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.
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 (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.
The kinetic power of the Iran-backed Shia militias buys Iran influence in Iraqi politics. The Iranian embassy in Baghdad is a hub of the mullahs’ machinations in Iraq—specifically because Iran’s Ambassador to Iraq Iraj Masjedi is himself a former general in the Quds Force and has served as a top advisor to Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani. It’s from this platform that Tehran wields powerful influence over the direction of Iraqi politics.
After the May 2018 parliamentary elections, which saw the Iran-backed Fatah alliance finish second in the vote tally, Iran and its allies were intimately involved in the negotiations over government formation. For example, Muqtada al-Sadr, whose nationalist Sairoon coalition came in first in the elections, traveled to Lebanon in September 2018 where he was hosted by Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and Qassem Soleimani to forge a consensus on who would become the next prime minister of Iraq. The trio settled on Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a former oil minister and vice president of Iraq. According to leaked Iranian intelligence cables obtained by the Intercept, Abdul-Mahdi worked closely with Iran dating back to his time in exile as an opponent of Saddam Hussein’s regime and as oil minister, had a “special relationship with the IRI.” Abdul-Mahdi was hailed as a compromise candidate palatable to the U.S. and Iraq, but his selection highlighted that no Iraqi prime minister could assume power without Iran’s backing. While Mahdi has been described as an independent-minded technocrat, since he’s taken office, Iran has been given preferential access to his inner circle. In October 2018, only 24 hours after announcing he would not meet with delegations from foreign embassies as his cabinet was in the process of being formed—out of fear of an appearance of impropriety in the decision-making process—he hosted the Iranian Ambassador Iraj Masjedi for a discussion.
Iran’s control over Shi’a militias has made it the dominant military, political, and diplomatic power broker in Iraq, but its quest for domination and subversion of Iraqi interests to its own has weakened Iraq’s central government and impeded its ability to provide for the welfare of its citizens. Meanwhile, Iran’s project to cultivate patronage links among Iraq’s Shi’a population through its militias, which provide social services in addition to security, has failed to take root, as widespread unemployment and economic privation remain the norm. Iran’s revolutionary bravado has proved insufficient to override its ineptitude at basic governance, and the result has been a backlash against Tehran that has metastasized into a mass protest movement ongoing since October 2019.
The protests gripping Iraq have witnessed tens of thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets to vent their dissatisfaction with the government of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, an out-of-touch class of political elites, and Iran-backed militias. Too often, these forces have placed Iran’s interests over the public good, for instance steering Iraq’s oil resources to benefit Tehran while Iraq’s own citizens lack healthcare, jobs, educational opportunity, consistent electricity, and clean drinking water. Notably, the Iraqi protestors are almost exclusively Shi’a, showing that Iran’s political and military maneuvering has failed to translate to winning over the hearts and minds of the core constituency it needs to continue projecting influence in Iraq. Calls for more inclusive governance were high among the protestors’ demands, highlighting the unpopularity of Iran’s explicitly sectarian approach.
Iran has responded to the Iraqi protest movement with repression, dispatching Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani to Baghdad immediately after protests began to advise Iraqi politicians and security officials on his best practices for quelling unrest. According to Iraqi security officials present at the meeting, Soleimani, who chaired the meeting in place of Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi, told those present, “We in Iran know how to deal with protests. This happened in Iran and we got it under control.”
Since Soleimani’s ominous proclamation, PMF and Iraqi security forces have responded with excessive and deadly force to quell demonstrations. By the end of December 2019, nearly 500 protestors had been killed, thousands more injured, and about 2,800 were arrested. The directive to respond to protests with live fire clearly emanated from Tehran, and numerous reports indicate that Iran-backed forces have been behind the deadliest clashes. For instance, Reuters reported that PMF elements close to Iran, reporting directly to their militia commanders rather than the commander in chief of the Iraqi armed forces, deployed snipers on Baghdad rooftops overlooking demonstrations just days after the unrest began, killing several dozen.
While directing the suppression of the Iraqi protests, Soleimani also ordered the Iran-backed militias under his control to undertake a concerted campaign of rocket attacks targeting U.S. military targets in the country. According to a U.S. military official, forensic analysis of the rockets and launchers used during the spate of at least ten attacks indicated the involvement of Shia militias, most notably Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Katai’b Hezbollah (KH). On December 27, 2019, more than 30 missiles were fired at an Iraqi military base near Kirkuk, killing a U.S. contractor and wounding four U.S. troops as well as two members of the Iraqi security forces. The U.S. accused KH of being responsible for the attack, and retaliated by launching strikes against 5 KH targets in Iraq and Syria including weapons depots and command and control centers. The U.S. strikes reportedly killed at least 25 KH militants.
