Iraq’s political quagmire has been a constant in the face of Iran’s enormous control over its decision-making institutions and religious narrative. Iraqis, however, are not ready to submit just yet. At the heart of Iran’s influence in Iraq is the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The umbrella organization, with militant outfits dating back to the Iran-Iraq war, has persistently dealt with internal power struggles but they never spun out of control under the command of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Qassem Soleimani. Since their assassinations, the succession battle has left the PMF in tatters.
On April 22, four Iraqi brigades aligned with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani parted ways with the PMF because of the controversial appointment of pro-Iranian Abdulaziz al-Muhammedawi to head the PMF. This decision has not gone down well with Iraqi brigades. These Iraqi militias refuse to accept the majority decision while objecting to the PMF consultative committee as well as the very process itself.
Since the 2016 parliamentary legislation, the PMF has been incorporated into the Iraqi Security Forces. Its commander thus has an official position. His appointment as deputy president of the PMF consultative committee has yet to be notified. Being the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, then-Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi did not approve the decision while political turmoil continued.
Formed on the directive of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Iraqi shrine brigades – Liwa Ansar al Marjaiyya, Liwa Ali Akbar, the Abbas Combat Division and the Imam Ali Brigade – are nationalist militias serving only Iraq’s interests. They have questioned al-Muhammedawi’s appointment from the outset, casting doubt at the selection process and the PMF’s heavy inclination towards Iran. The stage is set for a pitched confrontation between Iraq’s Najaf and Iran’s Qom to resolve a political row about Iraq’s executive office and the cabinet.
The Iraqi militia brigades have been fuming openly and even Ayatollah al-Sistani is backing the resistance against Iran’s control of the PMF. Naturally, the ‘resistance’ militias are not aloof from society and politics, and are fatigued by Tehran’s control over their decision-making and way of life. These differences existed in the era of Muhandis and Soleimani but they skillfully addressed them or managed those which could not be resolved in the short term. The United States waited a while to effectively take out the PMF and Quds Force commanders at the very same time. The void that resulted was underestimated due to a surge of rage and emotions but three months down the road it has become impossible to fill. Al-Muhandis, who had emerged as a multi-talented commander of Kata’ib Hezbollah, commanded equal respect amongst his Iraqi contemporaries as well as his Iranian handlers and mentors.
The Iraqi government has also been under pressure to eventually cull the PMF by gradually limiting its operational capability and role as a parallel security force. The sniper killing of Iraqi protestors by PMF affiliates further aggravated Iraqi anger against the organization. Tehran has erred in applying its Syrian policy of total control and oppression of nationalistic sentiments in Iraq. However, history cannot be altered. For al-Muhammedawi, the delicate balance between Iran’s interests and Iraqi nationalism has been impossible to maintain given external existential threats to the PMF and his feeble working relationship with various formative units. Though Brigadier General Esmail Qaani has served as second-in-command of the Quds Force for decades, his recent visit to Iraq has failed to yield the expected results.
Growing infighting among various Qom-aligned and Najaf-aligned brigades hampers the PMF’s ability to pressure US troops in Iraq. Thus, the Quds Force had to raise a new militia to continue attacking US troops stationed inside Iraqi bases. This is a clear departure from its decades-long strategy in Iraq. After failing to impact the PMF factions despite his persistent efforts, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah remains committed to mediating amongst the PMF’s various factions.
Nasrallah enjoys cordial relations with al-Muhammedawi. Their relations are decades old. The PMF commander-designate is a veteran of the Badr Organization, an outfit formed in 1983 during the Iran-Iraq war to fight Saddam Hussein. Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, al-Muhammedawi is known to have fought under Soleimani. The Hezbollah supremo’s ability to mediate is hampered by his deep ties with the Qom establishment. The results have so far been unimpressive and the Iraqi shrine militias are keeping their distance with Ayatollah al-Sistani supporting them. He was instrumental in the creation of the PMF through a fatwa instructing Iraqi citizens to defend the country from the ISIS threat and to volunteer to serve the country’s security forces to protect the holy shrines. Now the 89-year-old religious influencer disagrees with the path that the PMF has adopted. He prefers referring to the PMF as volunteers or ‘mutatawwa’een’ in Arabic.
Pro-Iranian brigades like Kata’ib Hezbollah, Badr, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, and Harakat al-Nujaba have better training and financial and war-fighting resources compared to the Iraqi shrine militias. Iraqi concerns about the PMF taking over the government in Baghdad have been soaring within political circles especially after its heavy-handed approach during the anti-corruption protests.
The band of four Iraqi brigades may seem small but has a greater value in political and nationalistic circles. Of 150,000 registered militants under the PMF flag, the band of four brigades comprises around 12,000. Amidst the chaos following the twin assassinations and the ongoing tug-of-war, more desertions are likely.
Now that the differences have become bitter and exposed in public, reviving the PMF will be a daunting task for the IRGC and Hezbollah. Ayatollah al-Sistani seems uninterested in backing such a move at all. Perhaps now is the time for the United States to avoid using force and rely instead on backdoor intrigues to weaken its fierce foe in Iraq.