Iraq’s prime minister walks tightrope in struggle with militias

The militias have fired dozens of rockets at facilities where US personnel are located. They have frequently fired Iranian-supplied 107mm rockets at the US embassy in Baghdad.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani welcomes Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi as they wear protective masks, in Tehran, Iran, July 21, 2020. (photo credit: IRAQI PRIME MINISTER MEDIA OFFICE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani welcomes Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi as they wear protective masks, in Tehran, Iran, July 21, 2020.
(photo credit: IRAQI PRIME MINISTER MEDIA OFFICE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Not so long ago, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a former activist and intelligence chief, was wearing a jacket that the Hashd al-Shaabi had presented him. On Friday night, the khaki jacket was nowhere to be seen when he met his security chiefs in Baghdad as tensions rose with a militia that is part of the Hashd.
Kadhimi is walking a tightrope. The Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, part of the Hashd, which is part of the security forces, has threatened the prime minister, US forces in Iraq and Iraq’s sovereignty itself.
Asaib is run by Qais Khazali, a former US detainee who was held at Camp Cropper. He is a former ally of Muqtada al-Sadr in 2004 but broke off from him and became a Shi’ite militia gang leader.
Khazali fought the Americans, linked up with Lebanese Hezbollah, got himself sanctioned by the US and built Asaib into a formidable military force and armed gang. Asaib was part of the 100,000 members of the Hashd who fought ISIS and have opposed the US role in Iraq.
Militia leaders such as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Hadi al-Amiri are close to Iran. The US killed Muhandis in January when he met Qasem Soleimani at Baghdad’s airport.
The militias have fired dozens of rockets at facilities where US personnel are located, and they have frequently fired Iranian-supplied 107-mm. rockets at the US Embassy in Baghdad. The US has threatened to close the embassy and strike at the Iranian-backed militias.
This has brought everything to another crisis. Kadhimi wants to balance the militias, Iran and the US. He says he does not want Iraq to be the scene of a proxy war. He has tried his best. But he, too, is threatened. He tried to detain members of Kataib Hezbollah in June, and the decision was reversed.
On Friday, he sat cloistered with his generals and counterterror chiefs. Meanwhile, Asaib was talking to Qasim al-Araji, the national security adviser, and also with Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam, complaining that Baghdad had detained one of their commanders. They gave Kadhimi 48 hours to release the detainee.
This made it appear that the militias might either strike at the Americans or even the government, and it brought whispers that Sadr’s own militia would protect the government from Khazali. It should be recalled that Khazali had visited Lebanon in 2017 and threatened Israel. He wants to be part of Iran’s corridor of control across the region.
Other Iraqi militias prefer slower-paced pressure on the US. They, too, want to control the region with Iran. But they are more cautious. Because Asaib has roots in criminality, extortion, kidnapping, assassinations and shakedowns, its criminal element is larger.
It is not clear if Kadhimi can outsmart these dangerous militias. He has climbed down before, and Friday night he avoided conflict. Tensions are high on the anniversary of Soleimani’s killing and as Iran awaits Joe Biden moving into the White House. Iraq is walking a tightrope.