Militias need war to legitimize them. That is how the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and elsewhere in the region justify their existence. Iraq has seen plenty of war for 40 years, but the latest threat, from ISIS, has been seen off with American help, and the US will soon withdraw its troops. If there ever was a need for the militias – which is doubtful – it is no longer there. But despite all entreaties, the Iraqi militias refuse to go.
In the words of Abdul-Aziz Al-Muhammadawi, also known as Abu-Fadak or Al-Khal (meaning “uncle”), the armed militia he leads, the Popular Mobilization Unit (PMU), is “more legitimate than all other armies” and will remain in existence “until God wills otherwise.”
Until then, “Uncle” will refuse the options offered by Baghdad of either disarming all militias and transforming them into political parties, or of being absorbed into Iraq’s regular military and security forces. Abu-Fadak, of course, ultimately takes his orders from another capital, and Tehran says the militias must retain their arms in order to “liberate” Iraq from “American military occupation.”
As an argument, this is extremely tenuous. The number of US troops in Iraq now is down to only 2,500. They are mostly engaged in training high-level Iraqi military personnel and no one in Washington regards their presence in Iraq as open-ended. The days of highly visible US patrols are long gone. To describe such a low-key presence as an “occupation” strains credulity.
The majority of Iraqis are heartily sick of the pro-Iran troublemakers. Conscious of public opinion and with an eye on the forthcoming elections, the prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, has called for the militias to disband. Even Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who is regarded as the spiritual leader of Iraqi Shias and one of the most senior clerics in Shia Islam, has publicly stated that it is time for them to go.
So have some of the most influential Iraqi Shias, such as Muqtada Al-Sadr (cleric, politician and head of his own militia), Ammar Al-Hakim (cleric and former head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq) and even former prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki, who began his career as a Shia dissident during the time of Saddam Hussein.
The elections due to be held in June are another factor concentrating Shia minds. No Shia seeking political office stands a chance against a rival who has the backing of an armed group.
Yet the PMU’s Abu-Fadak continues to insist that Iraq’s pro-Iran militias answer only to divine command and exhorts the political class and the people of Iraq to learn to live with them, just as in Tehran the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its leader, Ali Khamenei, hold the true reins of power, while the president, Hassan Rouhani, is a mere figurehead with a weak army.
Militias are all too often no more than bands of thugs. In the absence of war, they are apt to turn their sights on civilians and to organized crime, leading to civil war. Certainly, that has been the experience of other countries in the region. Consider the years of carnage wreaked by the Iran-backed Houthis of Yemen.
It is also true that when regular armies are pitted against militias, it is the regulars who come off worse. The only options in such situations seem to be either wholesale destruction of territory – as in Iraq – or precision airstrikes that only curtail the power of the militias but do not quash it completely, as in Yemen.
But this does not mean all hope is lost for Iraq. Many of the militiamen currently loyal to Iran are young and malleable. If the Iraqi leadership acts wisely and harnesses the support of Al-Sistani, Baghdad can outmaneuver, out-fund and out-gun the militias.
The task facing Iraq’s political class now is to act together against the tools of Tehran’s incessant meddling in the affairs of others. If they fail to do this and instead continue bickering and jockeying among themselves for power, they will surrender true power to the puppet-masters across the border in Iran.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.