The story of Iraq’s militias is contentious. These forces were undoubtedly significant in the country’s recent fighting – against the Islamic State and against Kurdish forces after the Kurdistan region’s referendum on independence in 2017.
It is commonly claimed that Iraq’s Shia militias were created in a moment of crisis as a last-ditch national defence and their creation was attributed to a fatwa issued by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in 2014 that called on Iraqis to take up arms to defend the country against the Islamic State (ISIS).
Although this event, and the peril in which Iraq found itself in 2014, galvanised recruitment and increased the number of those willing to take up arms, it was not the beginning of Iraq’s militias.
Sectarian militias, including on the Shia side the Mahdi Army and the Badr Corps, fought in the civil war following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Political affiliates of both serve in Iraq’s legislature and either form part of or have previously formed part of its government.
A similar dynamic exists in the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), whose militias fought ISIS but did not do so without criticism. PMF fighters were accused of participating in punitive violence against those remaining in Mosul after ISIS was defeated in the city and its number includes many militiamen ill at ease serving their country rather than some sectarian interest.
This is displayed by the ease with which some militias went from Iraq, where their ostensive mission to counter ISIS mission was clear cut, to Syria to participate in a bloody civil war on the side of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Iranian allies.
Phillip Smyth, Soref fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said: ‘The Iraqi Shia militias that have gone to Syria have, for the most part – and I’m talking the vast majority – done so at the behest of Tehran’.
Iraqi militias in Syria are not operationally independent of their Iranian allies, able to divorce their activities from the worst excesses of the forces backing Assad’s survival.
‘The groups they have joined are ideologically, financially and politically tied to the Iranians. These groups helped secure Assad’s rule in Syria but they control wide swaths of territory themselves and execute Iran’s will in Syria’, Smyth said.
That territory has become a practical difficulty for those attempting to reach a favourable conclusion to Syria’s war and for Iraqi politicians taking stock of a broad Iranian effort to overtake domestic Iraqi politics and increase Iranian strength across Mesopotamia and the Levant.
Iraqi militias have, Smyth said, ‘also established their own presence in Syria by starting their own branches there, helping with the creation of new Iran-controlled militias and still maintain thousands of their own fighters in the country’.
Muqtada al-Sadr, formerly the leader of a sectarian militia during the post-Saddam era and now an electoral force, has been a persistent critic of the PMF, including for its apparent focus on Iranian aims rather than improving the future of Iraq.
Al-Sadr has called an immediate withdrawal of PMF fighters from Syria as one of a series of demands he made of the Iraqi government’s foreign policy, including holding that Iraqis ought to seek better diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia and aim to end the fighting in Syria and Yemen.
Al-Sadr’s statement contains much politics. Iraqi citizens have borne much and the gains of recent years have been repeatedly diminished by half a decade of direct and guerrilla conflict against ISIS in the north, failures of governance across the country and a creeping sense of Iranian encroachment. Al-Sadr’s criticism, coming as it does amid a litany of other complaints, could, therefore, be dismissed as pure oppositionism.
To say that would be to miss the extent to which Iraq’s politicians and public are aware of Iranian influence in their country and unwilling to be involved in broader conflicts as part of a side they did not join.
Al-Sadr’s statement referenced his unwillingness for Iraq to find itself involved in a broader confrontation between Iran and a union of Israel and the United States. Iraqi PMF fighters, operating as part of Iran-aligned units, have as recently as late March, been killed in Syria in suspected Israeli air strikes.
The idea that they are there, fighting and dying, at the behest of another nation is enough to spur criticism within Iraq, criticism increasingly justified and increasingly vocal.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.