Mini-Hizballahs, Revolutionary Guard Knock-Offs, and the Future of Iran’s Militant Proxies in Iraq
As the war against the Islamic State enters the final stretch, with less than a quarter of Mosul left to liberate, the Iraqi government must decide whether to allow a residual U.S. military support mission to stay on in Iraq. Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militias have already weighed in on the matter. In early May 2017, Jafar al-Hosseini, a spokesman and senior commander of the Kata’ib Hizballah militia, told Iranian state media: “If [the] Americans fail to leave Iraq [following the defeat of Islamic State] they will be in the crosshairs of the Iraqi Islamic resistance.” Statements such as these, delivered confidently with little fear of government reproach, raise the question: Who is really in charge in Iraq?
The future of Iraq’s Hashd al-Sha’abi, or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), and their constituent militias is one of the most consequential policy challenges facing the Iraqi government and its coalition partners, such as the United States. Raised by a religious fatwa and a political executive order, the PMF played a crucial role in stemming the advance of Islamic State in June 2014, eventually incorporating both Shiite and non-Shiite fighters. But the PMF consist of diverse elements. These include Iranian-backed Shiite militias, “shrine PMF” (whose leaders were selected by the quietist Shiite clergy in Najaf), and Sunni PMF. The latter two groups are assets for Iraq that will hopefully be incorporated into Iraqi Army, Counter-Terrorism Service and police forces. The Tehran-backed PMF, however, are a different matter and their future is a source of acute concern for Washington.
U.S. policymakers are particularly focused on the role that Tehran-backed PMF may play in Iranian efforts to remake parts of the region in its own image. One possibility is the Lebanese Hizballah model — entailing their transformation into political movements with military and social welfare wings, outside of state control but tolerated by the government. With the PMF formally incorporated as a temporary component of the Iraqi Security Forces there is also the possibility that the PMF could become a parallel official military institution akin to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Iran, to counterbalance U.S. and coalition-trained units in the Iraqi Security Forces.
What is the current and future relevance of these models to the Tehran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq? Our research indicates that some PMF elements with ties to Iran, such as Kata’ib Hizballah or Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, face an uncertain path and may continue their evolution towards the Hizballah model. Though presently at odds with Iran, the movement of Moqtada al-Sadr is, in many ways, probably the closest Iraqi equivalent to Hizballah. At the same time, the creation of an IRGC-like parallel military that answers to the country’s leadership is not very likely — at least at this time — in part because the Iran-backed Badr Organization is already determinedly converting elements of the Iraqi Security Forces into a parallel force not entirely under the control of the Iraqi prime minister. All of these eventualities present acute threats to shared U.S., Iraqi, and coalition interests and should be constrained through information operations, security force assistance, security sector reform, and political-economic assistance efforts, described in detail below.
The Hizballah Model
Iran helped create Lebanese Hizballah in the early 1980s and has been trying to apply the Hizballah model in Iraq through its support for groups like Kata’ib Hizballah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq for more than a decade. It has likewise been trying to apply this model in Syria since 2011, through its support for the pro-regime National Defense Forces and various Shiite Hizballah-type militias. Iraqi and U.S. decision-makers need to understand how this model is being applied in Iraq, in order to appreciate its implications and to better counter it there, and elsewhere.
The Lebanese Hizballah party, with its own parallel social-welfare and paramilitary institutions, is Iran’s most successful effort to export its Islamic Revolution. It plays a central role in efforts to aid the region’s “oppressed” Shiites, and to confront Israeli and American interests in the region and beyond. To this end, Hizballah fighters and advisors play a central role in Iran’s “Shiite Foreign Legion,” consisting of sectarian militias from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
The Hizballah model refers to the techniques used by that group to garner influence and gain power in Lebanon. First, it used the credibility conferred by armed “resistance” and social welfare activities to establish itself as the dominant actor in the Shiite community and to garner support among non-Shiite constituencies at home and abroad. Second, it used this popular support to gain a foothold in the political system through elections to ensure that the party’s interests could not be harmed by the state. And third, it used its access to and influence over critical ministries and state agencies to protect and advance the party’s interests, and those of its Iranian patron, while preserving the paramilitary and social welfare organizations that undergird its parallel shadow state.