On December 31, 2019, protesters, including members and supporters of KH, attempted to storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Demonstrators threw stones and torched a security post, prompting embassy guards to respond with stun grenades and tear gas. The militia supporters withdrew from the embassy after prominent commanders reportedly spoke to them. On January 1, 2020, following orders from Mohammed Mohyee, KH’s political spokesman, thousands of protestors dispersed from the American Embassy in Baghdad.
In the early morning hours of January 3, 2020, President Trump greenlit a drone strike targeting Soleimani’s convoy shortly after his arrival in Baghdad. The head of KH, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, who also served as deputy head of the PMF, was killed in the strike as well. Despite their deaths, the powerful network of Iran-backed Shi’a militias will continue to remain a fixture in Iraq, upholding Iran’s influence increasingly through repression.
Iran’s leadership has vowed devastating reprisals against the U.S. for the operation to kill Soleimani, and they followed up on this threat by firing a salvo of over a dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi air bases housing U.S. troops in the early morning hours of January 8, wounding 11 U.S. soldiers. Following the attack, a period of calm prevailed, although Iran signaled that it is likely to strike U.S. interests again at a future time of its choosing. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, intoned that while the ballistic missile attack represented a “slap on the face” for the U.S., “military action like this (ballistic missile) attack is not sufficient,” vowing to refuse to enter negotiations and to continue to confront the U.S. until its influence is expelled from the region. In the intervening period, Iran’s leaders maintained a steady drumbeat of threatening rhetoric aimed at the U.S., with Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Qaani, for instance vowing to “hit his enemy in a manly fashion.”
On March 11, 2020, the calm was broken as what were presumed to be Iran-backed militia forces launched a Katyusha rocket salvo targeting U.S. and coalition troops stationed at Camp Taji, 17 miles north of Baghdad. Two U.S. soldiers and one British soldier were killed in the attack, and an additional twelve soldiers were injured. The attack crossed a U.S. red line as it killed U.S. servicemembers, once again raising U.S.-Iran tensions. The attack coincided with what would have been Qassem Soleimani’s 63rd birthday, but it is unclear whether the attack was ordered directly by Iran, as the assassination of Soleimani likely has affected command and control between Tehran and its proxies in Iraq. Following the attack, airstrikes were carried out around the Abukamal Syria-Iraq border crossing, where Iran-backed militias are known to have a strong presence. The U.S. has not claimed credit for the airstrikes at this time.
In the event of further hostilities, Iran will likely call upon the Iraqi Shi’a militias to play a role in attacking the U.S. and its allies. In the aftermath of Soleimani’s death, Iraq’s protest movement has continued to gain steam, with demonstrators venting their frustration that Iran’s disregard for Iraqi sovereignty risks has increasingly ensnarled their country as a staging ground for proxy warfare between Iran and the U.S.
Iraq’s political situation, meanwhile has continued to deteriorate, further imperiling stability in the country. On November 30, 2019, Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi resigned in response to the protest movement, leading to a two month impasse as rival political parties squabbled over designating a successor. Abdul-Mahdi stayed on as a caretaker in the interim, and in February 2020, Iraq’s president designated Shi’a politician Mohammad Allawi, a former communications minister in Nouri Al-Maliki’s government, as interim prime minister, a move that was backed by Iran. Allawi was tasked with forming a government until early elections could be called at a future date.
Allawi has attempted to stake a reputation as a reformer. He resigned from Al-Maliki’s government in 2012, citing Al-Maliki’s interference in his ministry and dissatisfaction with efforts to tackle corruption. Upon being designated interim prime minister, Allawi backed the protestors in their demands and insisted that he would seek justice for those who had been killed, but the protestors rejected Allawi, who they viewed as part of failed Iraqi political establishment.
On March 1st, Allawi stepped down as he was unable to gain political backing in his cabinet formation efforts. The continuing political instability and protests, as well as the sporadic hostilities between Iran and the U.S., pose formidable challenges to those wishing to restore sovereignty and democracy to Iraq, a situation which Iran will continue to exploit.
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)