to advanced weaponry, including drones, tanks, and artillery.

Additionally, there are Sunni, Christian, Turkmen, Shabak, and Yazidi militias, all of which align with Shiite factions associated with Iran.

Coalition Framework

In 2021, political entities with armed wings coalesced into a bloc known as the Coordination Framework, buoyed by Iranian backing.

This coalition aimed to challenge the administration of Mustafa Al-Kadhimi and counter the political ascendancy of Muqtada Al-Sadr, who had emerged victorious in elections.

The coalition comprised notable factions, including the al-Sadiqoun Movement, under Qais Al-Khazali; the Al-Fatah Alliance; the State of Law Coalition, led by Nuri al-Maliki; the Al-Hikma Movement, with Ammar Al-Hakim at its helm; the Jund Al-Imam Movement, led by Ahmed Al-Asadi; the Islamic Supreme Council; the Ataa Movement; the Virtue Party, and others.

Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhemi waving during a parade in Baghdad by members ofthe Hashed al-Shaabi on July 23, 2022.

The Coordination Framework managed to achieve its objectives, effectively sidelining Al-Sadr from political power and facilitating the formation of the current government headed by Mohammed Shia' Al Sudani.

This alliance also secured all governmental positions designated for the Shiite sector, totalling 12 ministries.

Muqtada al-Sadr, who heads the Sadrist Movement, criticises the Shiite militias. More than 80% of them sprang up only after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, he says, and many splintered from the Mahdi Army militia that he founded in 2003.

The genesis of these splinter groups, often attributed to Iranian support, threatens his political sway, so he has advocated for their integration into the formal Iraqi security apparatus to dilute their influence and cohesion.

Adverse influence

The militias in Iraq pose a significant threat to the nation's economic security by exerting control over the state apparatus, engaging in extortion and monopolising economic and service-oriented projects critical to public welfare.

This adverse influence has disrupted basic services over the years, rendering Iraq unattractive to investors.

Parliament's Services Committee reports that more than 1,600 strategic projects are currently stalled. Despite Iraq's substantial oil wealth, with annual revenues of more than $85bn, its cities are plagued by poverty.

Iraq's militias pose a significant threat to the nation's economic security. They exert control over the state and engage in extortion.

These militias often operate under aliases, such as 'Ashab al-Kahf' linked to the Al-Nujaba Movement and 'Saraya Awliya al-Dam' associated with Asaib Ahl al-Haq.

These groups conduct operations within Iraq, distancing themselves from the political entities that support them to avoid diplomatic repercussions.

Certain militias have targeted the economic interests of foreign countries within Iraq, but their activities can extend beyond Iraq's borders, posing a threat to regional stability.

Joining the resistance

They have launched missiles and drones from Iraq against the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, underpinned by a belief in the "unity of the arenas."

These factions are integral to the conflict in Syria, aligning with the Axis of Resistance and aiming to undermine American interests in the region.

They adhere to the religious and political doctrine of the Guardianship of the Jurist, led by Ali Khamenei, and often act independently of Iraqi governmental laws and decisions.

The militias in Iraq strategically concentrate on Sunni-majority provinces such as Anbar, Salah al-Din, Nineveh, and Jurf al-Sakhar in Babylon. This focus aims to encircle US military bases in Anbar, Nineveh, and Erbil.

These areas can serve as launching pads for missile attacks against Israel, reminiscent of tactics employed by the previous regime during the Kuwait war. These days, militias' missiles are capable of reaching Israel.

Iraqi Shiite fighters from the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) paramilitaries advance in a desert area near the village of Tall Abtah, southwest of Mosul, on November 28, 2016.

Defining their role

The war in Gaza has divided Iraqi militias, especially those affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), like the Hezbollah Brigades and the Nujaba Movement.

These groups say they should engage in the conflict to target American interests and bases in the region.

Conversely, groups like Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organisation advocate for Iraq's neutrality in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

This division resulted in the limited targeting of US interests. Only four factions - Ansar Allah Al-Awfiyaa, Harakat al-Nujaba, Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, and Hezbollah Brigades - actively engaged under the 'Islamic Resistance in Iraq' banner.

