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Is Iraq’s new PM losing the fight against Iranian-backed militias?

Originally published by the Jerusalem Post

Kadhimi pledged to rein in Iranian-backed militias, but recent events highlight the difficulty of remolding critical relationships between the government and armed militias.

On Sunday, July 5, the Iraqi military confirmed that a rocket targeting Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, home to the US Embassy, damaged a nearby home and injured a child. The rocket was launched from the Ali al-Saleh region of Baghdad late Saturday evening. The military said it was able to prevent a second attack and “seized a Katyusha rocket and launcher” that were aimed at the Taji Base north of Baghdad, where US troops are also positioned.

In recent months, the Green Zone has been subjected to dozens of attacks. Since the onset of the Iraqi-US strategic dialogue in early June, the Iraqi military has confirmed three separate attacks on the fortified zone.

The attack on Sunday came 10 days after Iraqi troops arrested more than a dozen Iranian-backed militants who were accused of orchestrating previous rocket attacks on American forces in the Green Zone. Iraqi government officials, under the guidelines of new Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, hoped these arrests would send a message to Iranian-backed forces in the country. The raid targeted the headquarters of Khataib Hezbollah, a vehemently anti-American Iranian export.

Although all but one militant was released within three days of being arrested, Kadhimi has become Iraq’s first prime minister to try to push back against Iranian-backed armed groups. Khataib Hezbollah is an umbrella group of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). Although PMU groups initially aided in the war against ISIS, many today are tied closely with Iran and are designated as terrorist organizations by the United States. PMU units, like Khataib Hezbollah, are legally part of the Iraqi security forces, but they also defy Iraqi law and actively support the interests of Iran.

Days after the release of these militants, images circulated of them stomping on and burning US and Israel flags. These men, clad with official PMU attire, were also shown trampling and burning images of the Iraqi prime minister. This scene was truly shocking to the Iraqi public, since the militia is legally part of the nation’s security forces, which the prime minister directs as commander-in-chief. This attempt to humiliate Kadhimi underscores how difficult it will be for him to rework the relationships between the Iraqi government and rogue Iranian-supported militias.

Since Kadhimi took office in May, he has prioritized cracking down on government corruption and pushing out foreign influence in the country. Viewed favorably by the US, Kadhimi has opened a series of joint discussions this month. In a press conference last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo applauded the Iraqi government’s raid last week, commending them for “bringing all armed groups under its control, including those firing rockets at Iraqi government facilities.”

He added, “The presence of these lawless actors remains the single biggest obstacle to additional assistance or economic investment for the country.”

In response to the raid, Kathaib Hezbollah Secretary-General Ahmad al-Hamidawi released a statement vowing the group will never give up its weapons because “the weapons of the Islamic resistance are a fundamental right.” These paramilitary groups are witnessing Kadhimi follow through on his promise to impose Iraqi law on all security forces, including PMU units, which they have pledged to resist by all means possible.

Kadhimi’s actions so far do indicate that he is committed to some degree to pushing out Iranian influence. However, in order to truly stabilize his country, the prime minister must rein in these rogue militias and consolidate Iraq’s security forces.

About Maya Carlin

Maya Carlin is an analyst at the Center for Security Policy, located in Washington D.C. She is also a M.A. candidate in Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security at IDC Herzliya’s Lauder School of Government in Israel.