The war for Mosul has come to an end; the city is freed and the Islamic State (IS) is out. But the reverberations of the monthslong battle will likely impact Iraq as a nation and the region for years to come. In fact, the war that started after IS’ occupation of Mosul in June 2014 wasn't merely a war for a country that was partly occupied by a group seen by all regional and international players as a serious threat to global stability. There was another parallel battle silently going on between the two faces of Iraq: that of Iraq following the US occupation that began in 2003 and that of post-Arab Spring Iraq that began taking shape in early 2011.
When Mosul fell into the hands of IS, few thought that it would eventually be liberated by Iraqi fighters. The fact is that Iraq didn’t have a real army despite billions of dollars spent training tens of thousands of soldiers; the latter did not have any impact on the strength and discipline of the armed forces. Later, it was a shock for many to discover that 50,000 troops were “ghost soldiers” who received salaries and gave a portion of them to their senior officers and in return did not show up for duty, enriching their commanders and sabotaging the army, paving the way for what happened in the summer of 2014.
It wasn’t only the army that was in tatters; the government in Baghdad was another symbol of corruption. Iraq ranked 170th out of 175 countries and territories on Transparency International’s ranking (in 2016, Iraq improved to 166th out of 176 countries and territories). Tens of billions of dollars went missing during the past 13 years. Therefore, it wasn’t a surprise to many observers to see the country collapsing in the face of a few thousand ideological fighters who managed to reach the outskirts of Baghdad. The question on everyone’s mind, however, was: Who would address the mess?
Iraqi politicians were thinking this too, yet the only thing they did that summer was clash over who would be prime minister and speaker, even as IS was at the gates of the capital. As there was no dependable army, the only thought many had in mind was that the United States would intervene and put an end to IS' onslaught. Iran was not part of the calculations amid all the reports about it being overwhelmed by the Syrian crisis. Nothing could have saved the Iraqis but ground forces, but the only real such forces were Iranian-backed Shiite armed groups who once fought the US occupation. It was these groups that started defending areas around Baghdad and in both Diyala and Salahuddin provinces while the remnants of the army were withdrawing or even fleeing.
In parallel, the unexpected happened: The commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, entered Iraq along with a group of aides; these came not only from Iran, but from Lebanon too. Soon afterward, the highest Shiite religious authority in the country, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a game-changing fatwa, calling on people to fight IS. The last time such an authority issued a religious edict to that effect was in 1920 during the Iraqi revolt against the British.
But the Iraqis didn’t need fighters; the number of volunteers, according to official data, exceeded hundreds of thousands. What the country really needed at that time was proper middle and senior management: This is the role that the Iranian Quds Force and Hezbollah commanders played. Most of the forces on the ground were either rivals or had previously defected from one another; as such, hostility between them ran high. Yet as the war dragged on and with time, harmony was enhanced among fighters. The Iranians for the first time had the chance to oversee one huge military investment in Iraq flourish and become part of the armed forces after the parliament passed a law that was approved later by the president to honor “whoever sacrificed his blood in defense of Iraq” and to “ensure that weapons are only in the hands of the state,” according to a statement by the president’s media office.
While the Iranians were training and organizing the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), US officials were giving mixed signals to the Iraqis as well as the world. Serving and former officials in Washington suggested the fight with IS could take more than 20 years; this alone was a reason for those who saw in IS a real threat or even an existential threat to raise concerns. Meanwhile, the Iranians continued their efforts, establishing themselves on the ground while the United States struck from the air. On several occasions, both the Iranians and the Americans had to cooperate indirectly through the Iraqis, and the latter were happy as long as the results were serving their interests. In Salahuddin and Anbar provinces and in the city of Fallujah, US planes were hitting IS positions, and later the Iraqi forces, including the PMU, were advancing. On many occasions, the Americans requested that the PMU not take part in certain battles, such as those in Anbar in December 2015. Yet the fighters were entering battle with different uniforms. Later, the United States drew "red lines," including that the PMU should steer clear of the border with Syria and that it should not play a part in the liberation of Mosul. Both red lines were crossed.
On July 22, Iraqi Defense Minister Erfan al-Hiyali arrived in Tehran to meet Iranian officials. The visit came only three weeks after the liberation of Mosul; significantly, at the top of the Iraqi minister’s agenda was the signing of a memorandum of understanding on defense cooperation between the two countries. “Extending cooperation and exchanging experiences in fighting terrorism and extremism, border security, and educational, logistical, technical and military support are among the provisions of this memorandum," the official IRNA news agency reported after the signing of the accord in Tehran.
To those concerned about Iran’s role in Iraq, the main fear now is that the more influence the PMU has in the country, the more Iran will expand its reach. Over time, this might mean that the status of Iraq as a land where external powers share influence might be compromised. All the while, the formalization and institutionalization of the PMU continues, making it clear that it is a force to be reckoned with in post-Mosul Iraq and it will not leave the stage anytime soon. As such, one important but overlooked option for those concerned about Iranian influence in Iraq would be to consider engagement with the PMU. If not, Iran will have no competitors in influencing the direction of this nascent force entrusted with protecting Iraq from IS.