Despite lacking political representation, these factions are advised by consultants from Lebanon's far bigger Hezbollah militia and the Iranian government.

War in Gaza has divided Iraqi militias. Some say they should engage, such as targeting US interests. Others advocate for Iraq's neutrality.

Since October, these four factions have launched 120 attacks on US bases in Iraq and Syria and the American embassy, together hosting 3,500 US troops.

These assaults pose a significant challenge to Iraqi lawmakers since the US has warned that it could issue sanctions against the Iraqi government in response.

The militias wanted to force the US out of the region to tighten their hold over Iraq, whose government was forced to issue a stern response to the provocations.

Yahya Rasoul, the spokesperson for the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, said the 7 December assault against the American embassy constituted an affront to "Iraq's security and sovereignty".

He added that such attacks not only tarnish Iraq's reputation and dignity but also cast doubt on its credibility as a sovereign state capable of upholding its international commitments and safeguarding the wellbeing of its citizens and diplomatic missions.

In retaliation, the US struck Al-Nujaba Movement and Hezbollah Brigades sites, including the Al-Nujaba headquarters in central Baghdad, near the Interior Ministry.

The strike killed Mushtaq Al-Saeedi, alias 'Abu Taqwa,' who led the missile unit responsible for recent attacks on American bases.

Diana Estefanía Rubio

Hatful of factions

Iraqis despair that their government is incapable of managing the influence and actions of various factions within their country.

Indeed, it has been called "a government of the factions" since it struggles to hold the militias accountable or even exert control over Iraqi airspace, given that Iraq's air defence systems have been so thoroughly degraded.

In addition, the Iraqi government cannot counteract Iranian efforts to escalate tensions with the United States and Israel on Iraqi soil.

In a significant concession to the demands of the militias, the Iraqi government asked the Western-led international coalition formed to combat IS to leave the country, saying its presence was no longer required.

It was a pivotal moment, showing a shift in the power dynamics within Iraq. European diplomats have long warned of the dangers to Iraq should they and the US leave.

Showing the US the door has worried the Kurds and certain Sunni factions, who fear Iraq's further entanglement with Iran were troops to return home.

The Kurdistan regional government openly criticised Prime Minister Al-Sudani's administration as ineffectual and complicit in funding and arming outlawed groups.

Erbil has highlighted the unchecked transportation of missiles, weapons, and drones across the country as indicative of the central government's inaction and weakness.

The remains of the wreckage of a drone that was shot down are seen at Ain al-Asad airbase in Anbar province, Iraq, January 4, 2022.

Aiming to escalate

The actions of militias in Iraq are shuttling the country towards a new wave of violence and increasing its international isolation.

Their efforts to escalate conflict not only aim to embroil Iraq further but also to extend Iranian influence into neighbouring Jordan.

Demonstrations orchestrated by militia supporters along the Iraq-Jordan border are designed to facilitate their passage (and eventual access) to the West Bank. Similar efforts have been observed at the Syria-Jordan border.

Missile attacks on US forces, some as far as Haifa and Eilat in Israel, signal a potential escalation in the US-Iranian confrontation on Iraqi soil.

This escalation is anticipated to unfold through reciprocal intelligence and military operations in the near future.

Iraqis, mainly Shiite Iraqis, increasingly see the peril posed by militias. This could boil over, as it did in October 2019, when a mob attacked the US embassy after a US missile strike against the Kata'ib Hezbollah militia.

These militias may pursue a scorched earth policy, including assassinations and kidnappings, but politically, they have a relatively small support base. They got less than 3% of the total electoral votes during the last election.

In the previous elections, these groups secured the lead with 684,000 votes in a context where the Sadrist Movement and civil movements were abstained.

Were any further escalation to occur, it is unlikely that the unloved militias would not hesitate to pick a fight with the Iraqi populace.

Iraq is a patchwork quilt of militias, some of whom have both the capability and intention of escalating tensions not just in Iraq but beyond it.

Until their power can be broken, they will continue to have a firm grip on decision-making.

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