Bomb components from Iran used to make deadly improvised explosives devices (IEDs) seized by American forces in Iraq in 2007.


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. Over the years, Iran has replicated the Lebanese Hezbollah model, which fuses militant and political power, in Iraq to conduct a hostile takeover of the Iraqi government and its security apparatus.  

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.” In some cases, these Shi'a militias fighting against the U.S. had a long history of cooperating with the IRGC, reaching back to their insurgency against the Saddam Hussein regime throughout the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988).

Until his death in a U.S. drone strike targeting his convoy at Baghdad 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. He oversaw the training and arming of numerous Shi’a militias in Iraq, some of which today are key members of the Iran-helmed Axis of Resistance that continue to attack U.S. forces stationed in Iraq in a bid to pressure them to withdraw from the region. Further, he coordinated their battlefield activities in Iraq and across the region. 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 their political parties. Iraqi 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 improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which were the “top killer of U.S. troops” in Iraq throughout the Iraq War. 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 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 US 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.

Iran was also responsible for unleashing sectarian violence, as the Shi’a militias it supported engaged in brutal attacks against the Iraqi Sunni minority. The Iran-sponsored violence provoked Sunni reprisals and spiraled into a bloody sectarian civil war in Iraq, which claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians in the years following the invasion. By 2014, radical Sunni groups had formed the Islamic State (ISIS) and conquered large swathes of Iraqi territory.

According to the U.S. Department of State Country Reports on Terrorism 2019, Iran-backed Shi’a militia groups are believed to be responsible for more than a dozen rocket or indirect fire attacks targeting U.S. or Coalition targets in Iraq in 2019, including the December 27 attack in which Kataib Hezbollah (KH) launched more than 30 rockets at an Iraqi base hosting U.S. forces in Kirkuk, killing one American contractor and wounding several American and Iraqi service members. This assault provoked a strong U.S. retaliatory strike on KH targets in Iraq and Syria and set in motion a series of events that would lead to the demise of the IRGC-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and KH founder Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

On March 5, 2019, the U.S. Department of State designated Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (HHN), an Iranian proxy group established in 2013 with direct support from the IRGC. HHN is an Iran-backed Iraqi militia funded by but not under the control of the Iraqi government. HHN has openly pledged its loyalties to Iran and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The group’s founder, Akram al-Kaabi, was one of the cofounders of the IRGC-backed militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and many of the group’s fighters are former members of AAH and Kataib Hezbollah (KH). Kaabi openly admitted in 2015 that “technical and logistical support comes from the [Iranian] Islamic Republic.” The group has been active in Syria as well, and is alleged by Iraqi officials to be “helping Tehran create a supply route through Iraq to Damascus.”

Like AAH and KH, HHN supports Iranian regional objectives. Its attacks against the U.S. appeals to the more radical elements of AAH and KH. HHN has, for example, claimed attacks against Israel from Iraq and was implicated in planning and coordinating attacks against U.S. bases in Iraq since tensions escalated in the aftermath of Hamas’ October 7 terrorist assault against Israel. For that reason, U.S. airstrikes on January 4, 2024 neutralized one of its commanders in Iraq, Mushtaq Jawad Kazim al-Jawari, who was also a senior member of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).

AAH has been designated under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act by the U.S. Department of State since January 3, 2020. The group’s leaders Qais and Laith al-Khazali were also designated as Specially Designated Global Terrorists under Executive Order 13224. In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo alleged, “AAH and its leaders are violent proxies of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Acting on behalf of their masters in Tehran, they use violence and terror to further the Iranian regime’s efforts to undermine Iraqi sovereignty.”

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 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 Syria's border 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 PMF forces 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 within the Iraqi central government led to unprecedented coordination among the Iran-backed Shi’a militias and has helped entrench Iranian control over Iraqi affairs. The PMF is formally under the command and control of Iraq’s prime minister, and as a state entity it receives state funding from a military budget that is supported by U.S. military aid. However, most of the militias that formed to fight ISIS and were incorporated into the PMF retain their loyalty to Tehran rather than the prime minister.

