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Pro-Iran Iraqi militias increasingly fragmented since Suleimani assassination

Internal disputes are emerging within pro-Iran factions in the PMU, a year and a half after the killing of the former IRGC Quds Force leader Qasim Sulaimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Iraqi girls wearing headbands bearing the slogan "we are the children of (Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi) al-Muhandis" and pins of portraits of Iran's revered commander Qasem Soleimani

Pro-Iranian factions in Iraq have been without leadership to steer their actions since Jan. 3, 2020. On that day, a US drone strike killed the commander of the Iranian Quds Force Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy chief of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).

Muhandis had these factions under control and was considered the final decision-maker and the balance-maker in their relations with the Iraqi government. In light of his absence, especially in recent months, signs of internal disputes have surfaced among the factions.

The arrest of PMU leader Qassim Musleh by the Iraqi government shed light on some of those disputes. Some of the factions refused to storm the Green Zone; others were pushing toward escalating actions against the government.

Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Fatah Alliance consisting of most of the armed factions, hinted at the existence of differences within these factions. On June 1, he talked about "demons" among the PMU who tried to exploit the arrest of Musleh.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, a prominent source in the PMU affirmed on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of his position that “disagreement began to appear after the Iraqi Resistance Coordinating Committee was formed in recent months.”

The source added, “Abu Fadak al-Mohammadawi, the PMU's chief and a former military leader in Kataib Hezbollah, was against the idea of forming the Coordinating Committee, or at least of joining it. Although seen as affiliated with the pro-Ayatollah Ali Khamenei factions, Mohammadawi refused to attend the Committee’s formation meetings and only attended one of its meetings.”

The same source also talked about the attempt of some pro-Khamenei factions to form a Resistance Shura Council within the PMU. Mohammadawi refused and responded, “Keep the PMU away from this.”

This shows that Mohammadawi, who is presently considered the actual leader of the PMU, has distanced himself from the choices and decisions of the pro-Khamenei factions. This is all the more true in light of the somewhat tense relations with some of the current leaders of Kataib Hezbollah that he once led.

This is not the only problem that exposes spats between some of the pro-Khamenei factions. Kataib Hezbollah’s participation in the upcoming elections has stirred reservations by other factions.

The source said, “The popularity that Kataib Hezbollah enjoys among the bases of the resistance factions could help it sway voters from other factions in its favor. This raised fears among factions who pressured Kataib Hezbollah to renege on its participation in the elections under its explicit name.”

The source does not know whether Kataib Hezbollah will participate in the upcoming elections under another name. “There are candidates close to or affiliated with it who will participate as independents or run on other lists,” he said.

The disputes between the factions did not reach the level of estrangement or distance in positions. However, they have been clear to those on the inside, especially during the meetings where quorum was not reached due to the absence of parties or leaders representing some of the factions.

Kataib Hezbollah and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba are among the pro-Khamenei factions with the most internal cohesion. They are known to operate without any disputes that could lead to splits. This is due to the secrecy of their work and their refusal to enter the political arena.

The centralization enjoyed by these factions under Muhandis was a factor of strength for the pro-Iran militias. In contrast, the absence of this centralization could usher in some differences that may be a factor of weakness.

Former chief researcher at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington Rahman al-Jubouri said, “The differences between the pro-Khamenei factions stem from shares in the Iraqi economy. After money began to dry up, economic differences arose between them. These disputes expanded in one way or another and are now labeled as political.”

He added, “One of the most prominent disputes is that some of these factions see the dispute with Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s government as normal, while others see it as a dispute with a traitor and enemy government.”

Al-Monitor tried to contact a spokesperson for one of the factions but in vain. A close associate of a faction leader commented, “Disagreements are normal and healthy. We all, however, abide by the principle of resistance.”

For his part, retired Maj. Gen. Majid al-Qaisi told Al-Monitor, “There are major disputes between these factions, which emerged after the assassination of Muhandis and Soleimani. Muhandis had everything under control. The struggle now between these factions is over influence, power and money.”

Disagreements among armed groups are bound to happen, regardless of their shared principles and goals. These disagreements are more palpable when it comes to economic and political issues. It is true these disagreements have always existed in the past, but back then, there was an authority that would put an end to them. 

Should these disputes escalate or expand, they will reveal the extent of the decline of influence of Iran on its affiliated proxies in Iraq. Even if Ismail Qaani carries the same rank that Soleimani held, he remains a mere messenger for the supreme leader and his office, compared to his predecessor, who dealt directly with Khamenei and had his complete trust and confidence.

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