The slogan of resistance was fashioned into a quasi-religious doctrine of armed struggle by the Lebanese Hizballah in the 1980s. It holds special resonance for Shiites, recalling the death of Imam Hussein at Karbala in 680 CE. The successes of Shiite “resistance” in Lebanon (2000 and 2006) and Iraq (2011) has convinced its adherents that it offers a formula for defeating their enemies. To implement its doctrine of resistance against Israel, Hizballah created a quasi-conventional military force whose capabilities overshadow those of the Lebanese military. Hizballah’s successes against Israel (amplified by relentless propaganda) gave Lebanon’s previously downtrodden Shiites a sense of pride and empowerment. However, its resort to arms against its Lebanese rivals in 2005 and 2008 and its involvement in Syria in support of the Assad regime since 2011 have tarnished the appeal of its “resistance” brand in Lebanon and the region.
From its inception, Hizballah developed social welfare institutions to provide financial, educational, medical, and other services to Lebanon’s long neglected Shiite population, as well as needy members of other communities. These “good works” have been subsidized by some $100-$200 million in annual aid from Iran. Hizballah’s social welfare activities have been extremely important in building a base of support among Lebanon’s Shiites, and have become even more important in recent years. They have cushioned the impact of Hizballah’s 2006 war with Israel, with over 1,000 Lebanese killed, thousands of houses destroyed, and billions of dollars in damage to the country’s infrastructure, and its post-2011 intervention in Syria, with more than 1,700 Hizballah fighters reportedly killed and up to 7,000 wounded. However, intensified U.S. sanctions on Hizballah and the costs of intervention in Syria have forced Hizballah to pare back the provision of social-welfare benefits in recent years, causing grumbling in the party’s ranks.
Hizballah has also developed into a successful political party. The transition from military resistance movement to political party is of particular interest as Shiite-led militias seek to enter the political arena in Iraq. In Lebanon, Hizballah initially sought to strengthen the Shiite community by working as a social movement outside of the framework of the Lebanese state. Its goals and its stance toward politics evolved, however; Hizballah members ran for parliament in 1992, municipal councils in 1996, and joined the government as cabinet ministers in 2005. Meanwhile, Hizballah has abandoned (at least for now) its goal of establishing an Islamic State in Lebanon and has sought to work within the system to advance its interests by ensuring a blocking vote in the cabinet to veto government actions counter to its interests, or those of Iran. And in recent years, it has tried to build a cross-confessional coalition in Lebanon (the so-called March 8 Alliance) to further enhance its political influence. Hizballah’s participation in the Lebanese government and its ties to the military and elements in the security services has enabled it to use the resources of the Lebanese state for its own benefit by providing patronage to its supporters, and obtaining vital political and military intelligence it might not otherwise have had access to. And some non-Shiite Lebanese factions are increasingly coming to see Hizballah as a bulwark against Sunni jihadist groups operating at home and in Syria — and thus an asset to Lebanon.
An Iraqi Hizballah?
Several Iraqi Shiite militias and paramilitary organizations with long-standing ties to Iran, such as Kata’ib Hizballah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and the Badr Organization, see Lebanese Hizballah as a model and view its experience as a possible template for their own efforts to expand influence and political power. This is clearly evident in the political vocabulary, iconography, and modus operandi of these groups. Like Hizballah, the Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite militias trade off the “resistance brand” — their armed struggles against Saddam, the United States, and most recently Islamic State and Syrian Sunni rebel groups. But for many, that is often where the similarities to Lebanese Hizballah end. Movements like Kata’ib Hizballah and Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq (plus their spin-offs) do not yet operate social welfare networks and it will take at least a few years to develop them. The Iraqi Islamo-nationalist movement of Moqtada al-Sadr is the only Shiite militia that operates a relatively active social welfare arm, though not even the Sadrists can compare with the extensive network operated by Hizballah in Lebanon.
The multiplicity of Iraqi Shiite militias is one reason that Hizballah-style primacy probably cannot be reproduced in Iraq. In Lebanon, there was only one Hizballah from the earliest stage of its development. In Iraq, there are many Shiite groups that aspire to this role, and their leaders are often bitter rivals. This is due in part to the ideological and personality-driven fragmentation of the Shiite community, as well as Iran’s policy of splitting off extreme elements from more established mainstream Shiite groups to create proxies, further fracturing the community. Thus, when the Badr Organization joined the political process during the U.S. occupation and became an overt organization, Iran splintered off radical figures from it, such as Abu Mustafa al-Sheibani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, to form Kata’ib Hizballah. Likewise, Iran formed Asa’ib hl al-Haq from radical figures from Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, such as Qais al-Khazali and Ismail al-Lami (a.k.a. Abu Dira — the notorious “Shiite Zarqawi”).