According to a report from War on the Rocks, the PMF forces are divided in their loyalties; none of them answer to the prime minister. They respond to either the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei; Grand Ayatollah Sistani of Iraq, who called for the formation of militias to fight ISIS; and Muqtada al-Sadr, a former ally of Tehran throughout the Iraq War who has since become more nationalist and opposed to Iranian meddling. The report adds that “the most powerful groups and leaders in the PMF come from a network of conservative Shia Islamists who enjoy good relations with Khamenei and the regime in Tehran.”

Reports on the number of IRGC soldiers killed fighting in Iraq further demonstrate Iran’s intense interventions in the area. Additionally, as of 2015, Iran had supplied Iraq with $10 billion worth of weaponry, likely including T-72S tanks, Safir jeeps, and Sayyad sniper rifles.

Iran’s regime leaders sold the intervention in Iraq as a counterterrorism operation against ISIS, but there was also a perception among Iran’s hardline leaders that Baghdad would gradually fall under Tehran’s political control. 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 rivaled ISIS as they cleared 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 Shi’a militias within the PMF, their power has come to eclipse that of the central government. Iraqi officials are often strongarmed into doing the bidding of Tehran. They are often faced with surrendering to and appeasing the PMF or incurring reprisals. As a result of this pressure campaign against Iraqi political officials, successive Iraqi prime ministers have sought to keep cordial relations with Tehran. For example, Iraq’s former 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 Shi’a fighters inside Iraq today, and the government has little recourse to bring them under its command against their desires to retain their independence. It’s this Shi’a militia infrastructure that provides Iran a vehicle to threaten U.S. interests. At Tehran’s behest, these militias were operationalized to push back against the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, attacking U.S. personnel and energy interests in Iraq, and continued attacking U.S. military bases on a regular basis during the Biden administration despite intense diplomacy through European intermediaries, first seeking a revival of the JCPOA and then, when that failed, “informal understandings” aimed at convincing Iran to deescalate on nuclear and regional files.

While these arrangements were in the making, Iran appears to have exercised its control over the militias in Iraq to reduce the frequency of their attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq. Between the initial report of these “understandings” in June 2023 to October 17, there were few if any attacks against the U.S. military in the region. Since October 17, Iran-backed Iraqi militias, coordinated under an umbrella group known as the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, resumed their aggression against the U.S. and Israel, deploying one-way attack drones, rockets, and even ballistic missiles provisioned by Iran.

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 has subverted Iraq’s security for its own nefarious ends. Iran’s transfer of ballistic missiles to its proxies, the establishment of weapons depots in Iraq, and the transformation of the country into a transshipment route for arms to the Assad regime and Hezbollah have further undermined Iraqi sovereignty, imperiling the central government’s monopoly on the use of force. These provocations have invited reprisals from Israel to disrupt Iranian arms proliferation.

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 former Ambassador to Iraq Iraj Masjedi is himself a former general in the Quds Force and had served as a top advisor to former 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 and 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, after taking office, he granted Iran 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 also maintains economic leverage over Iraq, which translates into political influence. According to Ambassador Masjedi, Iran’s second-largest export market is Iraq. Bilateral trade was 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. The Biden administration most recently issued a sanctions waiver to allow Iraq to pay an estimated $10 billion to Iran for electricity in November 2023.

Religious Influence

An additional node of Iranian influence is its development of Shi’a shrines in Iraq. According to a December 2020 Reuters report, Iran has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the construction and upgrading of religious sites in Iraq, hoping to displace popular Shi’a leaders like Grand Ayatollah Sistani and inculcate loyalty to Supreme Leader Khamenei. Construction companies linked to charitable foundations owned by the IRGC are behind the construction bonanza. The primary organization overseeing the development of shrines is called the Holy Shrines Reconstruction Headquarters.

This organization serves multiple purposes for the regime. It was set up by Supreme Leader Khamenei and is run by IRGC appointees. Such arrangements are part of Khamenei’s efforts to establish patronage links to the IRGC, enriching Guardsmen and ensuring their fealty to the Supreme Leader. In March 2020, the organization was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury which alleged it was controlled by the Quds Force and served as a front for funneling lethal aid to Iran-backed proxies, intelligence activities, and money laundering.

