Throughout June there were a series of attacks inside Iraq under murky circumstances: three US bases and the compound of an American oil company were targeted. There were no claims of responsibility, but blame fell on Iran-allied militias, seeking retaliation for ramped-up sanctions against Tehran.
Against the backdrop of increased tensions across the Gulf, Iraq’s prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, issued an important decree on July 1: all militias of the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of predominantly Shia militias that led the fight against ISIS, would have until the end of the month to integrate fully into the national army.
The decree is an attempt to get tough with PMF militias that often act beyond the control of Baghdad, taking funding and even direction from Iran. But there is a strategic ambiguity at the heart of it, an ambiguity that could either enforce Iraqi control over the militias, or end up handing Iran even more influence in the country.
The problem of the PMF is not new. Ever since ISIS was defeated, politicians have tried to subsume the 140,000 battle-hardened fighters into the regular army, wary of having so many weapons beyond the control of the state. Last summer, then-prime minister Haider Al-Abadi issued a similar decree, with limited results.
This time, the prime minister has set a deadline and imposed tough conditions: militias will have to give up their headquarters and close separate economic offices that allowed them to raise money. Any group that doesn’t comply will be considered “illegitimate,” raising the possibility of forcibly disbanding some.
Abdul Mahdi also has the support of some important figures: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the head of the largest parliamentary bloc, announced he was disbanding his Peace Brigades militia, and other militia leaders responded positively. But for the integration to work peacefully, it would need at least the tacit consent of Iran – a difficult ask at the precise moment when the value of these influential militias is becoming apparent.
Having Iran-backed militias inside Iraq, where the US still has thousands of troops, offers Tehran significant leverage. If PMF militias did stage attacks on US bases with direction from Iran, that would give Tehran a degree of military deterrence but with a certain amount of plausible deniability, protecting it from a response. A similar attack, if launched from Iranian territory, would invite more immediate retaliation.
Yet that scenario also highlights why incorporating PMF militias could in fact strengthen Tehran, and offer a reason why the Islamic Republic might assent to it.
At the heart of the Iraqi prime minister’s decree is some strategic ambiguity. The decree forces the militias to be subject to the command of the state. But crucially, each individual militia will not be broken apart. Their internal structure will remain intact. And while they will ultimately report to the state, they will first report to a separate military commander.
The effect, therefore, could be to strengthen Iran’s ability to conduct attacks inside Iraq without inviting a response. At the moment, PMF militias operate outside of the state army structure. It is possible for the US to engage them directly. But after the incorporation, any US retaliation would, in effect, be against the Iraqi army itself, a much more serious escalation. If Iran were to retain influence over these militias, it would be able to exercise that influence from within the Iraqi army structure.
It is that “if” that no doubt lies behind Abdul Mahdi’s calculation. Instead of seeing this decree simply as a victory for Iran or for Baghdad, it is more likely a step in a longer political process of reducing the power of the militias without confronting either them or Tehran.
By framing the decree in nationalist terms, at a moment when Iraqis feel they could be drawn into a proxy war between the US and Iran, Abdul Mahdi has bounced the Shia militias into accepting government supervision – the PMF, after all, have run public campaigns branding themselves not as a separate Shia force but as a force for all Iraqis.
At the same time Iran, having funded and trained some of the militias, will not simply let them be absorbed into the Iraqi national army. But that is where the strategic ambiguity is useful.
If the militias are under the supervision of the Iraqi state but one step removed from the regular army, there could still be some contact between Tehran and the militias without provoking the anger of Iraqi nationalist politicians who dislike Tehran’s expanding influence. Tehran might just about find that acceptable – especially given the alternative of defying the decree and losing the militias altogether, should the Iraqi army decide to forcibly disband them.
The decree will set off a new round of political jostling between Baghdad and Tehran, as Iran seeks to maintain its influence with the militias and Baghdad seeks to weaken those ties but keep the fighters. No doubt some of the smaller militias will be completely absorbed in time. Baghdad’s battle with the bigger militias will have to wait for another day.
This strategy is politically risky. The prime minister is juggling the competing priorities of multiple groups – the US, pro-PMF and anti-Iran politicians in Iraq, Tehran – all of whom have significant means of retaliation. He will be hoping the decree will go far enough for the US, while also not going so far as to provoke Iranian retaliation.
At best, Abdul Mahdi will have wrenched back control of dozens of heavily armed militias. At worst, he will have gifted Tehran powerful leverage inside the national army itself, creating Iranian militias inside the country merely by another name. But faced with the possibility of US retaliation against PMF militias and an escalating proxy war on Iraqi territory, the prime minister may have seen that as the less risky path. Some battles, after all, cannot be fought all in a single day.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.