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 the “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 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. The sectarian violence Iran helped unleash also claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians in the years following the invasion.
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 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.
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.”
On January 3, 2020, the U.S. Department of State designated Asa’ib Ahl al Haq (AAH) under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, and designated its leaders Qais and Laith al-Khazali 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 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 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 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 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 rivaled ISIS 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 Shi’a 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 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 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 US 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 US allies—Israel and Saudi Arabia—within reach. Indeed, the US 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, the establishment of weapons depots in Iraq, and 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, 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 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, 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.
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.
An additional node for 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. 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. 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 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 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, 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 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 US 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 at this time.
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, has 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.
As such, Hezbollah has had to fill the void created by Soleimani’s death, taking over 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 Soleimani’s purview. Tehran’s command and control of the various militia groups it backs have been degraded as a result. Its ability to dictate outcomes in Iraq’s political affairs has been set back as well.
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 has 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.”
Since Qaani’s visit, Iraqi militias have continued to carry out attacks on US 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. The repeat violations of the tenuous cease-fire have been condemned by Kataib Hezbollah and other factions close to Iran, but show that the Iran-backed militias remain divided in their approach to confronting the U.S. and that under Qaani, the Quds Force can 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.”
IRGC general Haider al-Afghani, a former aide to former IRGC-QF commander Qassem Soleimani, requested to be transferred out of Iraq, reportedly complaining that the militias did not obey his orders. But the link between Iran and proxy violence remains intact, even if the Quds Force has lost a degree of control over the militias. “The Iranians and the militias are strategic security, military, and economic partners…[and] Iran and the IRGC nurture this partnership with money, weapons, and expertise, so that it remains a constant threat,” said Ghazi Faisal Hussein, director of the Iraqi Center for Strategic Studies.
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. Its proxy campaign increases the risk of miscalculation and escalation, General McKenzie explained, in part because Iran’s command and control over its proxy network have diminished. Iran may be unable to “govern the initiation and escalation of violence directed at U.S. and Coalition Forces.” Proxy attacks on U.S. forces may temporarily decline given Iraq’s ongoing government formation process, but the Iranian proliferation of weapons to its network of militias presents a growing threat to U.S. and Coalition forces in Iraq. If efforts to engage Iran diplomatically weakens the U.S. resolve to deter proxy attacks, that threat could continue to metastasize.
Iranian-backed militias have continued to launch attacks against the U.S. military in Iraq since Joe Biden assumed the U.S. presidency, 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 have drastically increased since Biden took office. Yet, his administration has been reticent to conduct a kinetic response to deter the proxy attacks.
On February 15, 2021, suspected Iran-backed militants launched a salvo of 14 rockets targeting a heavily fortified U.S. military compound in Erbil, in 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. On March 3, Kurdish counterterror authorities released a confession from one of the perpetrators of the 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 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.
Several days after the attack on Erbil International Airport, militants fired rockets at the Balad air base, where a U.S. defense firm services Iraq’s fighter jets, and at Baghdad’s Green Zone compound, where the U.S. Embassy is located. The U.S. responded to the uptick in violent attacks by launching airstrikes targeting Iran-backed militia forces on the Syrian side of the Iraq-Syria Abu Kamal border crossing on February 25, 2021, a choice calibrated to respond to and deter further Iranian aggression while not creating political headaches for the Iraqi central government. According to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, the facilities targeted were used by Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada. 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 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, underscoring 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.
Iran’s main proxies in Iraq—namely, Kataib Hezbollah, Badr Organization, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq—have turned to the playbook of their Iranian backers to create distance between themselves and the increasingly frequent attacks on U.S. assets. By directing obscure groups to carry out the attacks, the Iranian proxies seek to maintain legitimacy within the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units, which receive government funding and are formally integrated into the Iraqi security apparatus. This way, they also protect themselves from retaliatory strikes and public backlash. The effort to displace responsibility for the above-mentioned attacks, and many others like them, also further distances the IRGC. However, some reports suggest that the IRGC still maintains operational control over these 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 the larger groups upon which Iran has built its influence and leverage in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
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, a situation that Iran will continue to exploit. 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.