As a result, no single Hizballah-like group has been able to establish itself as the dominant element in the Shiite community. Thus far most of the Iran-backed militia leaders have found it difficult to transition from militia commander to political candidate. This could change in the 2017 provincial elections and 2018 national elections, although the smaller militias will likely be hard pressed to win many seats in an electoral system that favors large parties.
The smaller factions elevated by the PMF phenomenon such as Kata’ib Hizballah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq also face competition from larger and better-established Shiite militias, who broke onto the political scene well before the rise of the PMF in 2014. The key example is Moqtada al-Sadr’s followers, who won 34 seats in the 328-seat parliamentary elections in May 2014 and have been important players, and often kingmakers, at the national and provincial council level. Indeed, if anyone presently fills Hizballah’s position in Iraq, it is arguably Moqtada’s movement rather than any Iranian-backed group. Relying on resistance motifs and a basic social welfare network, Moqtada’s movement adopts an in-and-out approach to government. Oscillating between boycotting politics and providing ministers to the cabinet, Moqtada today launches major protest campaigns against the government in an effort to sway its policies from without.
Though Iranian-backed groups may try again to co-opt parts of Moqtada’s movement, his networks have proven to be resilient in the past and are likely to remain so. Iran nurtured Qais Khazali’s Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq from 2006 in order to carve off portions of Moqtada’s support base and draw them into an organization that was explicitly modelled on the Lebanese Hizballah. However, it evolved only in the military realm and failed to create an extensive social welfare network or attain a major political role (garnering only one seat in the last parliamentary election). Smaller PMF elements like Kata’ib Hizballah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq are unlikely to merge with each other or surrender their identities to Moqtada’s movement or Badr, and they face an uphill struggle to attract political constituencies away from established parties. This reduces the likelihood that these Hizballah clones will grow to play a dominant role in Iraqi politics.
The Revolutionary Guard and Basij Models
The IRGC differs fundamentally from Lebanese Hizballah because it sits at the center of Iran’s power structure, not apart from state, and answers directly to the Supreme Leader — the Commander in Chief of the country’s armed forces. Whereas Lebanese Hizballah can divert resources from the state, the IRGC is a major part of the state, operating significant economic ventures and military forces. Under the IRGC model, the state pays for the sustainment and growth of the militant guardians that ensure the very survival of the regime.
The IRGC was founded in 1979 during the early days of the Islamic Revolution, as a revolutionary military organization to counterbalance the regular Iranian military (Artesh) — whose commitment to the revolution was suspect due to its ties to the Shah’s regime and to the U.S. and British militaries. In the course of the Iran-Iraq War, the IRGC evolved into a military force with ground, air, naval, surface-to-surface missile components, and most recently a cyber arm, although its ethos has remained unconventional. The role of the IRGC is to defend the revolution and its achievements, protect against “soft warfare” (attempts to foment a “color revolution” in Iran), to export the revolution, and it has come to overshadow the regular army in both the country’s external and internal affairs. The IRGC (or its Basij militia auxiliary) played a role in quashing domestic unrest in 1994, 1999, and 2009 and threatened a coup against president Mohammad Khatami in 1999 unless he reigned in student unrest. It has also been involved in conflicts in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. In Iran this trend has swollen the Revolutionary Guard’s influence to the point where it is almost semi-autonomous and state-like in many areas of exclusive delegated authority such as operations in Iran’s near-abroad.
The Basij was founded in 1980 and is a volunteer paramilitary organization that is subordinate to the IRGC and deployed throughout the country. It was intended to be a “20 million man army” to counter foreign military intervention (the actual number is believed to be four to five million). The primary mission of the Basij is social control (achieved through ideological indoctrination and a pervasive presence on university campuses, in factories and offices, and on the street), internal security, and waging a “peoples’ war” against invaders. Following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Basij and IRGC were trained to conduct guerilla warfare against an invading force in accordance with a new, decentralized defensive concept — the regime’s so-called “mosaic” doctrine.
An Iraqi Revolutionary Guard or Basij?
