Iraq’s next parliamentary elections are scheduled for October 10, 2021. The Iraqi people will vote into office the 328 members of the Council of Representatives who, in turn, will elect Iraq’s president and prime minister. The present PM, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, was confirmed in post in May 2020, aware that elections would be called reasonably soon. He has struggled hard to keep control of a turbulent situation, no doubt hoping that in the forthcoming elections he would be confirmed in office. So far, balanced on the high wire of Iraqi politics, he has survived..
On July 28 Kadhimi met US President Joe Biden in the White House. They agreed that direct US military involvement in Iraq will end on or before December 31. Taken together with Biden’s withdrawal of American forces in Afghanistan, this means the two Middle East invasions that then-President George W Bush initiated will have been wound up.
“Our role in Iraq,” Biden told reporters, “will be… to train, to assist, to help and to deal with ISIS as it arises, but we’re not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission.”
Some cynical observers maintain that, since US troops will be remaining in Iraq, this announcement will actually change little and is merely a smoke screen allowing Kadhimi to claim that he has met the demands of his extremists and removed US combat forces from the scene. The Arab Weekly claims that the deal actually has Iran’s blessing since apparently Iraq’s current anarchic situation presided over by Kadhimi suits its book.. Back in 2020 the Iranian leadership approved Kadhimi’s nomination as prime minister, and this deal could be enough to placate Iraq’s hardliners until the October elections, which could bring him back to power. The Biden-Kadhimi announcement is probably seen by the Iranian leadership as an opportunity to entrench itself still further within the Iraqi state.
In retrospect it becomes apparent that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, no friend of Iran, removed the most effective obstacle to Iranian expansion in the region. Since then pro-Iranian politicians have become a powerful presence in the Iraqi parliament, and Iran has successfully inserted its Shia militias deep into the Iraqi armed forces by way of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).
The PMF is an umbrella organization composed of a variety of Iraqi paramilitary factions, originally formed to fight ISIS. A 2016 law, followed by a decree in 2018, incorporated the body – consisting of some 40 militias, the most powerful backed by Iran – into the Iraqi armed forces. The purpose was to provide a powerful and united armed opposition to ISIS in its efforts to regain control of parts of Iraq.
The threat remains. In its quarterly report to Congress published on August 3, the US Defense Department said: “ISIS continued operating as a low level and well entrenched insurgency in rural areas of Iraq and Syria.” In a June briefing, the State Department said: “ISIS remains a determined enemy. There is still much work to do in Iraq and Syria, where ISIS continues to conduct attacks and sow fear among local populations.” This applies also to Iraqi Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous region under Kurdish control in the north of Iraq.
Merged into the Iraqi military machine, the PMF is technically part of the state defense forces, but its Iranian-backed militias often act outside the chain of command and in conformity with Iranian priorities. Their official status has given these paramilitary factions access to weaponry and public funds. In 2021 the government’s budget allocation for the PMF was $2.5 billion, an increase of 46% compared to 2019.
These militias were severely weakened in January 2020 when Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful general, and the PMF’s deputy commander, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis, were both killed by a US drone strike. The militias have retrenched since then, and now present the same armed threat to the US military presence and to the integrity of the Iraqi state as they did before. The Biden administration has twice ordered strikes on Iran-backed militias in retaliation for attacks on American forces.
Analysts note that Iran-backed militia attacks have been increasing recently both in numbers and in scope. They have extended beyond US military and security targets to encompass Iraqi activists, protest leaders and security officials. The Iraqi Human Rights Commission has documented 81 assassination attempts since October 2019, 34 of which were successful; the UN has published reports detailing these political actions. This renewed activity appears to be an Iranian-inspired effort aimed at subverting the state and its governance. Media reports speak of the militias overtly displaying their strength in the streets, including newly-formed vigilante groups. Public confidence in the ability of the government to uphold the rule of law has been shaken.
The equivocal position of the PMF within the structure of the state is a major cause of Kadhimi’s failure to get a firm grip on the chaotic situation. The sad truth is that, given the strength of pro-Iranian voices within Iraq’s parliament and in the establishment generally, the PMF has become too powerful for Prime Minister Kadhimi to control fully. He must maintain his precarious balancing act between securing the militias’ cooperation and keeping them in check. He also needs to preserve broad support in parliament if he is to secure a second term. So he has to tread very carefully for the time being. The big question is what Kadhimi’s real priorities are, and what path he is likely to take if he does indeed win a second term as prime minister of today’s chaotic Iraq.