Millions of religious pilgrims pass through Iraq’s shrines each year, giving Iran the opportunity to proselytize its Khomeinist ideology. Iran is seeking in the long term to influence the selection of a successor to Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, Iraq’s most powerful Shi’a cleric and a rival source of emulation for Shi’a Muslims to Khamenei. A successor more favorable to its state ideology in Najaf would cement Iranian cultural and political influence in Iraq in the long term. Thus, even at a time when it faces massive economic pressures due to sanctions, Iran has seen fit to divert massive amounts of funds to shrine development in Iraq.  

In moves showcasing Iranian influence in Iraq, the U.S. Department of Treasury sanctioned Iran’s Ambassador to Iraq Iraj Masjedi as a Specially-Designated Global Terrorist and later the Chairman of the Popular Mobilization Committee and Iraq’s former National Security Advisor Falih al-Fayyadh under the Global Magnitsky Act for human rights abuses. The designation of Masjedi was significant, especially for shining a light on Iran’s embedding of Quds Force generals in Iran’s diplomatic postings. The sanction on al-Fayyadh was also important given his history and the fact that al-Fayyadh had visited Washington in the past in order to discuss Iraqi stability. But al-Fayyadh has long been close with Iran, recently traveling to Tehran for the commemoration of the first anniversary of Soleimani’s death.


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 subordination 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 that gripped Iraq during the government of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi witnessed tens of thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets to vent their dissatisfaction with an out-of-touch class of political elites and Iran-backed militias. The militias have acquired substantial political power and often place Iran’s interests over the public good, for instance steering Iraq’s oil resources to benefit Tehran as well as the political elite and the militias themselves, while Iraq’s own citizens lack healthcare, jobs, educational opportunity, consistent electricity, and clean drinking water. The Iraqi protesters that took to the street in late 2019 were almost exclusively Shi’a, which underscores how Iran’s political and military maneuvering failed to translate to winning over the hearts and minds of a large constituency it needs to continue projecting influence in Iraq. Calls for more inclusive governance were high among the protesters’ demands, highlighting the unpopularity of Iran’s explicitly sectarian approach.

Iran 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.”

After Soleimani’s ominous proclamation, PMF and Iraqi security forces 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 Shi’a 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 five 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, members and supporters of KH and other protesters 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 that killed 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 Abu Kamal 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.  

On each years’ anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination, Iran-backed militias escalate their attacks against U.S. military positions. On January 2, 2024, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq claimed almost a dozen attacks against U.S. forces.

Soleimani's Death Weakens IRGC Command Over Militias

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 has increasingly ensnarled their country as a staging ground for proxy warfare between Iran and the U.S. Soleimani’s successor as Quds Force commander, Brigadier General Esmail Qaani, initially struggled to wield control over Iraq in the same manner as Soleimani. Qaani, who previously focused primarily on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia, lacks the relationships with Iraqi political and militia leaders of all stripes that Soleimani, who was universally feared if not respected, had cultivated.

Hezbollah filled part of the void created by Soleimani’s death, taking a more central role in the coordination of militia operations in Iraq. In April 2020, the U.S. Department of State announced a $10 million reward for information on Hezbollah operative Sheikh Mohammad al-Kawtharani, alleging he had “taken over some of the political coordination of Iran-aligned paramilitary groups” that had previously been under Soleimani’s purview. Tehran’s command and control over the various militia groups it backs was degraded, and its ability to dictate outcomes in Iraq’s political affairs was set back as a result of Soleimani’s death.

In late March 2020, Qaani made his first visit to Baghdad seeking to establish continuity with his predecessor and reassert the Quds Force’s influence. His visit was widely seen as a failure. He sought to unite Iraqi militia and political factions in supporting an anti-American, pro-Iranian prime minister, but Iraq ultimately selected former intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who is viewed as supportive of U.S. interests. Qaani was snubbed on his visit by Moqtada al-Sadr, who refused to meet with him. Such a snub would have been unheard of for Soleimani, and demonstrated that Tehran no longer commanded the fear and respect it previously engendered.

In the final months of the Trump administration, Iran sought to restrain the Iraqi militias it backs from attacking the U.S., seeking to wait out the clock and avoid any escalations. In November 2020, Qaani reportedly visited Beirut to meet with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to secure his assistance in reining in Iran-backed Iraqi militias. Qaani then went to Baghdad to meet the prime minister and several militia leaders to urge restraint.