Since 2013, the Iraqi state began to lean on Iranian-backed Shiite militias as a crutch due to the declining effectiveness of the Iraqi Security Forces and the expanding security threats posed by the Islamic State. The fatwa and executive orders that formalized the PMF were quickly seized upon by the existing Iran-backed Shiite militias and their allied politicians — including the ousted prime minister Nouri al-Maliki — to “empire build” a new security institution that might provide a permanent source of legitimacy, weapons and salaries for its constituent militias. Nearly three years into the PMF’s existence, the development of a PMF ministry with a line item in each budget is exactly the outcome that some PMF advocates seek, not least the PMF Commission’s operational commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
If this were to occur, the PMFs could play the role of the IRGC, with standing forces paralleling the missions of the regular security forces, or the PMF could play a Basij-like role as an auxiliary or reserve force with an ideological mission. (Indeed, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq has already spoken about creating a hashd “in every field,” including a student and a university hashd, to infuse civil society with AAH’s Islamist worldview and to combat the Western “cultural invasion”—much like the Basij does in Iran.) A permanent PMF ministry might be viewed as a counter to the influence of military units that have been trained by the United States and its partners. The creation of a new parallel security force would roughly conform to historical patterns of praetorianism in the design of Arab militaries, whereby a “Republican Guard” unit tied to the ruling clique by family and tribal connections is deployed in and around the capital city. In this case, the model would not be an indigenous template, but that of Iran’s “Revolutionary Guard” — and the result would be a sectarian military organization with a religious-ideological orientation, that is tied to a foreign power. Another likely mission for a standing PMF would be to maintain a presence along parts of the Kurdistan-Iraq frontline, particularly in mixed areas where tensions are high between Shiite Turkmen and the Kurds. Following the IRGC/Basij model, the PMFs could likewise be used to inculcate in Iraqi society the culture of jihad, resistance, and martyrdom as well as the anti-Americanism that are the hallmarks of the IRGC and Basij, and the ideology of the Islamic Republic. An Iranian-dominated PMF ministry would likely try to present itself as an authentically Islamic military organization that serves “Iraqi” interests, even as its members express fealty to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene’i or his successor, as opposed to the Iraqi military, which will be tarred as an instrument of Western influence based on an un-Islamic ethos and foreign institutional ties.
Both the February 2016 executive order establishing the PMF as a formal part of the Iraqi Security Forces and the November 2016 law were interpreted by many Iraqis as moves in the direction of a permanent institutionalized PMF that could become an IRGC/Basij equivalent. But the duration of the PMF’s existence was not described in either the order or the law, nor was permanent funding assured for the PMF. Instead, these documents emphasized that the PMF is under the prime minister’s command and under the military code of justice. The PMF law clarified that they were not being formalized at ministry-level, as the Counter-Terrorism Service were. According to many observers, the Shiite religious establishment headed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani seems to be cautiously preparing to issue a new fatwa that would negate the religious decree that underpins the PMF, at which point the government would announce its plans for the re-employment and demobilization of many PMF volunteers.
Restrictions on the resourcing of the PMF is a key issue, and a clear differentiator (at least at present) from the well-funded IRGC/Basij, hinting at the intention of the political and religious establishment to maintain the institutional impermanence of the PMF until they can be dissolved or merged into other entities. At present, the PMF Commission of the Prime Minister’s Office is funded by an annual decision by the prime minister and to a lesser extent the parliament to include a PMF allocation in the Iraqi budget. In the 2017 budget the PMF Commission of the Prime Minister’s Office received funding for 122,000 PMF members, which included recurrent spending of 1.39 trillion Iraqi dinars ($1.18 billion). This includes 1.27 trillion dinars ($1.08 billion) for salaries and 120 billion dinars ($102 million) for other operating expenses. Our enquiries with Iraqi government officials in Baghdad provide further granularity that is not in the Arabic-language main budget but which is described in non-public budget annexes. The PMF also received an allocation of 518 billion dinars ($441 million) for capital expenditure (procurement), which was raised from a 3 percent deduction from state employee salaries, of which 60 percent is used for PMF procurement of “essential supplies” such as food, water and ammunition.
Total spending on the PMF in 2017, excluding any undeclared support from Iran, is 1.91 trillion dinars ($1.63 billion). This compares to 30.19 trillion dinars ($25.83 billion) of non-PMF security costs in the 2017 budget, including 8.8 trillion dinars ($7.51 billion) for the Ministry of Defense, 10.8 trillion dinars ($9.21 billion) for the Ministry of Interior and 0.8 trillion dinars ($683 million) for the Counter-Terrorism Service, plus over a billion dollars of military aid provided by foreign security assistance partners to non-PMF elements. By way of comparison, the $1.63 billion that Baghdad plans to spend on the PMF in its 2017 budget is about 22 percent of the $7.4 billion that Tehran plans to spend on the IRGC in Iran’s 2017-2018 budget. The PMF receives 6 percent of Iraq’s security-related spending, despite providing 28 percent of the country’s frontline armed strength.