Iran's Grip on Iraqi Politics
Iraq held parliamentary elections in October 2021. Several political analysts, including Michael Knights of the Washington Institute, 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.
Political stalemate—partly a consequence of this court ruling—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—claims to represent the fight against corruption. He has framed his opponents—particularly the pro-Iran parties—as responsible for the corruption that plagues Iraq’s political system.
As a nationalist, Sadr also claims to oppose Iranian meddling in Iraq, along with the U.S. military presence (though some analysts have pointed out he may be open to relations with the U.S. provided that it does not infringe on Iraqi sovereignty).
Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement threatened to push the pro-Iran parties into the opposition. His Sairoon (“Alliance for Reform”) coalition won the most seats (74 out of 329) in the October 2021 parliamentary election. 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.
The tripartite alliance brought together 162 members of parliament—three votes short of a simple majority. However, because of the court ruling mentioned above, the Coordination Framework could obstruct the voting process through a boycott. Sadr offered to compromise with the rival Coordination Framework on the condition that former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was excluded from the talks. The leader of the Fatah Coalition, Hadi al-Amiri—also the leader of the powerful Iran-backed Badr Organization militia—rejected his offer after reportedly agreeing to it, saying to Sadr that he would not proceed without his allies.
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, 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, and thousands of Sadr’s supporters broke into the Green Zone ahead of the Shi’a Islamic holy day of Ashura, and stormed the parliament building in protest. They sought to prevent the pro-Iran parties from forming a government based on the new distribution of seats in parliament.
The pro-Iran parties staged protests of their own in the Jadriya area, close to the suspension bridge leading to the Green Zone, but did not enter the Green Zone to avoid confrontation with the Sadrists.
Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki—who has close ties with Iran—is part of the Coordination Framework, which is a coalition of Shi’a parties composed of Hadi al-Amiri’s Fatah Alliance (which is made up of several prominent Iran-backed militias, including AAH’s political wing, and Kataib Hezbollah), Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa (“State of Law”) Party, former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Nasr Alliance, and the Hikma Party.
Maliki was prime minister for two terms (2006-2014). His administration was rife with corruption. He gave Iran an “open license” to meddle in Iraqi affairs and installed pro-Iran loyalists in many key institutions, including the judiciary. If Maliki came to power again, he might supercharge Iran-backed militias, who operate independently of the state but still reap the benefits of state funding and state legitimacy. His State of Law party won 33 seats, and he put himself forward as a potential candidate for prime minister—a post that a Shiite must fill in in Iraq’s political system—but retreated after Sadr criticized him on Twitter.
Whereas the Coordination Framework wants a “national consensus government,” Sadr is attempting to form a “national majority government” that would include Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi’s Sunni Taqaddum bloc, and Massoud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party, and exclude 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.
By some accounts, the Coordination Framework’s nominee, Sudani, is “one of the least controversial figures from the Coordination Framework.” He “represents a very convenient excuse for Muqtada al-Sadr to voice his displeasure with the entire Coordination Framework and the political system in Iraq,” according to Marsin Alshamary, a researcher at the Harvard Kennedy School. Kirk Sowell, an analyst at the political risk firm Utica Risk Services, concurs, saying Sudani is “noncontroversial” among Shi’a, Sunni, and Kurdish establishment parties. Sowell claims, moreover, that he will likely become the next prime minister, unless “Sadrists really ramp up the street pressure.” Sudani may have been selected, instead of Maliki, to avoid a confrontation with Sadr, but Sadr still rejected his nomination.
Notwithstanding the reforms for which Sadr is advocating, he is an establishment figure, whose allies dominate the state bureaucracy. He faces fierce opposition to the dismantling of patronage networks that sustain the wealth and influence of public officials. Sadr has to balance popular expectations with those of the loyalists he installed in government posts to do his bidding.
