Since the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Iran has sought to significantly increase its influence in Iraq by empowering the Shi’a majority with the aim of winning their loyalty to the Iranian regime. Iran viewed the U.S. invasion in 2003 as an opportunity to transform one of its primary foes into a client state and base from which to direct revolutionary activities around the Middle East. In order to achieve this objective, Iran has sought to keep Iraq weak and dependent on Tehran for its security.

Iran has sought to replicate the “Hezbollah model” that it employed in Lebanon in its quest for power in Iraq. Iran seeks to be the dominant influence in Iraq’s religious, political, and security spheres. On the religious front, Iran seeks to propagate its revolutionary brand of Islamism predicated upon the conception of velayat-e faqih (Guardianship of the Jurisprudent) among Iraq’s Shia. The hope is that the Iraqi Shia will regard Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as their preeminent source of emulation, supplanting the influence of Shia clerics such as Ayatollah Ali Sistani based in the holy Iraqi city of Najaf, a rival power center to Qom, Iran. Sistani opposes velayat-e faqih and is an advocate for a religiously pluralistic government in Iraq, as opposed to Iran which seeks a Shia dominated government subservient to Iran.

Sistani is the most revered Shia cleric among Iraqi Shia, but Iran has taken strides to make inroads at Sistani’s expense. Iranian religious foundations and construction firms have built religious schools, mosques, and health facilities to gain adherents to their revolutionary theology, and the Iranian government has also moved “to prop up minor local clerics to lessen (Sistani’s) influence – part of preparations to fill the vacuum once the aging ayatollah dies.” In October 2011, Iran dispatched Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi, a high-ranking cleric closely aligned with Supreme Leader Khamenei from Qom to Najaf along with a cadre of lower-ranking revolutionary seminary teachers, indicating that Iran is gearing up to increase Qom’s influence within Najaf’s religious establishment. Iran’s encroachment into Najaf is meant to ensure that Ayatollah Sistani’s successor will at the least be more amenable to Iran’s interests, if not subservient to the doctrine of velayat-e faqih.

Outside the religious sphere, the main levers for influence in Iraq that Iran has at its disposal are the vast number of Shia militia groups it controls. The IRGC-Quds Force is the main body behind the creation, funding, and equipping of Iran’s Shi’a militias in Iraq, and Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani coordinates the battlefield activities of several of the key militias. Staying true to the “Hezbollah model,” Iraq’s Iranian-backed Shia militias form the basis of Iran’s military and political power in Iraq. The militias have leaned on Hezbollah’s example in terms of providing security and social services to Shia constituencies in Iraq, thereby cultivating patronage and loyalty which extends to the Iranian regime and its revolutionary ideology. The militias have successfully translated the support of their Iraqi Shia backers into political clout, which they in turn use to apply pressure for policies favorable to the Islamic Republic. The concentration of military and political power in the hands of Shia militias serves to weaken the centralized Iraqi government, making it harder to defend against Iran’s ideological expansion in Iraq.

There are currently about 50 Shia militias operating in Iraq. The sheer numbers of these diffuse militias ensures that no one militia becomes too powerful, or independent from Tehran. The Iraqi Shia militias have killed hundreds of U.S. troops and even more Iraqis. Iran’s imprimatur over the militias was most vividly borne out with the evolution from primitive Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks on U.S. service members to more lethal explosively formed projectile (EFP) attacks, demonstrating Iran’s role in arming the militias.

The IRGC-Quds Force and Hezbollah have played an important role in training the Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia militias, conducting training in Iran. Thousands of Iraqi militants have traveled to Iranian training camps, where the Quds Force and Hezbollah provided basic 20-day basic paramilitary training courses, as well as leadership courses to train more advanced recruits to serve as instructors. The recruits are obligated to undergo mandatory religious and ideological courses to engender loyalty to Iran’s revolutionary ethos. Many of the Iraqi militias trained by Hezbollah have gone on to send fighters to Syria in recent years, indicating that they are ultimately transnational actors whose supreme loyalties are to their Shia identity and Tehran, and highlighting their commitment to fulfilling Iranian regime objectives.