Thus, in terms of per capita resourcing, the PMF still lag far behind all the other security agencies in a manner that suggests their growth into a permanent institution is being deliberately curtailed in favor of traditional security organizations. Of course, this allocation could change after the 2018 elections if a new Iraqi prime minister increased PMF funding — potentially a third-term Nouri al-Maliki or another member of Maliki’s Iran-leaning faction. The power of an IRGC/Basij-equivalent would then be tied to its ability to out-grow and intimidate the Iraqi Security Forces, which would in turn be determined by the willingness and ability of the Iraqi government and the international community to fund, protect and support the Iraqi Army, Counter-Terrorism Service, and possibly also Ministry of Interior forces.
The Badr Organization: The IRGC’s main project in Iraq?
Even if a new security ministry is not created in Iraq, one of the most well-established Iranian-backed Shiite militias — the Badr Organization — is arguably partway towards carving out an IRGC clone within the existing security forces. Badr conducted covert paramilitary operations in Iraq during the 1980s and 1990s under orders from the IRGC Qods Force, but the movement and its Iranian sponsors decided to join the U.S.-led democratic transition in Iraq after 2003. Badr maintained its operational ties to the IRGC Qods Force throughout its period of ostensible cooperation with the United States. Members of the Badr Organization now lead the Ministry of Interior, Iraq’s largest ministry, which, as noted above, has a budget larger than the IRGC. Badr has also developed informal dominance of the Ministry of Defense security forces within a large swathe of Iraqi territory in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad. The Badr Organization enjoys fast-growing influence, with 22 of 328 seats in the Iraqi parliament, plus growing representation on the nine provincial councils in central and southern Iraq.
One of the reasons for Badr’s success is that the movement began its hollowing out of the Iraqi Security Forces in 2003, eleven years prior to the formation of the PMF. Between 2003 and 2005, sixteen thousand Shiite militiamen were incorporated into the nascent ISF. These so-called dimaj (direct appointment) personnel lacked any formal professional education as soldiers or policemen. Badr provided the lion’s share of these recruits, largely Iraqi Shiites who lived in exile in Iran throughout the 1980s and 1990s and who fought on the Iranian side during the Iran-Iraq War. Many have either dual Iraqi-Iranian citizenship or were born in Iran and only received their Iraqi citizenship post-2003. The Badr recruits were often assigned to Iraqi Army intelligence, Ministry of Interior special weapons and tactics teams, and the ministry’s National Information and Investigations Agency — Iraq’s FBI-equivalent. Because, prior to 2003, Badr personnel were trained and controlled by the IRGC Qods Force during their stay in Iran, their integration into the Iraqi Security Forces since then has produced an acute counterintelligence challenge. In addition to filling out key Iraqi Security Forces portfolios, Badr also eliminated hundreds of potential rivals within the security forces, notably Saddam-era intelligence personnel, and exacted revenge on Saddam-era pilots who flew bombing missions during the Iran-Iraq War.
Today, Badr leads the Ministry of Interior, which allows it to support or undermine provincial police chiefs across the country. The ministry also commands the 37,000-strong Federal Police, a five-division motorized infantry force, and the Emergency Response Division, a divisional-sized special weapons and tactics group akin to the Counter-Terrorism Service. Since 2005, Badr has also controlled the leadership and manning of the Iraqi Army 5th division in Diyala, and is interested in folding its dozen or so PMF brigades into a new Badr-controlled Iraqi Army or Federal Police division. Taken together, these represent the largest concentration of ground forces in the country, outnumbering the functional parts of the federally-controlled Iraqi Army and Counter-Terrorism Service.
Modelling the Future of Iraqi Shiite Militias
In Iraq, the development of a new institution based on the IRGC is perhaps the least likely evolution of the PMF, primarily because Iran and its proxies are not fully in charge of the diverse and fractious Iraqi state. For this reason, it may be effectively resisted. Nor is there the opportunity for a unitary Iraqi Hizballah to emerge from the PMF factions at the moment. In any case, the niche is already partly filled by Moqtada al-Sadr’s movement, which is recommending demobilization of the PMF into a veterans’ affairs department. Badr’s quiet hollowing-out of large portions of the Iraqi Security Forces represent a different model to either the “Hizballah-ization” of Iraq or the overt development of a new IRGC knock-off there. In many ways, Badr’s model is more problematic than either the Hizballah or IRGC models, and may serve Iran’s interests equally well.