Some analysts are not convinced of Sadr’s nationalist, anti-Iran rhetoric. (It should be noted that Sadr’s militia—formerly known as the Mahdi Army (JAM), and now known as the Peace Brigades—had a long history of receiving Iranian support, notably during the U.S. occupation (2003-2011). Indeed, Sadr, for a long time, was an extremely violent pro-Iranian militia leader). Expert political analyst Marsin Alshamary believes, “The truth is in Iraq, there is not a single political party, whether Shi’a, Sunni, or Kurd, that does not have some kind of tie with Iran.” Another analyst notes that, because Iran maintains close ties with every political party in Iraq, “whoever wins in the Iraqi elections, Iran wins.” It remains to be seen how dedicated Sadr is to his call for curbing Iran-backed militias, fighting corruption, and implementing political reforms.
Sadr claimed, “there is no place for sectarianism or ethnic division, but a national majority government where the Shi’a defend the rights of the minorities, the Sunnis and Kurds.” He also added, “there is no place for militias, and everyone will support the army, police, and security forces.” Both these positions alienated Sadr from the predominantly-Shi’a Coordination Framework.
Sadr refused to engage in dialogue with his opposition, arguing that such dialogues in the past have led to “nothing but destruction, corruption, and dependency.” On August 3, 2022, he encouraged his supporters occupying the parliament building to stay put. He also called for the dissolution of parliament and an early vote. Maliki tweeted in support of continued dialogue based on the constitution.
The polarization of Iraqi Shiites only worsened when an audio tape, attributed to Nouri al-Maliki, leaked. The voice on the audio recording called Muqtada al-Sadr a “murderer,” and an “ignorant, hateful Zionist,” and dismissed the Iran-backed militias as “cowards.” Sadr responded by saying that Maliki’s words constituted death threats. He said, moreover, “in my killing, there is joy and honor for Israel, America, the terrorists and the corrupt. But it is all surprising that the threat comes from the Dawa Party.” Sadr’s uncle, ironically, founded the Dawa Party in 1957.
The political crisis has the potential to turn violent, as both sides are heavily-armed and have long histories of employing violence to accomplish their aims. (According to one estimate, pro-Iran militias are 150,000 strong, while the Peace Brigades could mobilize 50,000 fighters. Most experts agree that Sadr’s militia would be outgunned in a confrontation). Sadr is not currently advocating violence, perhaps perceiving that the use of violence could alienate certain constituencies. His grass-roots support for a crusade against the Iran-backed parties (and their armed wings) has morphed into a robust protest movement. This movement brings Iraq to a dangerous precipice, because “if [Sadr] attacks…then it is very likely things will devolve into violence,” said expert Marsin Alshamary.
The Iran-backed militias could also attack, but their leaders are reportedly divided. For example, former Prime Minister Maliki, along with the Secretary-General of Iran-backed militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), Qais al-Khazali, are reportedly pushing to escalate the protests, while the leader of the Fatah Alliance and the Badr Organization, Hadi Amiri, is urging control and moderation.
Ever since former Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and former Kataib Hezbollah (KH) leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed in a U.S. drone strike in January 2020, the Iran-backed militias have become increasingly “unruly and disparate.” The militias began to act independently of their benefactor, Tehran, and separately from each other. For example, AAH, on several occasions, carried out attacks against US forces, despite a ceasefire that KH agreed to in October 2020.
The current Quds Force commander Esmail Qaani has 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.” He also reportedly sought to calm tensions in the aftermath of a November assassination attempt on Prime Minister Kadhimi.
The Fatah Alliance was, at the time of the assassination attempt, 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.
Qaani’s call for de-escalation was, presumably, based on a calculation that violence would further isolate the pro-Iran parties. The Iranian strategy to bridge the Shi’a divide does appear, for now, to rely heavily on mediation. Qaani returned to Iraq after Sudani’s nomination in an effort to mediate the intra-Shi’a dispute, but he obviously failed, as the demonstrations took place shortly thereafter.