While some militias have followed Tehran’s orders, most notably Kataib Hezbollah, others have openly defied Tehran. Asaib Ahl al-Haq leader Qais al-Khazali gave a TV interview after Qaani’s visit in which he vowed to continue confronting the U.S., declaring, “The Americans occupy our country, not yours. We will not listen to you anymore because our motives are 100 percent nationalist. The truce with the Americans has ended due to its conditions not being met.”

Notwithstanding Qaani’s visit, Iraqi militias continued to carry out attacks on U.S. interests. On November 17, 2020, militants targeted the U.S. embassy with a volley of rockets. On December 10, two convoys carrying logistical equipment to the U.S.-led coalition were attacked by roadside bombs. On December 20, the embassy was targeted with another salvo of 21 rockets, in the largest attack on the Green Zone in a decade. These attacks constituted repeat violations of the tenuous cease-fire that had been reached between the U.S. and Iraqi militias in October and were condemned by Kataib Hezbollah and other factions close to Iran, showing that the Iran-backed militias remained divided in their approach to confronting the U.S. and that under Qaani, the Quds Force could no longer enforce discipline among their ranks. Qaani made another visit to Iraq in December, with Al-Alam news network claiming it was unrelated to the December 20 attack.

As the Quds Force’s ability to direct and maintain unity among its Iraqi proxies has weakened, it has lost control over the flow of revenues from illicit activities. In May 2021, when Qaani informed the supreme leader that over $4 billion generated through arms and drug smuggling had disappeared, the supreme leader reportedly responded by calling the militias “thieves.” Further underscoring the post-Soleimani reality, IRGC general Haider al-Afghani, a former aide to the former Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, requested to be transferred out of Iraq, reportedly complaining that the militias were not obeying his orders. But the link between Iran and violence in Iraq remains intact, particularly given that the Quds Force has restored the control over the militias it had at first lost.

Despite reports of Iran’s weakening command and control over the militias, Iran continued to provision arms and funding to the extremist groups. U.S. commander of Central Command Kenneth F. McKenzie testified before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on March 15, 2022, that Iran continues to “enable its proxies to conduct implausibly deniable attacks on deployed U.S. forces,” even as it conducts diplomacy with the U.S.

Iran’s proxy campaign to evict the U.S. military from the region increases the risk of miscalculation and escalation, General McKenzie explained, in part because Iran’s command and control over its proxy network has diminished. Iran may be unable to “govern the initiation and escalation of violence directed at U.S. and Coalition Forces.”  

Iranian-backed militias ramped up attacks against the U.S. military in Iraq after Joe Biden was elected president, presumably as part of Tehran’s strategy to increase its leverage and compel the U.S. to make up-front concessions ahead of the resumption of nuclear negotiations. Attacks on bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria drastically increased, yet the Biden administration has been reticent to conduct kinetic responses to deter the proxy attacks.

On February 15, 2021, suspected Iran-backed militants thought to belong to the group Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada launched a salvo of 14 rockets against a heavily fortified U.S. military compound in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, with three rockets hitting the base. A civilian contractor to the U.S. military with Filipino nationality was killed, and an Iraqi civilian died a week later due to injuries sustained in the attack. At least eight others were injured in the attacks, including a U.S. soldier and five military contractors. After further attacks, including one against the U.S. embassy on February 22, 2021, the U.S. hit Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada installations and a weapons convoy crossing at the border of Iraq and Syria. It was the Biden administration’s first use of military force.

On March 3, Kurdish counterterror authorities released a confession from one of the perpetrators of the February 15 attack, who said he attacked along with other individuals who belonged to the Iran-backed militia Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS), which is part of the PMF. The video disconfirmed the claims of a little-known group named Saraya Awliya al-Dam, who initially said they had committed the attack. The suspected attacker further claimed to have used Iranian-made rockets in the attack. KSS is believed to be an offshoot with operational links to the Badr Organization. The group’s propaganda frequently features images of Supreme Leader Khamenei, indicating the group’s fealty to the Iranian regime.  

On March 3, 2021, U.S. forces were targeted again by a rocket barrage that U.S. defense officials believe was launched by Kataib Hezbollah or an affiliated Iran-backed militia. A U.S. contractor suffered a fatal cardiac episode during the attack.