Arguably, as long as Badr continues to consolidate security powers and to follow IRGC’s instructions, Iran has no immediate need to develop a new Hizballah, or a new IRGC or Basij inside Iraq. The case of Lebanese Hizballah may point to some future complexities of the Badr-Iran relationship. Hizballah has significant latitude to pursue its own interests in Lebanon, but remains tethered to Tehran when it comes to the pursuit of regional interests. Thus, the devastating 2006 war with Israel was the outcome of a kidnapping attempt by Hizballah that was undertaken without Iran’s blessing, to advance Hizballah’s domestic agenda. The war cost Tehran its massive investment in Hizballah’s rocket force, which was part of Iran’s strategic deterrent, as well as billions of dollars for reconstruction in Lebanon. Since then, Tehran has exerted much greater control over Hizballah’s military activities to prevent such a recurrence.
Iran may pragmatically allow Badr a great deal of latitude to pursue its own approach in normal times, but will expect it to act in accordance with Iranian interests when the latter’s vital interests are at stake. The key issue for the United States is whether Badr might one day play a role in attacking U.S. personnel or evicting U.S. troops from Iraq. Badr includes many deeply anti-American elements, not least the current Minister of Interior Qassem al-Araji, who spent 26 months in U.S. military custody and has been accused of supporting deadly attacks on U.S. personnel. Yet, Badr has also profited greatly by working alongside the United States since 2003. At the time of this writing, the Badr-led Emergency Response Division and Federal Police units in the Mosul battle have worked hand-in-glove with U.S. air power, for instance in the recapture of Mosul airport. Qassem al-Araji has even stressed the need for U.S. airstrikes in Iraq. If directed by Tehran, could Badr be relied upon to risk its role in government, or its control over the Ministry of Interior, to answer Iran’s call to undertake attacks on U.S. military personnel in Iraq? Or might Tehran use radical Badr members to form another splinter group to continue to fight — as it did in the past with Badr members Abu Mustafa al-Sheibani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis?
This is why smaller groups like Kata’ib Hizballah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, as well as any new breakaway groups that Tehran forms, will continue to serve a very useful purpose for Iran and the IRGC, being easier to influence and deploy in Iraq and in regional struggles such as Syria or Bahrain. In the last three years Kata’ib Hizballah has fired rockets into Saudi Arabia, trained and armed Bahraini Shiite militants, and kidnapped Qatari citizens to build Tehran’s leverage over Doha. Most recently, Harakat al-Nujaba, a splinter of Kata’ib Hizballah, announced the formation of a unit to liberate the Golan Heights from Israeli control. Considering Badr’s prominent role in government and the political ambitions of Hadi al-Ameri, it is hard to imagine Badr making the same threat outside conditions of an armed clash between Iran/Hizballah and Israel. Kata’ib Hizballah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq are likely to welcome their ongoing independence from state security organs. The challenge for these groups will be maintaining armed forces and training camps inside Iraq if there is a formal demobilization of the PMF. To do so, they may need to resume a semi-covert mode of operation, move elements into Iran and Syria, and distance their political and military wings.
U.S. Policy Issues and Options
There is already an embryonic IRGC-like structure forming in Iraq, though it faces strong countervailing pressures from the Iraqi body politic and the Iraqi Army and Counter-Terrorism Service. It is also likely that an array of Iranian-backed Hizballah-wannabe militias will persist in Iraq and will not be neatly consolidated into one entity. Like the Lebanese original, these smaller Iraqi Hizballah clones will be used to attack Iran’s enemies such as Israel, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and possibly to pressure Iraqi political, military or religious leaders who push back too hard against Tehran’s priorities. Many of these mini-Hizballahs will be partially enmeshed within the security forces and their part-time involvement in foreign wars with Sunni neighbors will be politically difficult for Iraq’s Shiite prime ministers to prevent.
The thorniest issue is how Washington should treat Badr and its ambitious leader Hadi al-Ameri. The PMF phenomenon has empowered Badr, a movement that cannot be ignored or sidelined because it is a major and growing power in the parliament, the provincial councils, and the security forces. The United States has worked with Badr on and off during the past 14 years — but there is a persistent concern that in doing so, Washington is merely building up a future adversary that could displace more moderate leaders who are more amenable to working with the United States.
