Iraq’s powerful and politically potent Shia militias are becoming a flashpoint in the escalating clash between the U.S. and Iran, with the Trump White House citing the militias’ rise — and the threat they pose to American forces — as a key justification for the recent military buildup in the Middle East.
President Trump has said he is not seeking a war with Tehran, but the region remained on edge as John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s hawkish national security adviser, arrived in the region and declared U.S. officials were convinced Iranian maritime mines were behind the recent sabotage of international oil tankers. Tehran is increasingly squeezed to hit back at ever-tightening sanctions imposed by Washington.
“There’s no doubt in anybody’s mind in Washington who’s responsible for this,” Mr. Bolton said in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday of the attacks on the tankers.
In Tehran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi called Mr. Bolton’s remarks a “ridiculous accusation” but “not a strange thing” given what he said was Mr. Bolton’s long record of anti-Iranian stances, The Associated Press reported.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan, briefing reporters on his way to an Asian defense summit, also insisted Iran and its proxies remain a threat, justifying President Trump’s to send more troops and assets to the region earlier this month.
“I don’t see a change in any behavior,” Mr. Shanahan said. ” … The Iranian threat to our forces in the region remains.”
As the two sides work through the latest crisis, the role of Iraq’s potent Shia militias, operating outside the formal Iraqi army structure, are facing ever-closer scrutiny.
Despite longstanding ties to the Iranian military, the Iraqi-based militia leaders have said repeatedly they do not want a clash with the U.S., while officials in Baghdad continue to maintain the Shia paramilitaries are under strict government control.
Iraq is so determined to avoid becoming collateral damage in a U.S.-Iran clash that Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi told reporters this week he was planning emergency trips to both Washington and Tehran in the coming days “to meet with top officials in order to discuss regional situation, aiming to neutralize the current political crisis.”
Regional analysts and military experts, however, remain divided on the true threat posed by the Shia militias, known inside Iraq as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF, and how much control Baghdad actually exercises over them.
Some say the militias became a threat the minute American and allied forces allowed them to have a role in the fight against the Islamic State — despite those forces being armed and trained by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). If the thousands of U.S. forces still based in Iraq are attacked, many suspect the PMF will be the vehicle.
“The threat is there [in Iraq], the question is how will Iran use it in the region,” said Elie Abouaoun, director of Middle East programs at the Washington-based U.S. Institute for Peace.
Yet others contend that officials in Baghdad have thus far been able to manage the militias’ growing political and military influence. While Iran and Iraq share political and economic bonds as Shia-majority states in a largely Sunni Muslim region, many Iraqi nationalist politicians are wary of Tehran and the prospect of too much Iranian influence inside Iraq.
Aaron Magid, an Iraqi analyst for Tesla Government, noted that the current Iraqi government has repeatedly resisted Iran’s preferred policies — notably in allowing a sizable U.S. military contingent to retain its base in the country.
“Despite Tehran’s considerable influence in Baghdad, its ambitions in Iraq have repeatedly been thwarted,” Mr. Magid wrote recently for ForeignPolicy.com. Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi “is no Iran stooge; his reluctance to advance legislation to expel U.S. forces highlights his understanding that Baghdad must preserve friendly ties with many competing powers.”
And a national poll earlier this month by the Baghdad-based Akkad Center for Strategic Affairs and Future Studies found that 60% of Iraqis polled want the U.S. to be the country’s principal political and economic partner, compared to just 8% who would prefer Iran.
But there is also little doubt the PMFs give Iran another tool to defy and distract Washington — without risking a catastrophic direct conflict.
While Iran does not want an open conflict with the U.S., Tehran does not “fear the occurrence of a war,” said IRCG spokesman Gen. Ramazan Sharif. “The enemy is not more powerful than before. We have enough readiness to defend the country,” he said, according to AP.
On Saturday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the U.S. decision to beef up its military presence in Iraq was “extremely dangerous and a threat to international peace and security,” Al-Jazeera reported.
Should war break out between Washington and Iran, Tehran will be able to “face the war, whether it is economic or military through the steadfastness and its forces,” Mr. Zarif said during a joint press conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Ali al-Hakim.
The PMF’s key role in helping roll back Islamic State’s once-massive “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria is a key to its enduring influence in Iraqi military and political circles. The decision by Baghdad to enlist the PMFs in the fight has come back to haunt many of Iraq’s leaders today.
“What started as military forces has evolved into a political force” as well as an economic one, Mr. Abouaoun, with various PMFs controlling a number of Iraqi oil fields, as well as military checkpoints along major shipping thoroughfares, collecting taxes and other income to support their efforts, he said.
Baghdad’s efforts to bring the militias under the government’s control, federalizing the PMF as an auxiliary force to the Iraqi military in 2017, have largely failed, said Mr. Abouaoun. Since the ouster of the Islamic State from Iraq in late 2017, the PMF ranks have swelled to an estimated 140,000 registered fighters — constituting nearly half of the Iraqi army and a quarter of the security forces under the Interior Ministry.
On paper, the militias are under the control of Baghdad “but practically acting outside the realm of the government” in favor of Tehran, Mr. Abouaoun said. “The mere assumption those groups could be tamed was mere illusion,” he noted.
The militias translated that clout into political power during last October’s parliamentary elections.
The Sairoon alliance, the Shia political bloc led by firebrand nationalist cleric-turned-politician Muqtada al-Sadr, and including representatives from Iranian-backed groups such as Badr Organization, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah — who have been accused of carrying out last Sunday’s Green Zone attack, took 40% of the parliamentary seats.
Mr. Abouaoun characterized the political strategy employed by the Iraqi Shia militias as the “Lebanese model,” referring to the powerful position of the Shiite Hezbollah movement in Beirut. “This is the business model Iran has established in the region,” he said.
Asked how long it will take for Iraq to evolve into another Lebanon, Mr. Abouaoun replied: “I do not think they are very far from that.”
⦁ Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire service reports.