The killing by U.S. airstrike of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis struck right at the core of the Iranian and militia projects in Iraq, and it occurred after months of anti-government protests had already shaken the militia's towering control of the Iraqi state. Before the protests, al-Muhandis and the Iran-backed militias were at the zenith of their power. They controlled the prime minister's office, dominated any security portfolios they selected, and were positioned to divert value from many major economic ventures to Iraqi militias, Iran's Revolutionary Guard, and Lebanese Hezbollah. This unnatural level of consolidation was built and sustained by Soleimani and al-Muhandis. Their removal, in combination with resistance from protestors, religious leaders, and the international community, could slow or stall the consolidation of militia power in Iraq. Iran's most favored allies have been clearly defined in the twin crises: Badr, Kata'ib Hezbollah, Kata'ib Sayyed al-Shuhada, Saraya Talia al-Khurasani, and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq. They failed to defeat the Sadrist-backed protests, and they look unlikely to evict U.S. forces from Iraq. The Revolutionary Guard will likely face an uphill struggle to prevent greater disharmony and fragmentation in the militia ranks, where the likely focus will be a race for positions, resources, and self-preservation.
In August 2019, this author noted that the 60,000-strong Iran-backed militias in Iraq had achieved unprecedented size and influence, and warned that their operational commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and the movement he formed, Kata'ib Hezbollah (KH), were "the central nervous system of IRGC-QF (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force) influence in Iraq." (1) Today, al-Muhandis is dead, killed along with his IRGC-QF sponsor Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. airstrike on January 3, 2020. Days beforehand, five Kata'ib Hezbollah sites were also targeted by the United States, killing 25 KH members and wounding over 50. (2)
This article will ask what happens next to the effort by IRGC-QF and Iran-backed militias in Iraq now that their "central nervous system" has been severely disrupted. Even before the killing of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, the latest three months have been very bruising for the militias, both in terms of popular and elite dismay at their counter-protestor actions and as a result of U.S. airstrikes. Will such militias rally and cooperate under new leadership, or will they fragment in disarray? In what manner will they confront the U.S. presence in Iraq and seek to protect their political, military, and economic assets? The first two sections outline what was learned about the Iran-backed militias as they organized the Iraqi state's reaction to major protests. Thereafter, the piece looks at the militias' decision to risk a showdown with the United States, leading to the deaths of key militia leaders. The internal relations repercussions for IRGC-QF and Iran-backed militias are next discussed in turn, and the piece ends with an assessment of what may be the next steps for militias as they seek to recover.
The interface between IRGC-QF, militias, and Iraqi political and business elites is a murky one, understood quite clearly by Iraqi insiders but with very little detailed coverage in open sources. In order to build a solid picture of the manner in which the militias have operated, the author undertook two interlinked research processes in the 2018-2020 period. First, the author visited Iraq on six occasions and interviewed over 60 major political, military, and business figures. The conversations were substantive, often up to two hours of focused discussion purely on Iranian influence and militia topics. The interviewees included very senior politicians, many of whom were Shi' a leaders with strong ties to IRGC-QF. Many were interviewed multiple times, with very detailed notes taken. All the interviews were undertaken on deep background due to the severe physical security threat posed by militias, and great care was taken, and is needed in the future, to ensure that such individuals are not exposed to intimidation for cooperating with researchers. (a) Alongside face-to-face interviews, the author also undertook communications with Iraqi interviewees using secure messaging applications, amounting to hundreds of specific information requests to verity data and multi-source points of detail. The author used his 16-year track record of interviewing Iraqis to assess information and did his best to verity and triangulate all information contained in this article.