The rise of ISIS has led to unprecedented coordination among Iraqi militias, evidenced by the creation of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an alliance of over 60,000 fighters from predominantly Shiite militia groups in Iraq that often fights alongside the Iraqi army against the Islamic State. Not all of the militias represented in the PMF are pro-Iranian, however, “the three core Shiite groups of Kataeb Hezbollah, the Badr Organization, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq answer directly to the IRGC.” An examination of these three groups illuminates the tactics Iran pursues in service of its strategic goal of expanding its ideological influence within Iraq. 

Badr Organization

The roots of some of the Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq date back to the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, when elements of Iraq’s Shi’a population fought alongside the IRGC against Saddam Hussein’s regime. The most prominent of these groups is the Badr Organization, a Shiite political party and paramilitary force that acts as “Iran’s oldest proxy in Iraq.” Formed in 1983 as the Badr Brigades, the group served as the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a political party created by Iran in order to organize Iraqi Shia under the banner of the Islamic Revolution.

The Badr Brigades operated from a base in Iran from 1983-2003, launching periodic attacks within southern Iraq. In 2003, the Badr Brigades returned to Iraq to take advantage of the political vacuum following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Despite pledging to refrain from violence, the Badr Organization waged a brutal sectarian war against Iraq’s Sunnis from 2004-2006. In 2012, the Badr Organization branched off from the SCIRI (which had rebranded as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq in order to downplay its links to Tehran) and formed its own political party while retaining an active militia. Today, the Badr Organization is the most powerful militia within the Popular Mobilization Forces. As its military stature has grown, so has its political prominence. Badr Organization leaders have served in key cabinet positions, and the political wing holds 22 seats in Iraq’s Parliament.

Shiism and Iranian-influenced Islamism have remained central elements of the Badr Organization’s identity since its return to Iraq in 2003. In 2011, Badr members celebrated the end of the U.S. military presence in Iraq by plastering the walls of government buildings with posters of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In early 2015, the group’s political and military leader, Hadi Al-Amiri reaffirmed his support for Iran’s Supreme Leader, saying that Khamenei “has all the qualifications as an Islamic leader. He is the leader not only for Iranians but the Islamic nation. I believe so and I take pride in it.” The Badr Organization’s decades-spanning fealty to the revolutionary Iranian regime, and its privileged position as the most powerful Shia combined military and political force in Iraq make it the closest Iraqi analogue to Lebanese Hezbollah. These two organizations stand as “the foremost examples of the IRGC’s success in cultivating a closely knit allegiance with a foreign entity along shared political and religious lines.”

While the Badr Organization’s genesis dates back to the 1980s, many of the Shia militias operating in Iraq today were formed by Iran in the post-2003 era. Some of these smaller militias, such as Asai’b Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and Ka’taib Hezbollah, are more fiercely loyal and subservient to Iran than more established militias such as the Badr Organization and the Sadrist militias, and are therefore the key drivers of Iranian influence in Iraq.

Asaib Ahl al-Haq

Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) – in English, the “League of the Righteous”—is an Iranian-backed Shiite militia and political party operating primarily in Iraq, with ancillary operations in Syria and Lebanon. Formed in 2006 after breaking away from Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaish al-Mahdi, AAH has approximately 10,000 members and is one of the most powerful Shiite militias in Iraq. The group is perhaps the most unfailingly loyal militia to Iran, and seeks to promote Iran’s political and religious influence in Iraq, maintain Shiite control over Iraq, and oust any remaining Western vestiges from the country. AAH overtly displays its loyalty to Iran’s leaders, including the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his predecessor, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. AAH has claimed credit for a campaign to erect thousands of signs and posters venerating Supreme Leader Khamenei around Shia neighborhoods in Iraq.

After the U.S. withdrew from Iraq in December 2011, AAH announced its intention to lay down its weapons and enter Iraqi politics. The group opened a number of political offices and religious schools and offered social services to widows and orphans, emulating the “Hezbollah model” as a means of disseminating Iran’s revolutionary ideology. The group has not fulfilled its pledge to disband its armed militia, and today forms one of the pro-Iranian pillars of support within the PMF. AAH recruitment focuses on two strategies: traditional propaganda efforts to raise the group’s profile, and a comprehensive religious system aimed to indoctrinate and recruit members. AAH has also emulated groups like ISIS by using social media to expand recruitment throughout the Middle East, South Asia, and the West.

