Iraqi army aims to integrate Iranian-backed militias

Under US pressure, Baghdad seeks control over powerful force in country

Iraq's Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi meets Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Baghdad, Iraq March 11, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iraq's Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi meets Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Baghdad, Iraq March 11, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi has ordered the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias in his country to come under the control of the official state military by July 31, while severing their ties with “political forces.”
With the order’s publication on Monday, Abdul-Mahdi explained that all Iran- backed Shi’ite militias shall operate as integral parts of the Iraqi armed forces, and that whatever “applies to the armed forces shall apply to them, except as provided in a special note.” In addition, “these forces will act under the expertise of the armed forces commander-in-chief in accordance with the official law legislated by the House of Representatives and the appropriate regulations, as well as instructions.”
In the decree, Abdul-Mahdi called for the abandonment of unit names and ranks instituted by the Shi’ite militias independent of the Iraqi army, such as “brigade” and “regiment.” He said that further orders would be issued to restructure these Shi’ite groups and their formations.
The private militias in Iraq, most of them Shi’ite, come under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces and have more than 140,000 fighters. They played an important role in defeating Islamic State.
Amin Hoteit, an expert on military strategy and former brigadier-general in the Lebanese army, explained to The Media Line that the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias together formed an independent force in Iraq. He said, however, that under the law, they were already subject to the authority of the prime minister in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the army.
“The Iraqi government has been paying these forces allowances and compensation for a while now,” Hoteit said.
In terms of legal authority, nothing would change, he added. However, the nomenclature would change.
Hoteit stressed, however, that the important thing was how the order was implemented.
“Will the configurations of these groups continue as they are? Or will their configurations be changed?” adding that Iran “would insist on selecting the new [militia] leaders if they are going to be replaced.”
Moreover, Hoteit expressed concern over how the members of these groups would receive the decision and whether it would affect their will to continue fighting the remnants of ISIS and other Sunni terrorists. They are motivated by local patriotism, serving as they do in their villages and cities, Hoteit said. “Will they be organized [in units] according to their province? That is an important question.”
He added that the United States would be more than happy to get rid of these groups, which worked against it. “But deep down,” he said, “the US won’t rely on the new move; it will monitor the implementation of the incorporation [of the militias into Iraqi’s conventional army].”
Presently, the US has more than 5,000 troops in Iraq who have played an instrumental role in liberating major cities from ISIS. The militias, loyal to Iran, are hostile to the American forces. In May, visiting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Iraqi leaders that if they failed to exercise more control over the militia fighters, Washington would respond with force.
Mohammed al-Musaffer, a Qatari analyst and political science professor at Qatar University, told The Media Line that Abdul-Mahdi’s order was issued for political purposes and was only declarative.
“The prime minister has no ability to make any decision – external parties outside of Iraq decide,” he said.
Musaffer believes that the Iraqi government has no tools to implement its decision, and that Iran will not permit anyone to reduce its influence in Iraq.
“Tehran won’t allow the dissolution of these sectarian groups in the army,” he said, adding that Iran wants them to remain independent and receive orders directly from Tehran.
Last year, the Iraqi government refused to comply with new US economic sanctions targeting Iran’s crucial energy, shipping and banking sectors. Baghdad announced the refusal after Iraqi President Barham Salih visited Tehran, where he discussed with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, ways to enhance bilateral ties as well as the possible establishment of free trade zones along their shared border.
The trip raised eyebrows in Washington, which fears that growing Iranian influence over Baghdad could reverse a 15-year military and diplomatic effort to rebuild Iraq in its image.
Indeed, the White House is walking a tightrope, having previously granted Iraq a 45-day waiver to wean itself from Iranian energy products.