By Shelly Kittleson, for Foreign Policy. Any opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

A Powerful Iran-Backed Militia Is Losing Influence in Iraq

Five months after its charismatic leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was killed by a U.S. drone strike at the Baghdad airport, the Iran-backed group Kataib Hezbollah’s influence on Iraq may be quietly eroding.

Despite an institutional void since widespread protests across Shiite-majority central and southern Iraq forced the previous government to resign late in 2019 and the international coalition’s recent withdrawal from several Iraqi bases, moves are afoot to more fully integrate some Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) factions into government chains of command and structures that existed prior to 2014.

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By Ali Mamouri for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Iraq orders militias to fully integrate into state security forces

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi issued a decree July 1 ordering the factions of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) to integrate fully into the state security forces.

According to the decree, all the military factions within the PMU must retire their political and military affiliations and come under the full control of the prime minister as the commander in chief of the armed forces.

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(Picture credit: Tasnim, under Creative Commons licence)

By Shelly Kittleson for Al Monitor. Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News

In Iraq, tension between the US-led coalition and armed groups linked to Iran has risen in recent months.

For example, the United States sanctioned key representatives of Lebanese militant group Hezbollah on Nov. 13, saying they had moved money, acquired weapons and trained fighters in Iraq. Problems have also arisen with some factions of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).

As a whole, the PMU are part of Iraq’s security forces, but some of its dozens of factions are Shiite armed groups with ties to Iran. There has long been tension between some of the local Sunni population and those Shiite-majority PMUs from southern and central Iraq.

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(Picture Credit: Tasnim, under Creative Commons licence)

By Ali Mamouri for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

With rising US pressure, Iran worries about losing ground in Iraq

Iraqi President Barham Salih met with Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ali Khamenei Nov. 17 in Tehran, where Khamenei underlined that Iraq must retain its Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). Khamenei stated that the PMU were among Iraq’s major achievements in the past few years.

Khamenei has reiterated this stance in previous meetings with Iraqi officials, including former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, which shows how important this matter is for Iran.

Meanwhile, the Donald Trump administration has insisted on the disarmament and disbanding of pro-Iran military factions in Iraq as part of the 12 conditions that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo proposed to sign a new agreement with Iran instead of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which the United States exited this year.

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The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has received a report that unspecified militia leaders have discussed plans for kidnapping U.S. citizens attending the 45th Baghdad International Fair, scheduled for November 10-19, 2018.

The militia leaders’ discussion included concealment techniques and ways of connecting the kidnappings to other entities with whom the militias possibly disagree with politically.  The Embassy has no further information regarding the timing, target, or method of any planned actions.

The Embassy goes on the advise people to avoid the Baghdad International Fair.

(Source: U.S. Embassy in Baghdad)

Iraqi military and security forces have disappeared dozens of mostly Sunni Arab males since 2014, including children as young as 9, often in the context of counterterrorism operations, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 78-page report, “‘Life Without a Father is Meaningless’: Arbitrary Arrests and Enforced Disappearances in Iraq 2014-2017,” draws on research Human Rights Watch has published on enforced disappearances in Iraq since 2014, when Iraqi forces launched anti-ISIS operations, and documents an additional 74 cases of men and four cases of boys detained by Iraqi military and security forces between April 2014 and October 2017 and forcibly disappeared.

The enforced disappearances documented are part of a much wider continuing pattern in Iraq. Iraqi officials have failed to respond to inquiries from the families and Human Rights Watch for information about the disappeared.

“Families across Iraq whose fathers, husbands, and sons disappeared after Iraqi forces detained them are desperate to find their loved ones,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Despite years of searching, and requests to Iraqi authorities, the government has provided no answers about where they are or if they are even still alive.”

More here.

(Source: HRW)

By John Lee.

US-based General Dynamics, which produces Abrams tanks, has reportedly suspended its maintenance program in Iraq after one of its tanks was provided to the Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi Popular Mobilization Force (PMF).

Iraq’s al-Ghad Press has reports that the company withdrew from its base at Baghdad’s al-Muthanna airport after finding out that Iraq violated the terms of the contract which only authorized the Iraqi army to use the US-provided tanks.

Iraq owns 140 M1 Abrams tanks, sixty of which are now out of service.

Read more here.

(Source: Kurdistan 24)

By Shelly Kittleson for Al Monitor. Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News. 

Flags of Iran-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous) — with their distinctive arm thrusting a gun upward over a green Iraq against a white background, a strip of red and a Quran below — fluttered at the checkpoint into Qaim, above a dusty, barren wadi below.