This is a discouraging picture, but far from the hopeless image of an Iraq “lost” to Iranian domination. The Iran-backed PMF factions do not have to be a political-military game-changer in Iraq as long as Iraqi factions and international partners continue to resist the creation of a new, permanent, well-funded security institution that operates independently of the Iraqi chain of command. While the United States is no longer an occupying power in Iraq and must conduct all efforts “by, with and through” its sovereign Iraqi partners, U.S. actions will nevertheless be among the most important factors influencing Iran’s ability to transform the PMF into an instrument of influence. The more Washington steps back in Iraq, the more Tehran will step forward; a repeat of the rapid coalition drawdown and disengagement after 2011 will likely embolden Tehran and better position it to expand its influence there.
To avert such an outcome, the United States should lock in the international coalition’s commitment to continue training the Iraqi Security Forces, deal with the heightened threat of ISIL terrorism after the latter’s military defeat, help secure Iraq’s borders, and maintain Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve as a broad multinational coalition even after the war against ISIL. Washington should also approve a new three-year Iraq Train and Equip Fund II package for the Iraqi Security Forces to cover 2017-2020, supplanting the current package covering 2014-2017. Building on this overarching policy framework, U.S. and coalition policy-makers should focus on three achievable objectives vis-à-vis the PMF.
Deny Iran-backed PMF Budgetary and Institutional Advantages
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani may issue a new fatwa after the liberation of Mosul that relieves Iraqis of their duty to take up arms, but in the lead–up to Iraqi elections it may be difficult for the Shiite-led government to fully disband the PMF Commission of the Prime Minister’s Office. In the likely event that a PMF agency of some kind does survive the war against ISIL, the priority of Iraq’s partners should be to minimize its negative potential. The PMF should be treated with respect and supported by the international community only if certain reasonable conditions are met. Controversial terrorist actors like Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis should be eased out. The cross-sectarian character of the PMF should be further developed to make it a more inclusive organization that reflects Iraqi society. The PMF should not be a parallel military, duplicating the role of existing agencies like the Iraqi Army and Counter-Terrorism Service. Instead, the PMF should fill existing gaps, serving as wartime reserve forces, as border security and critical infrastructure security forces, or as rural “neighborhood watch” forces that are not permitted to operate within cities. Over time, professionalization through coalition military training could loosen PMF ties to the Iranian-backed militias, with American vetting requirements ( as required by the Leahy Law) acting as a means of complicating the involvement of bad actors in the PMF.
Washington and Baghdad must also work to prevent Badr or another actor from carving out a factional army within the existing security forces. The best way to do so is by generously resourcing the most reliable and effective elements of the security forces such as the army and Counter-Terrorism Service. Of note, the PMF budget in 2017 is more than double the Counter-Terrorism Service budget ($1.63 billion for PMF versus $683 million for the Counter-Terrorism Service). This needs to be reversed. The Counter-Terrorism Service needs major international security assistance, as does a subset of Iraqi Army divisions — commensurate to the substantial role they played in defeating ISIL — to provide the government with the forces it needs to pursue ISIL into the desert hinterlands, borders and covert hideaways. The leadership of the Ministry of Interior should be rotated after elections between Iraq’s leading factions to ensure that this critical ministry does not become the fiefdom of the Badr Organization, no matter how reasonable or cooperative they may seem at any given moment.
Resist the Blurring of the Iraqi PMF “Liberation” Brand with the Hizballah/Iran “Resistance” Brand
In reflecting on the conduct of the war against ISIL, the United States needs to recognize the PMF phenomenon as a heroic chapter in Iraq’s history. Although the principal forces that liberated most of Iraq’s cities were the Iraqi Army, the Counter-Terrorism Service, and the Federal Police, the positive contributions of the PMF should be honored. To this end, the United States might make a powerful gesture on this issue, possibly including a monument and scholarships and medical support for select PMF veterans drawn from all ethno-sectarian backgrounds.
But there also needs to be a clear differentiation between Iraqi heroes who stood up to ISIL versus armed non-state actors who used the war against Islamic State to engage in criminal activities and build political franchises. The international community should help expose the crimes of those bad actors who are trying to hide behind the mantle of the PMF “resistance brand,” which is a disservice to the genuine heroes of the popular mobilization. The U.S., British, Australian, and Italian militaries hold ample evidence of the misdeeds of groups like Kata’ib Hizballah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq against Iraqi civilians and security force members, as does the Iraqi government. These movements and their spin-offs still have not answered for years of gangsterism, intra-Shiite bloodletting, and sectarian cleansing of non-Shiites. Likewise, governments in the region should be encouraged to release evidence that movements like Kata’ib Hizballah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq are active in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Syria at Iran’s behest, and in clear contravention of the Iraqi constitution and the Iraqi military chain of command. In March 2017, Prime Minister Abadi noted at the U.S. Institute for Peace that Iraq wanted to stay out of the region’s sectarian Cold War. If Iraq wants peace with its Sunni neighbors and their help with its reconstruction, these interventions by Iraqi sub-state actors working on behalf of Iranian interests need to be exposed, investigated and stopped. The United States should name Iraqi individuals involved in cross-border activities as special-designated terrorists, to make it more difficult for such individuals to travel, attain high office in Iraq’s government, or benefit from U.S. and international aid to the Iraqi Security Forces (including the PMF).
