When the Islamic State (ISIS) surged across Iraq in 2014, the Iraqi state and its army buckled. Iraqi forces retreated in disorder. Soldiers were killed outright; many were captured and subsequently executed. This presaged a national crisis.
Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa incorporating al-Hashed al-Shaabi – the People’s Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella organisation containing paramilitary groups for use in the campaign to counter ISIS.
From the beginning, many of the militias were explicitly sectarian. They are not all Shia, but most were notably so. In addition, many PMF militias were effectively Iranian assets, either having been built upon the foundations of pre-existing Iranian-backed groups or receiving support and direction from Iranian state operations, notably the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
ISIS has faced territorial collapse in Iraq. It has lost every major city it possessed, beaten back by a combination of Iraqi federal forces, PMF militias, peshmerga from the Kurdistan Regional Government and an extensive international aerial campaign, led by the United States.
The war against ISIS was declared won by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in a speech last year.
ISIS’s defeat, while positive, has exposed complications. ISIS is not vanquished. It controls less territory than at any time since January 2014 but retains the ability to mount an extensive insurgency across Iraq and Syria.
The PMF militias have not gone away, nor decreased in power, despite calls, including from Sistani, for them to be integrated into the Iraqi military.
One of the most prominent militias is Kata’ib Hezbollah (the Hezbollah Brigades), a paramilitary group of long standing that is backed by Iran. At the end of December, Kata’ib Hezbollah released a combative statement to coincide with the sixth anniversary of the US withdrawal from Iraq after years of sectarian combat in which the predecessor organisations of ISIS and Iran-supported Shia militias took part.
‘The enemy of humanity, the United States, can no longer desecrate Iraqi soil, as the fighters of the Hezbollah Brigades will not allow them to do so’, the statement said, the Kurdistan 24 website reported. The statement contained direct threats to US forces in Iraq.
‘Threats from the Iranian proxy militias against US troops – despite US de facto support to these militias to conquer the territory from which the Islamic State has been driven – go back to the beginning of the campaign in 2014’, said Kyle Orton, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a British think-tank.
‘These are the same militias that murdered and maimed hundreds of American and British soldiers between 2003 and 2011’. Orton said.
Michael Pregent, a former intelligence officer and fellow at the Hudson Institute, said ‘we should take these threats seriously’.
Though threats of this nature may be considered, if not routine, then at least expected, the situation is notable. Though the government of Iran faces protests at home, it is able to exert influence inside neighbouring countries. After the collapse of ISIS’s proto-state and the integration of the PMF within the Iraqi state, Iranian influence is only growing.
This influence is under threat from the outside.
Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said ‘the American presence in Syria directly challenges Iranian allies in Syria, since US-backed forces control a vast region in eastern and northern Syria. This is seen as a potential threat for Iran and its interests [as] American sphere of influence is located near the Iraqi-Syrian borders and provides the US with a potential contiguous region in which it could begin to poke at Iran or its interests.’
‘This has increased Iran’s anxiety and subsequently the risks of escalation’, Hassan said.
Pregent noted that the people who made these threats are not isolated. ‘These IRGC-linked militias are in and out of uniform in the [Ministry of Interior], [Ministry of Defence], and the [PMU]. They are in close proximity to US advisers and the bases we operate in,’ Pregent said.
This gives the threat weight and makes it more likely that open hostilities could break out.
Hassan, Pregent and Orton all state that, as of now, the eruption of new conflicts is unlikely.
‘For the moment, Iran is likely to stay its hand and hope the US leaves again,’ said Orton.
Hassan noted that: ‘For now, an all-out conflict is delayed by all sides because of the nature of the continuing situation in Syria. That may change with time.’
But ‘if it becomes clear, however, that the United States has a serious plan to remain and to disrupt Iran’s hegemonic designs for the region, then the Iranian revolution will again strike at Western forces in the region, and perhaps beyond,’ Orton said, leaving open the possibility of more conflict in Iraq, despite its declaration of victory in the war against the Islamic State.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.