When Al-Monitor visited the area Nov. 6, the checkpoint was manned by Asaib Ahl al-Haq fighters and members of the fellow Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) militia Kataib Hezbollah, also long backed by Iran and a part of which continues to fight on the Syrian side of the border alongside the Syrian regime.

Referring to the capture of the Karableh and Saada areas of Qaim from the Islamic State (IS), Col. Moussa Hamad al-Karbouly told Al-Monitor in Karableh, “PMU fighters from the south were the first to enter.”

Karbouly leads the local Sunni PMU force, Liwa Aaly al-Furat (Upper Euphrates Regiment). Many local forces in the area have taken to using the terms “main PMU,” “southern PMU” and “Shiite PMU” to distinguish among outside paramilitary groups and local fighters, who are often somewhat inappropriately referred to as “tribal forces.”

Aaly al-Furat has members from several different tribes and receives monthly salaries from the Baghdad government, as do other PMU factions. It does not answer to any tribal leader, although it does maintain good relations with the various sheikhs in the area. Anbar province is a predominantly Sunni region, and tribal traditions and links are strong.

Aaly al-Furat has 500 men, who were trained by Danish Special Forces at the al-Asad air base farther east, also in Anbar, and equipped by the United States, Karbouly said. Other local forces have received training from the international coalition as well, while many non-local PMU forces have received support from Iran and Iranian advisers.

By Mustafa Saadoun for Al Monitor. Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News. 

The conflict between the United States and Iran has taken a new turn toward escalation against the Iranian-backed armed Shiite factions in Iraq. But this step might harm Washington’s interests in Baghdad and engage the Iraqi government in a crisis with the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).

While Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is trying to strike a balance to tame armed Shiite factions and earn US support, Washington is seeking to add armed factions affiliated with the PMU to the list of terrorist organizations.

The US House of Representatives introduced a bill in early November called “Iranian Proxies Terrorist Sanctions Act of 2017,” which calls for imposing terrorism-related sanctions on Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. The bill was referred Nov. 3 to the Foreign Affairs committee.

Before Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba was formed in 2013, the United States designated its leader Akram al-Kaabi as a terrorist in 2008 per Executive Order No. 13438, on the grounds of “causing chaos in Iraq and threatening the stability and security of the alliance forces which were in Iraq before retreating completely in 2011.”

Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba was blacklisted less than a month after spokeswoman for the US State Department Heather Nauert described Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the PMU, as a terrorist.

After Muhandis, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba and Asaib Ahl al-Haq were blacklisted, statements of various US Congress members indicated that the United States intends to designate additional Shiite factions as terrorist organizations.

While a harsher tone is being adopted in Iraqi statements against Washington, member of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee Hanan al-Fatalawi called on the Iraqi Foreign Ministry Nov. 17 to summon the US ambassador to Baghdad to find out the reasons behind “the future US war” on the PMU.

This article was originally published by Niqash. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Last week’s kidnapping of seven activists in Baghdad could be another sign of increasing tensions between secular parties in Iraq and the country’s ruling religious groups. Is history repeating?

Last week, an unidentified armed group kidnapped a number of younger civil society activists from their small apartment in the Sadoun area of central Baghdad. After three days it was announced that the young men had been freed, after intervention by Iraq’s Minister of the Interior, Qassim al-Araji.

In announcing the release though, the Ministry made no mention of who might have been responsible for the kidnapping even though many locals blamed members of one or other of the Shiite Muslim militias, who run security in certain parts of the city and who have been controversial in the recent past.

Some of the young activists who were abducted also happened to be members of the Iraqi Communist Party. The Communists have been firm supporters of recent demonstrations in Baghdad during which protestors called for an end to corruption and demanded political reform. The Iraqi Communist party is just one of a number of civil society and political groups uniting to take part in, and organize, the protests.

This is not the only recent attack against them either. Last month unidentified men attacked the party headquarters in the province of Diwaniyah in the south of the country. The attack came just a few hours after local university students had protested a visit by Qais al-Khazali, head of one of Iraq’s most feared militias, the League of the Righteous militia, or Asaib Ahl al-Haq in Arabic.

The Communists accused “militias” of the attack but, perhaps knowing the danger it would put them in, they did not name any names. The League of the Righteous denied having any part in the attack. However many locals doubt that, given the fact that they were in the province at the time and that the students who were chanting anti al-Khazali slogans did so in a location close to the party offices and some of them had connections to the Communist party.