On October 20, 2021, Iran launched a drone attack against a base housing U.S. forces in al-Tanf in Syria, prompting a non-kinetic response from the United States. After that attack, rocket and drone strikes against U.S. personnel increased, which showed that the U.S.’s non-response undermined deterrence and increased the risk-readiness of Iran-backed proxies. There were reportedly 29 such attacks between October 2021 and June 2022, none of which provoked a kinetic response from the U.S. In fact, the U.S. did not respond with force until August 2022, when the U.S. struck a weapons depot, known as Ayyash, belonging to IRGC-backed militias in Deir Ezzor province, Syria.

The IRGC itself also became increasingly risk-ready at this juncture, recruiting elite units and training them in advanced asymmetrical warfare tactics and strategy. The IRGC maintains operational control over an array of newly formed and highly secretive militias. According to a May 2021 Reuters report, Iran has begun forming smaller, more loyal groups and training them in core capabilities such as drone and information warfare and surveillance operations. This tactical shift partly owes to the recalcitrance of some of the larger groups upon which Iran has built its influence and leverage in Iraq.

Iraq’s continuing political instability and protests and the sporadic hostilities between Iran-backed proxy forces and the U.S. pose formidable challenges to those wishing to restore sovereignty and democracy to Iraq. Iran will continue to exploit this situation. While Soleimani’s death posed a setback to Iran’s ability to project influence in Iraq, it still wields considerable power over the key militias in the PMF. It can marshal groups to confront the U.S. at the time of its choosing.

The Rise of Prime Minister Sudani

Iraq held parliamentary elections in October 2021, as the proxy militia attacks against the U.S. military were ramping up. Several political analysts, including Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, pointed out that a court ruling in August 2022 changed parliamentary rules for voting a president into office. Before the court ruling, if the two-thirds majority could not be reached when voting for the president in the first round, then a simple majority (165 seats) would be required in the second round of voting. Now, however, a two-thirds quorum is necessary to select the president.

As a consequence of this court ruling, a political stalemate ensued for months after the parliamentary elections, while many Iraqis went without water and electricity. Poverty rates and unemployment are high, despite enormous oil wealth. Many Iraqis blame these circumstances on the mismanagement and corruption of an out-of-touch political elite. Muqtada al-Sadr, a powerful Shi’a cleric turned populist, is one political figure who has capitalized on wide-spread nationalist sentiment opposed to Iran’s meddling in Iraq and its violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.

Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon (“Alliance for Reform”) coalition won the most seats (74 out of 329) in the October 2021 parliamentary election, threatening to push the pro-Iran parties into the opposition. Sadr, a Shi’a, then joined a coalition with Kurdish and Sunni parties. This tripartite alliance, known as “Saving the Homeland,” sought to form a majority government that would have excluded the pro-Iran parties.

In June 2022, Iran-backed parties were obstructing the parliamentary vote for a president, so Sadr told his coalition to resign en masse from parliament. When they obliged, the candidates who received the second-most votes for those now-vacant parliamentary seats became MPs. Because many of the second-place finishers were members of pro-Iran parties, Sadr’s resignation resulted in a major shift in the distribution of seats, ultimately culminating in the parliament’s approval of Mohammed Shia al-Sudani for prime minister in October 2022, approximately one year after the parliamentary elections took place.

A pro-Iran coalition, known as the “Coordination Framework,” held the largest number of seats, putting it in a powerful negotiating position. The Coordination Framework had nominated Mohammad al-Sudani—an ally of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki—to become the next prime minister.

Maliki, who has close ties with Iran, leads the Dawa (“State of Law”) party and is part of the Coordination Framework, which is a coalition of Shi’a parties, including Maliki’s party, Hadi al-Amiri’s Fatah Alliance (which is itself made up of AAH’s political wing, Kataib Hezbollah, and several other prominent Iran-backed militias), former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Nasr Alliance, and the Hikma Party.

Sadr attempted to form a “national majority government” in opposition to the Coordination Framework’s proposed “national consensus government.” Sadr’s coalition would have included Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi’s Sunni Taqaddum bloc, and Massoud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party, and excluded the pro-Iran Shi’a parties. If a “national majority government” came to power, it would have undermined Iran’s interests in the Iraqi state.

