Since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, Iran has waged proxy warfare in Iraq as it has sought to significantly increase its influence and oust America’s military presence from the country. Iran’s quest for primacy in Iraq is an important component of its hegemonic regional project to export the Islamic Revolution throughout the Middle East. Iraq is also an important link in Iran’s efforts to establish a “Shi’a crescent” that functionally serves as a land bridge linking Tehran to Lebanon and the Mediterranean, enabling Iran to more efficiently and lethally arm Hezbollah and its other regional proxies.
Sharing a 900 mile border with Iran, Iraq under the Sunni Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein was Iran’s primary geostrategic adversary. Iran viewed the U.S. invasion in 2003 as an opportunity to transform its foe into a client state and base from which to direct revolutionary activities around the Middle East. To that end, Iran has sought to cultivate loyalty among Iraq’s Shi’a majority population, seeking to leverage shared sectarian identity to justify its meddling and anchor its influence in Iraq.
In order to bolster its influence, Iran aims to keep Iraq weak and dependent on Tehran for its security. Iran has stood up and controls a vast network of Shi’a militant groups in Iraq, and uses these proxies to “stoke sectarian tensions and to foment political violence… thereby ensuring for itself a role as mediator in Iraq.” This “two-faced” strategy has enabled Iran to establish itself as the “key power broker” in Iraq.
Support for Shi’a Militias
Since the 2003 onset of the Iraq War, Iran supported, trained, and funded Shi’a militias and Shi’a insurgents in order to “work toward a humiliating defeat for the United States.” Until his death in a U.S. drone strike targeting his convoy as it left Baghdad’s international airport on January 3, 2020, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani served as Iran’s primary agent of influence in Iraq, overseeing the training and arming and coordinating the battlefield activities of various Iran-backed Shi’a militias operating in Iraq. Through a combination of military aid, cash, favors, bribes, and intimidation, Soleimani came to wield tremendous personal influence over the country’s Shi’a militias and political parties. Politicians were effectively held hostage to Soleimani’s demands, as he could call on the militias under his command to make trouble if they tried to cross him.
Iran supplied these groups with weapons such as IEDs, which were “top killer of U.S. troops” in Iraq. In order to move these weapons into Iraq, Iran controlled a number of arms smuggling rings. By 2006 the Quds Force, the extraterritorial military arm of the IRGC, had developed “a widespread network for transferring and distributing arms from Iran into Iraq through the Ilam region in western Iran.”
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, whose sophistication U.S. military officials insist point to Iranian origins. In total, the U.S. Pentagon found that Iran-backed militias were responsible for 603 U.S. servicemember deaths between 2003-2011, accounting for roughly one in six U.S. casualties during that period. The sectarian violence Iran helped unleash also claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians in the years following the invasion.
Fight against ISIS
Iran’s hostile takeover of Iraq stoked sectarian backlash, catalyzing the rise and potency of the Islamic State (ISIS). In 2014, at the apex of ISIS’s power, the group took over Mosul with little resistance from Iraqi government forces and began advancing toward the outskirts of Baghdad. At the time, Iran’s primary focus had shifted to Syria, and Iran had diverted much of its Shi’a militia personnel to the effort to rescue the Assad regime. When the ISIS situation demanded action, Soleimani ordered the Iraqi militias to cross back over the border from Syria to rescue Iraq.
Iran has used the war against ISIS as a pretext to embed IRGC officials in Iraq and increase support for Shi’a militant groups loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei. In conjunction with the Iraqi government, Soleimani helped stand up the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella organization of predominantly Shi’a militia groups that coordinated with Iraq’s central government in the fight against ISIS. While not all the forces in the PMF are aligned with Iran, about 50 Shi'a militia groups are backed by Iran including some of the largest, best-funded, and most heavily armed groups. The creation of the PMF command structure and its integration with the Iraqi central government led to unprecedented coordination among the Iran-backed Shi’a militias and has helped entrench Iranian control over Iraqi affairs.
Reports on the number of IRGC soldiers killed fighting in Iraq further demonstrate Iran’s intense interventions in the area. Iran has supplied Iraq with $10 billion worth of weaponry, likely including T-72S tanks, Safir jeeps, and Sayyad sniper rifles.
As a result of these interventions against ISIS, Iranian influence in Iraq has reached an “unprecedented level.” According to Ali Younusi, an adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei, “Iran is an empire once again at last, and its capital is Baghdad.” A member of the Iranian parliament made a similar claim, declaring that Baghdad has “fallen into Iran’s hands and belongs to the Iranian Islamic Revolution.” Soleimani also echoed these sentiments boasting, “We are witnessing the export of the Islamic Revolution throughout the region… From Bahrain and Iraq to Syria, Yemen and North Africa.”
The Iran-backed Shi’a militias engaged in systemic human rights abuses and brutality that rivalled ISIS’s as they cleared out ISIS territory. Iraqi Shi’a militias were alleged to have engaged in extrajudicial assassinations, summary executions, kidnappings, and torture of both combatants and civilians, including children.
Due to the armed strength and brutality of the Shia militias within the PMF, their power has come to eclipse that of the central government, leading Iraqi officials to either surrender to and appease the PMF, or face reprisals. Iraq’s previous prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, praised Iran at Davos in 2015 for springing to Iraq’s defense and even singled out Qassem Soleimani as an ally in the fight against ISIS. There are reportedly around 80,000 to 100,000 Iran-aligned Shia fighters inside Iraq today, and the government has little recourse to bring the Iran-backed militias, which desire to retain their independence, under its command. It’s this Shi’a militia infrastructure that provides Iran a vehicle to threaten U.S. interests in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. At Tehran’s behest, these militias have been operationalized to push back against the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, attacking U.S. personnel and energy interests in Iraq. Reuters reported in August 2018 that Iran had recently transferred short-range ballistic missiles to its allies in Iraq. These kinds of missiles include the Zelzal, Fateh-110, and Zolfaqar, which can all travel from 200-700 km. This range places U.S. allies—Israel and Saudi Arabia—within reach. Indeed, the U.S. government was forced to shutter its consulate in Basra in September 2018 after Iranian-supported militias fired rockets at the compound.
Iran’s transfer of ballistic missiles to its proxies, establishment of weapons depots in Iraq, and transformation of the country into a transshipment route for arms to the Assad regime and Hezbollah has further undermined Iraqi sovereignty, imperiling the central government’s monopoly on the use of force These provocations have invited reprisals from Israel, highlighting Iran’s willingness to subvert Iraq’s security for its own nefarious ends.
Political and Economic Influence
The kinetic power of these militias buys 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.
Beyond the orbit of the prime minister, even the new Sunni speaker of Iraq’s parliament, Muhammad al-Halbusi, secured his job after crucial backing from the pro-Iran Fatah alliance. His first positions upon taking office have been payback for Fatah’s support—specifically criticizing renewed U.S. sanctions on Iran.
Outside the political realm, Iran also maintains economic leverage over Iraq. According to Ambassador Masjedi, Iran’s second-largest export market is Iraq, with bilateral trade set to reach $8.5 billion in 2018, with Iran hoping to increase the trade volume to $22 billion annually. Indeed, the United States has had to continually grant Iraq a periodic waiver from U.S. sanctions that the U.S. government re-imposed on Iran following its withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal allowing it to import gas and electricity from Iran.
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 former 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.