Adding fuel to the conflict is the war of words being waged on social media. Civil society activists say that the Islamists are responsible for the state of the country today and the terrible conditions under which many Iraqis live. Meanwhile the parties with a religious basis accuse the secular groups of being anti-Islamic and spreading both atheism and immorality in Iraqi society.

The tone of the digital fight is vitriolic and many of the posts could most certainly be defined as hate speech.

“It is true that some of the Islamic parties try to accuse us of a lack of faith; they are just trying to make us look bad,” says Naseer Kathem, a civil society activist who has been attending the anti-corruption demonstrations for the past two years. “And while it is true that members of the Communist party are leading the demonstrations, they are not the only groups involved. There are dozens of groups and well-known individuals participating and there are even some independent clerics.”

However, Kathem says, he believes there is a plan to try and end the demonstrations by intimidating some of those involved. “Everybody knows who is behind the kidnappings of the activists last week and also behind the kidnapping of the journalist Afrah Shawqi earlier this year – it’s just that nobody dares prosecute them.”

Jaber al-Mahmadawi, a Shiite Muslim cleric based in Najaf, believes that a lot of people in Iraq are indeed worried that the young of the country are turning away from Islam. The extremist group known as the Islamic State, which bases its brutal ideology on a version of Sunni Islam and which has caused the current security crisis in Iraq,

“has distorted the image of Islam,” al-Mahmadawi told NIQASH. “Over the last few months we have noticed the growing number of young people who are publishing atheist ideas on social media and provoking arguments with other members of society,” he continues. “But,” he adds, “the supreme religious authority led by Ali al-Sistani [the Shiite Muslim cleric who is followed by millions of Shiites worldwide] firmly rejects the use of force against anyone simply because of their ideas. However there are other clerics and religious groups who are inciting violence and hatred. That is not acceptable.”

And they are getting away with it, al-Mahmadawi notes, “because the Iraqi government is weak and cannot keep weapons under its own control.”

Conflict between Iraq’s religious parties and its secular ones is not new. In fact Iraq’s contemporary Shiite Muslim political parties were born out of the enmity, in the middle of the 1950s when Iraq changed from a monarchy to a republic. The latter change came about thanks to a coup by the Iraqi army, which was supported by the local Communist Party, at the time one of the most popular parties in Iraq and the region.

Because of the spread of Communism in Iraq, the Shiite Muslim groups in the country decided that they too needed to take part in politics, in order to ensure their own survival. In fact, early literature of the Islamic Dawa party – today one of the largest Shiite Muslim political parties in Iraq – specifically mentions the new party’s desire to confront Communism and secularism and to promote religious ideals.

One of the most prominent clerics at the time, Mohsen al-Hakim – grandfather of one of the most prominent clerics currently in Iraqi politics, Ammar al-Hakim – even issued a religious decree saying that anyone who joined the Communist party was blaspheming. It was only when the nationalist Baath party, eventually led by Saddam Hussein, came to power that the conflict between the Communists and the Islamists died down.

Half a century later and this old feud seems to be re-emerging, even though the Shiite Muslim parties dominate local government and the Communist and other secular groups have hardly any political representation, in comparison.

The origins of the contemporary conflict started in the middle of 2015, when the first of the anti-government demonstrations began in Baghdad. At first the demonstrations were widely supported by secular and civil society groups as well as Communists. The protestors adopted a new slogan that basically said that religion was being used as a cover by thieves – that is, they thought corrupt politicians from religious parties were stealing the country’s wealth.

The former Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, criticized the demonstrations back then, saying that individuals were trying to use the protests to push back against Iraq’s religious authorities.

Only a few months after they started, the numbers of those turning up to protest had dwindled and it looked like the trend for Friday’s anti-corruption gatherings was ebbing. That was until Iraqi cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, stepped in and called upon his hundreds of thousands of followers to join the protests too.

This culminated in the historic storming of Baghdad’s highly protected Green Zone, home to the country’s Parliament and ministry buildings as well as embassies. Ever since then there has been a unique alliance between a Shiite Muslim political movement – the Sadrists – and the secular movement in Iraq.

Today the demonstrators are becoming even more significant. Thousands of Iraqis continue to gather in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square every week and they are becoming an influential force in political life in the capital. Last week Iraqi politicians tried to vote on a law that aims to better organize peaceful protests, which would doubtless have had an effect on the Friday meetings.

Politicians were forced to postpone the vote because of a special Sunday protest organised by the secular demonstrators.