The current Quds Force commander Esmail Qaani traveled to Baghdad on multiple occasions since the contested October 2021 election to advance Iran’s interests. According to some officials involved in the negotiations that he led, his mission was to motivate “the [Shi’a] parties to stay united and agree on a premier candidate.” As the Fatah Alliance was engaged in a legal battle to nullify the results of the election based on claims of fraud and still had not accepted the results of the election, Qaani reportedly rushed to Baghdad to tell leaders of the Iran-backed militias, including Hadi al-Ameri of the Badr Organization and Qais al-Khazali of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, to accept the results of the election and control their militias.

Iran-backed militias in Iraq subsequently increased their violent activities to intimidate and coerce their political opponents. In November 2021, an unknown terrorist group attempted to assassinate Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in a drone strike. AAH claimed that the attack was “fabricated.” However, Reuters reported that two Iraqi security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the attack was carried out by both Kataib Hezbollah and AAH.

The statements of these officials indicated that Iran probably supplied the weapons used in the assassination attempt. Ambassador Nathan Sales of the Counter Extremism Project claimed that the failed drone strike “appears to have Tehran’s fingerprints all over it.”

On March 13, 2022, the IRGC launched a barrage of missiles from Iranian territory on a private villa in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. The owner of the villa, Baz Karim Barazanji, is closely associated with the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). On March 28, pro-Iran militiamen allegedly burned down the KDP’s Baghdad office with impunity. Again in early May, six rockets were fired at the Kawergosk refinery, which is owned by Barazanji. The attacks on Erbil continued in June in what appeared to be a concerted Iranian effort to pressure the KDP to stop cooperating with Sadr and make concessions to the Iran-backed groups. There have also been several targeted assassinations against Sadrists across Iraq.

The KDP also suffered the wrath of Iran in the Iraqi legal system. Dr. Faiq Zaidan, a longtime supporter of Iran who is also believed to be affiliated with Hezbollah, issued a ruling as president of Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court that targeted Kurdish control of oil revenues from the refineries in its semi-autonomous region. (This court was the same one that issued the above-mentioned ruling to require a two-thirds parliamentary quorum to elect the president). Furthermore, the court blocked Kadhimi’s caretaker government from passing a new budget, enabling PMF militias to maintain their budget of $2.7 billion. Iran’s interests are clearly represented by high-ranking judges within Iraq’s judicial system.

Iran-Backed Militias Consolidate Political Power 

Iran has sought to expel the U.S. military from its neighboring territory since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. In 2011, the Obama administration completely withdrew all forces, only to be forced to return three years later because of the rise of ISIS. The Iran-backed militias that came to dominate the PMF, which formed in response to ISIS, and that have leveraged their military capabilities to increase their political power have long demanded the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops, which remain stationed in the country on a counter-ISIS mission. Sudani, who is aligned with the Coordination Framework of the political wings of the militia groups, has sought to assuage these demands by issuing public statements against the U.S. military presence.

Nevertheless, other reports indicate that Iraq’s prime minister has privately conveyed to the U.S. his interest in renegotiating the U.S.-led coalition’s presence in Iraq. Iraq depends on U.S. security assistance, military aid, and financial support, so Sudani may appease the hardline elements of his political coalition while not acceding to their maximalist demands, which would damage relations with the U.S. As of late January 2024, over 65 separate attacks have occurred against U.S. military or diplomatic installations in Iraq and several attacks have been launched against Israel from Iraq. The U.S. embassy in Iraq was targeted by mortar fire on December 8, 2023, and Ain al-Asad airbase came under ballistic missile attacks from Kataib Hezbollah on two occasions, one of which in November resulted in eight Americans injured.

The U.S. has struck targets in Iraq on several occasions in an effort to degrade and deter the militias. Yet, they are not deterred. They appear emboldened, as Tehran, their patron, has not faced consequences from the U.S. The U.S. has instead focused on striking the proxies in Iraq, including leadership figures, such as Mushtaq Jawad Kazim al-Jawari, a leader of the Iran-backed Harakat al-Nujaba terrorist group and a senior commander in the PMF; as well as Wissam Muhammad Sabir Al-Saadi, a Kataib Hezbollah commander that played a major role in the group’s operations in Syria.

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