Kata’ib Hezbollah

Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) is an Iranian-sponsored, anti-American Shiite militia operating in Iraq with ancillary operations in Syria. Like AAH, Kata’ib Hezbollah is a splinter group of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaish al-Mahdi, which was created by Iran’s Quds Force in 2007 and is considered by the U.S. to be “a direct action arm” of the IRGC. KH has a reputation as a secretive and highly skilled militia that is entrusted with Iran’s most sensitive weaponry. In contrast to AAH, Kata’ib Hezbollah is focused exclusively on militant, rather than political or social, activities. Little is known about the group’s structure, but its leader, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, serves as Iraq’s deputy national security advisor and as the deputy commander of the PMF.

KH’s loyalty to Iran is key to the group’s ideology. A RAND Corporation report claims that “Kata’ib Hezbollah, like Lebanese Hezbollah, is used as a tool to ‘export the Islamic revolution’ as practiced in Tehran.” KH openly accepts Iran’s vision of velayat-e faqih (Guardianship of the Jurists), a strain of political theology that entrusts Iran’s Supreme Leader with unique authority in the Shiite faith. Members of KH swear an oath of loyalty to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and accept him as their own spiritual leader.

Iran’s influence within the PMF – whose creation was officially sanctioned by the Iraqi government – through its operational links with the Badr Organization, Asai’b Ahl al-Haq, and Kata’ib Hezbollah, runs the risk of becoming a runaway train which Iran can exploit to expand its influence within Iraq and beyond into Syria. Critical questions remain about the fate of the PMF coalition as the fight against ISIS in Iraq winds down. Iran is unlikely to willingly disarm or disband the militias it controls in the PMF and is increasingly using these organizations to consolidate control over a corridor linking Tehran to Syria and on into Lebanon. Iran controls more than just Iraqi territory, however. Rather, it has gained influence through its backing of Shia militias that extends into dominance over Iraq’s military, political, economic and cultural affairs.

Following the “Hezbollah model” of dispensing patronage in the form of security and social welfare to fill vacuums created by the weak central government, Iran – through its control over Shia militias, affiliated charitable organizations, and a heavy media presence — has transformed one of its former greatest adversaries into a client state and a “jumping-off point to spread Iranian influence around the region.” Much as Hezbollah has translated its influence in Lebanon into political clout, Iraq’s Shia militias translated popular support into a law passed in November 2016 recognizing the PMF as a government entity operating alongside the military, enshrining their legitimacy into law and ensuring funding from the Iraqi government for their operations, which has only served to deepen sectarian tensions.

Shia militias stepped up their political organizing ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for May 2018, seeking to further entrench Iranian dominance over Iraq’s political system. Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Sa’eroun political bloc, which campaigned on a platform of reducing both U.S. and Iranian influence in Iraq, won the most seats in the election with 54, followed closely by the Iran-backed PMF’s political bloc, the Fatah Alliance, led by Badr Organization head Hadi Al-Amiri with 47. No party came close to the 165-seat threshold needed for a parliamentary majority.

Hopes that Al-Sadr would provide a bulwark against Iranian expansionism in Iraq were dashed in mid-June. The pro-Iran Fatah Alliance’s strong showing ensured that Al-Sadr would have to make accommodations palatable to Iran on issues such as the fate of Iran-backed Shi’a militias, and offer key cabinet posts to Iranian allies, in order to form a viable governing coalition. On June 12, Al-Sadr announced his bloc was entering into an alliance with Al-Amiri in order to accelerate coalition-building efforts, effectively solidifying a strong Iranian position in the government of Iraq through the Badr Organization and the more radical Shi’a militias in the Fatah Alliance.

Iraq’s sizeable Sunni majority and the countervailing influence of Ayatollah al-Sistani, who opposes velayat-e faqih, continue to serve as an effective check against Iran fully remaking Iraq into a theocracy modeled on the Iranian system. Nevertheless, Iran’s maintenance of powerful Shia militias in Iraq loyal to Tehran have enabled Iran to erode Iraq’s sovereignty and become a dominant power broker within Iraq. While the majority of Iraqis across sectarian lines oppose Iranian expansionism, Iran's creeping takeover has grown stronger with each subsequent election in Iraq.

Billboard depicting Iran’s current and former Supreme Leader in the Baghdad square where U.S. Marines previously toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003 (Source: Washington Post)
Billboard depicting Iran’s current and former Supreme Leader in the Baghdad square where U.S. Marines previously toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003 (Source: Washington Post)