Moreover, Washington should avoid self-inflicted wounds such as the careless rollout of the travel ban on Iraqis in February 2017. These kinds of mistakes are easy to make, but are exceedingly difficult to fix, and often have consequences that are regional in scope and geopolitical in scale. As a result, the U.S. is always playing catch-up against the propaganda efforts of Iranian-backed PMF elements.
The United States and its allies should also undermine the resistance brand by remaining firmly committed to resolving the Syrian civil war and pursuing ISIL inside Syria, so as not to cede ground there to the Iran-backed PMF, and provide them with a pretext for additional foreign interventions. Likewise, America’s Gulf Arab allies should be strongly encouraged to pursue political processes with Shiite oppositionists in states like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, as well as with the Houthis in Yemen, for these wars feed the resistance brand of the Iran-backed PMF elements. Against this backdrop, the United States and its partners should encourage the Iraqi government to establish and enforce legal limits on external activities by PMF-associated militias that have not been authorized by the Prime Minister, in his capacity as commander in chief. This would add force to Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s fatwa prohibiting the PMF from operating outside the framework of the Iraqi government and outside of Iraq.
Deny Iran-Backed PMF Social Welfare Advantages and a Sectarian Political Climate.
An underperforming government and a fractured society are fertile ground for Iranian-backed PMF elements seeking Hizballah- or IRGC/Basij-like attributes. For instance, since the end of the U.S. military presence in 2011, the development of social welfare institutions has not been a U.S. national security priority in Iraq, but that should change. Otherwise, Iran-backed groups will fill the social service vacuum for their own political benefit. U.S. and coalition assistance should focus on capacity-building at both the national (ministerial) and provincial levels. U.S. policy should continue to support key projects with tangible impact on Iraq’s public services such as the electricity, water and health sectors, to demonstrate that non-PMF political parties can deliver services. The United States should also strengthen its outreach into Shiite Iraq, particularly via its Basra consulate, which is located in Iraq’s poorest but most economically vital oil-rich southern province.
Likewise, the United States should work to deny Iranian-backed militias a propitious political and ethnosectarian climate in which to develop political wings by supporting moderate Iraqi political actors such as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. And it should foster cross-sectarian and multi-ethnic politicking, to produce cross-cutting electoral alliances that would undermine the appeal of sectarian Shiite groups like Kata’ib Hizballah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Badr. Meanwhile, the United States should do what it can to splinter Iranian-backed militant groups, by constructively engaging some Iranian-backed elements of Badr whilst continuing to treat Kata’ib Hizballah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq as terrorist actors and designating elements of Badr as such. Through this process and the general strengthening of the Iraqi government, the United States may incentivize the breakup or withering of sectarian militias and political movements.
Towards the Future
There is still time to offset the gains that Iran’s proxies have made in the last three years. The Iraqi state almost lost its monopoly over the use of force during the Iraqi Army’s collapse of 2014. The victories in Tikrit, Ramadi and Mosul, amongst other battles, have created a window of opportunity to rebuild the Iraqi Army and Counter-Terrorism Service as a bulwark against the return of ISIL, and against Iranian-backed militias currently embedded within the PMF. Iraq is too populous, resource-rich and centrally positioned to be surrendered to Iran’s domination. Placing Iraq — the world’s fourth largest energy producer – under the effective control of Iran — the third largest producer — would be an unprecedentedly destabilizing event. This very predicament — preventing the emergence of a regional hegemon that controlled most of the region’s oil — is what drew the U.S.-led coalition to use force against Saddam’s regime when he invaded Kuwait. And Iraq — thanks to its location — is the geopolitical lynchpin of efforts to prevent the emergence of a Shiite crescent controlled by Iran in the heart of the Arab Middle East. This prospect should alone give pause and should encourage all major nations to support Iraq’s government in reducing the risks posed by Iranian-backed militias.
Michael Knights is the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Michael Eisenstadt is Kahn Fellow and Director of the Military and Security Studies Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.