However, Iran is obviously not an impartial mediator. It wants the Fatah Alliance—the coalition of Iran-backed militias—to emerge as the main power broker in parliament. This would promote a government made up of pro-Iran officials within key government institutions, particularly the state security apparatus. Such a government would likely avoid measures to disband the proxy militias. To that end, Iran may attempt to isolate Sadr and Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi, who at least made an effort to curb the Iran-backed militias, albeit with limited success. It may back Sudani and former Prime Minister Maliki, who obediently installed pro-Iran figures—in some cases directly from the militias—in key government posts and kept the PMF well-funded during his time in office.
To ensure their desired results, Iran-backed proxies in Iraq have increased their violent activities to intimidate and coerce their political opponents. Just as the Iranian regime gunned down protestors in Iran in December 2019, Iranian proxies, under the guidance of then Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, violently suppressed protesters in Iraq in late 2019. Iran’s proxies increased their rocket and drone attacks in Iraq since Mustafa al-Kadhimi became prime minister in May 2020. According to one independent candidate in the October 2021 elections, this violence hurt the PMF politically.
In November 2021, an unknown terrorist group attempted to assassinate then Iraq’s 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. One of the officials noted that the drone was designed in the same way as other Iran-made drones that were used to attack US forces in Iraq earlier in the year—as a “quadcopter” carrying a projectile with high explosives.
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.” The Iranians condemned the assassination attempt, and some analysts ask whether the attack is an indication that Iran is “losing some of its grip on Shi’a militias in Iraq.” The prime minister was not harmed in the attack, but had the “assassination been successful, [it would have resulted in] a potential full-blown intra-Shi’a conflict,” said Raad Hasan, a Baghdad-based Iraqi political analyst.
Still, many Iraqis fear that the attack portends such a conflict. If Iraqis perceive Iran and the Iran-backed militias as being violent and destabilizing, it could weaken the pro-Iran parties’ support base, and benefit Sadr’s nationalist movement. Such an outcome runs contrary to Iran’s interests, but violence is the modus operandi of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the proxies it supports—particularly in situations where Iran’s political interests are threatened.
The Barzani-led Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), cooperating with Sadr, has been a target of Iran’s violence. 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 KDP. On March 28, pro-Iran militiamen allegedly burned down the KDP’s Baghdad office with impunity. Then, again, in early May, six rockets were fired at the Kawergosk refinery, which is owned by Barazanji. And more attacks on Erbil came 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.
KDP leader Masrour Barzani joined with Sadr in the hopes of stripping the presidency from his rival Barham Salih, and he has advocated for a more decentralized government in which the Kurdish people (and other ethno-sectarian constituencies) would have more power over their affairs. Salih’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party, on the other hand, sided with the pro-Iran parties in boycotting the parliamentary vote for president, to deny Sadr and his supporters the required two-thirds quorum.
The KDP also suffered the wrath of Iran in the Iraqi legal system. Dr. Faiq Zaidan, a longtime supporter of Iran, believed to be affiliated with Hezbollah and president of the Federal Supreme Court, issued a ruling that targeted Kurdish control of oil revenues from the refineries in its autonomous region. (This court issued the ruling that required 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.
Michael Knights of the Washington Institute described this legal campaign as “a judicial coup,” in which “one arm of Iraq’s government [was] subordinated to a foreign power,” through members of the judiciary that had been “cultivated” by former Prime Minister Maliki. This judicial coup effectively gave the parliamentary minority a veto, and pressured the KDP to make concessions.
The stakes are high, given the stark differences in the political platforms of Sadr and his rivals. Sadr’s nationalistic rhetoric is an affront to Iran’s interests in Iraq. The Coordination Framework, on the other hand, seems to promote Iran’s interests in the Iraqi state.
Iran and its Iraqi proxies implemented a multi-pronged campaign to sway the election in favor of the pro-Iran parties. Their loyalists in the judiciary may have given them the edge in parliament, but Sadr’s grass-roots support will make it difficult for the pro-Iran parties to shut him out.
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