September 2019: Pro-Tehran Militia Dominance in Iraq
This author published the CTC Sentinel article "Iran's Expanding Militia Army in Iraq: The New Special Groups" in late August 2019, just as the Iran-backed militias in Iraq achieved the zenith of their power. (3) As the author's interviews with senior political leaders in Baghdad showed, the Iraqi Prime Minister's Office (PMO) was dominated by the twinned influence of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, with a pro-IRGC-QF official, Abu Jihad (Mohammed al-Hashemi), installed as the prime minister's chief of staff. (4) IRGC-QF-vetted Iraqi militiamen were installed as security and office workers at the PM0. (5) Damagingly, al-Muhandis had effectively sown distrust between Prime Minister Adel Abd'al-Mahdi and his non-militia security forces, creating concern that the Counter-Terrorism Service and the Iraqi National Intelligence Service were plotting against the prime minister. (6) When Iran-backed militias assisted IRGC-QF in firing drones at a Saudi Arabian oil pipeline from Iraq on May 14, 2019, (7) the government took al-Muhandis' word that the incident never happened. (8) Based on a significant number of interviews and many dozens of conversations, the author has sensed that al-Muhandis became the embodiment and the central node of IRGC-QF influence in Iraq in 2019. In the author's view, the best way to express the preeminent position that al-Muhandis achieved by the time of his death is that he was widely perceived within Iraq's political elite to be Iran's military governor of Iraq, controlling a puppet civilian government at its head.
The Iran-backed militias were also dominant in business affairs, directly benefitting themselves, Iranian interests, and Lebanese Hezbollah. U.S.-designated terrorist Shibl al-Zaydi, founder of Kata'ib al-Imam Ali (Popular Mobilization Forces brigade 40), (9) has become one of the richest men in Iraq, with a sprawling business empire and a controlling interest over the Ministry of Communications. (10) Major militia leaders leveraged their muscle to build large real estate portfolios. (11) Lebanese Hezbollah piggybacked on this economic dominance to becoming involved in numerous Iraqi contract awards (12) through the partnership between Iran-allied Iraqi politicians and Specially Designated Global Terrorists Mohammed al-Kawtharani (13) and Adnan Hussein Kawtharani. (14) At least four private banks run by militia-controlled businessmen continue to use Central Bank of Iraq dollar auctions to secure hard currency for Iran. (15) The QiCard payment system used to pay government salaries (b) was penetrated by militias, who inserted fake employees into the electronic system and skimmed their allocated salaries in schemes worth tens of millions of dollars each month. (16) Militias control small oilfields such as Najma, Qayyarah, Pulkhana, and Alas. (17) Militia-controlled logistics and shipping companies in Basra provide cover for the smuggling of sanctioned Iranian crude (rebadged as Iraqi crude after being loaded in Iran). (18) At ports and free trade zones, the militias export Iraqi crude oil and oil products stolen from local industries, dominate customs evasion, and levy taxes for goods coming into the country. (19) Iran -backed Badr organization's (c) former head of intelligence Ali Taqqi took over as director of Baghdad International Airport, (20) and transferred the baggage handling contract to a front company controlled by U.S.-designated terrorist movement Kata'ib Hezbollah. (21)
By September 2019, the Iran-backed militias also had curtailed the U.S.-led coalition's effectiveness in helping Iraq fight the Islamic State and professionalizing the Iraqi security forces. (22) From March 2019 onward, in response to al-Muhandis' instructions, the chairman of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) Falah al-Fayyadh cut off the coalition's access to predominately Sunni tribal mobilization forces, who had previously been an important source of intelligence and operational partnership in Islamic State redoubts like Nineveh and Anbar. (23) From about the same time, Badr took over the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority (24) and began closing airspace to coalition surveillance flights. (25) Iraqi army commanders reported growing pressure to exclude U.S. advisors from counterinsurgency operations. (d) A mounting series of non-lethal militia rocket strikes on coalition bases forced the coalition into a less active, more protective posture by September 2019. (26) Meanwhile, Iran-backed militias used their control of the PMO to remove some of Iraq's most seasoned soldiers, including Iraq's most admired combat commander, Counter Terrorism Command's Staff Lieutenant General Abd'al-Wahab al-Saadi. (27) Considering the balance of power in Iraq, this author assesses that the conventional military was likely to face a future of declining budget share and declining influence compared to al-Muhandis' politically dominant, Iran-backed PMF.
The October 2019 Crackdown by Militias
As the Iran-backed militias reached the zenith of their domestic power, they faced their first major tests as the new operators of the Iraqi state-a test that they disastrously flunked. In late September and early October 2019, the militias stepped forward to lead the security forces in handling protests by a wide cross-section of Iranian society...