Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, last month called for the disbanding of all militias. This would involve the state disarming the pro-Iran Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). In turn, this would neutralize Tehran’s most reliable partner in Iraq, Kataeb Hezbollah, the most dangerous alternative to state power in the country. That shows how important Sistani’s call is to the integrity of the Iraqi state. Indeed, the prime minister, now he has been given cover by the religious leadership in the Shia center of Najaf, should act with haste. Yet, all we have witnessed thus far is an exhibition of inertia.
Kataeb Hezbollah – the Brigades of the Party of God in translation – has been busy building a “statelet” within Iraq. If the government does not act quickly, Kataeb Hezbollah soon will become stronger than the Iraqi state itself; it will dominate Iraq just as its namesake, Hezbollah, does in Lebanon and it will seal Iraq’s slide into failure as a client state of Iran.
For those unfamiliar with Iraq’s recent history of distressing politics, a little elucidation might be helpful.
Modeled after Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Kataeb Hezbollah is the spine that props stands up the PMU. It controls the PMU’s “internal security” unit, the intelligence operations that keep tabs on fighters and disciplines rogue elements. The head of Kataeb Hezbollah, Abdul-Aziz Al-Muhammadawi, also is the effective leader of the PMU, rather than the titular chairman, Falih Al-Fayyahd.
To describe Kataeb Hezbollah as a statelet is not hyperbole. Kataeb Hezbollah controls territory within Iraq’s borders. It managed to force Baghdad to lease to it vast amounts of agricultural land in Jurf Al-Sakhr, south of Baghdad, and on the Iraqi border with Syria. It operates these territories as fiefs and denies access to the the legitimate state. At its bases, Kataeb Hezbollah trains and garrisons its fighters and hoards caches of arms. Western intelligence reports suggest that, with Iranian assistance, Kataeb Hezbollah manufactures precision guided missiles at these sites.
Like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Kataeb Hezbollah’s fighting wing is only one component of the mini state. It maintains welfare organizations for the families of its fighters, including those who die in battle. These organizations offer medical care, schooling, housing, social and financial support and religious indoctrination.
It is the last item that is particularly important. Traditionally, Shia Islam enjoins its followers to pledge allegiance to their rulers and to defer only to clerics on issues of faith. If any Shia Muslim should feel that the world is unfair to him, he would look to the second coming of the Twelfth Imam, Muhammad Al-Mahdi, to redress the injustice. Shia Muslims believe that Al-Mahdi has been alive since the 9th century, when his Occultation – or “hiddenness” – occurred.
But influenced by the founders of the (ironically, Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood, the late Ayatollah Khomeini constructed a Shia version of political Islam in which Shia Muslims are supposed to pledge allegiance to their state leaders, who deputize for Al-Mahdi until the imam’s return. Tehran, of course, sees itself as the metropolitan and political center for all Shia Muslims.
Sistani and traditional Shia Muslims reject Khomeini’s reinvention of Shia doctrine, which also has limited appeal among Iraqi Shia adherents – except militia members who have been indoctrinated by Iran.
Now, with the religious leadership in Najaf speaking out against the pro-Iran militias, and growing anti-Iran sentiment in the country, the legitimate state has an opportunity to reassert its sovereignty. The prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, can even count on international assistance in defeating Kataeb Hezbollah, which Washington has placed on its list of foreign terrorist organizations. Any US administration, whether Republican or Democratic, would be more than willing to help Baghdad put down Iran’s proxies.
A month later, however, Al-Kadhimi has made no move. It is a puzzle; no one knows why. Maybe there are some as yet unrevealed political calculations. Or perhaps he simply fears for his life. Whatever the reason, Al-Kadhimi surely must realize that time is of the essence. So either he takes the opportunity to neutralize Kataeb Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies, or he gets out of the way and lets someone else do it.
For he should indeed appreciate that doing nothing only diminishes his own power, as Kataeb Hezbollah and the other Iranian proxies it leads carry on constructing an alternative state power to Baghdad. To add insult to injury, Tehran has managed even to force successive Iraqi governments to fund the PMU’s payroll, in effect getting Baghdad to subsidize the expansion of Tehran’s influence and the diminution of Baghdad’s authority. And if Hezbollah in Lebanon is any example, once Kataeb Hezbollah is firmly and indubitably entrenched as a shadow state, it will be near impossible to dismantle.
With Iran cash-poor because of renewed US sanctions and weakened by domestic crisis, Al-Kadhimi has opportunity on his side: he should take advantage of it and remove the cancer of Iran’s militias that is eating away at the sovereignty of his government. If he does not, when it eventually resurges, Iran will come after Al-Kadhimi and any other leader of the legitimately constituted state. If recent history is any guide, the most disposable figure in the Iraqi state is the prime minister.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.