Iran’s allies in Iraq face complex choice amid increasing “airstrikes”

Deputy commander of paramilitary forces blames US, while leadership considers next step after fourth mysterious explosion destroys munitions of Iran-backed militias

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

A divide within the Popular Mobilization Forces, a group of mostly Shi’ite militias that are seen as pro-Iran, is emerging in response to alleged airstrikes that have struck their facilities over the last month. The divide pits the official line of the PMF against comments made by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy of the PMF and a leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah. On the ground the larger issue confronting the powerful paramilitary groups of the PMF is how to respond.

Muhandis condemned the recent explosions at PMF facilities, including Amerli, Camp Ashraf, Camp Falcon and near Balad Air Base, accusing the US of being responsible for them and arguing that Israeli drones were used to carry them out. But the PMF’s leader Faleh al-Fayyadh is more cautious in assigning blame. This opens up many questions about what is going on internally within the organization and long-term affects it might have on Iraq.

First of all it is important to remember that the PMF and its 100,000 or so men under arms emerged from the anti-ISIS war as one of the strongest institutions in the country. It mans checkpoints, has a role in the economy and has even played a role in the conflict in Syria. But it is not a unified organization. It was supposed to become part of the Iraqi Security Forces in January 2018. That was a formality, but it still has its own brigades with their own political-religious affiliations. It has up to 67 individual brigades. Badr is the biggest organization within the PMF, with some 18 brigades linked to it. Asaib Ahl al-Haq has several brigades, while Kata’ib Hezbollah has another three and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nuajaba has one. There are ethnic and religious groups as well, with units linked to Christians, members of the Shebek and Turkmen, Fayli Kurdish minorities and Sunni tribes. Many of these groups have been designated as terrorist organizations by the US.

Despite the complexity and diversity of the PMF, many of the groups within it are linked to Iran, either because their commanders once served alongside the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or because they are openly pro-Iran, or because their religious affiliation as Shi’ites predisposes them to fly flags of the Iranian Ayatollah.

Given this forest of allegiances and groups, the PMF is rooted in some internal divisions, but its general outlook is anti-American and anti-Israel. That means that when munitions warehouses began exploding in mid-July and rumors spread that foreign drones or aircraft had caused the destruction, they began to blame the US and Israel.

A quick survey of statements shows that Kata’ib Hezbollah has blamed the US for being responsible and linked the attacks to Israel. This is Muhandis’ view and one that his organization has pushed since last year when another mysterious airstrike destroyed a Kata’ib Hezbollah base in Syria near the Iraqi border in June 2018.

Meanwhile a sheikh linked to Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba condemned the Iraqi army in mid-August, suggesting the PMF should replace it. He made the comments to El-Etejah TV. On August 19 the organization blamed the US for the attacks.

Qais Khazali of Asaib Ahl al-Haq has called for investigations and demanded that Iraq defend its airspace. The same organization had said Israel was behind the attacks on August 17.

The Fatah Party which is led by Hadi al-Amiri of the Badr organization and is therefore linked directly to the PMF’s largest group, has been relatively cautious in its statements. Hamed al-Moussawi condemned the alleged attack on Camp Falson in a statement on August 18, claiming that the unknown aircraft carrying out the attacks were part of a plot against Iraq.

The overall consensus is that foreign aircraft did bomb the four sites, although some have continued to assert that some of the explosions might have been accidents caused by heart. Among the PMF there appears to be a dispute as to whether to hold the US responsible, or blame Israel or blame a nebulous foreign power.

Each reaction has its ramifications. Blaming the US has led to Iraq restricting its airspace and pressuring the US to make a statement. In July and on August 21 the US-led Coalition did make a statement saying they are only in Iraq to support the Iraqi security forces to defeat ISIS. Alleging the US is responsible will fuel calls to ask the US to leave Iraq and raise tensions between Iran’s allies and the US in Iraq. This could raise tensions between US forces and the PMF as well.

Blaming Israel for the attacks is potentially embarrassing for the Iraqi government but it also hardens the PMF’s stance enables some groups to see themselves as part of a broader regional Iranian-Hezbollah-PMF struggle against Israel. These elements, such as Khazali, have threatened Israel in the past. They tend to oppose the US and Israel, but blaming Israel for the strikes would fuel Iran-Israel tensions.

Accusing an unnamed foreign power of the attacks means that the only real response by the government would be to close the airspace of Iraq and bolster air defense. Already El-Etejah TV reports that the US is accused of pressuring Iraq to buy the Patriot missile defense system while others in Iraq want to be linked to Iranian air defense or acquire Russian systems.

A ramification of the split within the PMF could be that one part of the PMF uses it to isolate more extreme elements. In this scenario Muhandis could be portrayed as more extreme and Amiri more nationalist and “moderate.” Muhandis would be linked to Khazali and Nujaba and other elements. This could be used to sideline them.

However a more likely ramification of the split is to enable the PMF to speak with two voices. That means playing a kind of “good cop, bad cop” with the US and others, the same way the Iranian regime holds up its “moderate” and “hardline” sock-puppets in discussions with the West. In this scenario the “moderate” elements of the PMF agree to rein in the others, or claim that their statements don’t reflect the “real” PMF. This keeps the US and others guessing and can be leveraged with demands to “strengthen the moderates,” even though in fact the PMF largely agrees with Muhandis statement.

Could it lead to an internal power struggle in Iraq or within the PMF? In this scenario some parts of the PMF call for struggle against the US or “rouge” elements plan attacks. This is fueled by existing disputes in Nineveh plains between the PMF’s Shebek 30th Brigade and other units. Meanwhile a larger struggle develops between the Iraqi central government and the Prime Minister to rein in the PMF entirely. The Fatah party must then decide what it will do, either support the Prime Minister or its own PMF groups that voted for it. It could try to replace the Prime Minister and lead to strengthening of the PMF as a parallel force alongside the army. The internal struggle within the PMF might eventually lead to some units no longer being recognized as official forces as well.

The long-term question hanging over Iraq is what the PMF will look like in years to come. Will it be a collection of loosely affiliated forces like a confederation with each leader making their own statements, or will it be more formalized and integrated. Will it become a parallel state or swallow up parts of the state or be sidelined. The recent crises with the alleged airstrikes could be a large part of that process and accelerate it.

Seth J. Frantzman is the author of ‘After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (Gefen, 2019)‘ and Middle East affairs analyst for The Jerusalem Post. He is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.

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