Iraqi militias defy government, expand networks and pressure

Militias in Iraq are increasing their activities in response to the government's efforts to rein them in.

al-monitor Supporters of the Popular Mobilization Units wave the PMU flag as they stand under the national flag during a protest denouncing comments made by a Kurdish ex-minister and to show their support to the paramilitary network in the southern city of Basra, Iraq, Oct. 17, 2020. Photo by HUSSEIN FALEH/AFP via Getty Images.

Oct 19, 2020

A group of pro-Iran militias in Iraq attacked the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) on Oct. 17, setting the building on fire and raising the flag of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).

This comes in reaction to an Oct. 2 statement by Hoshyar Zebari, a former finance minister and foreign minister, who said that Baghdad's Green Zone where most government buildings and foreign ministries are located “should be cleansed from the militias and the PMU presence.”

The social pressure on the outlawed militias within the PMU has been extensive since the eruption of the protests in Iraq in October 2019. The militias have since formed pressure groups to silence any critical voices against them.

Following the protests, the militias have started several groups on social networks such as Telegram and WhatsApp, recruiting supporters and promoting their agendas against the United States and its allies in Iraq, and also against the current government headed by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, as the militias view him as an American and his government as a pro-US agent.

Supporters of the militias have organized themselves in various groups, including Rab Allah (God’s Fellows), Ahbab Allah (God’s Beloveds), Al-Zelm Al-Khashnah (Tough Guys) and Abu Jeddaha (The People of Lighters) in reference to their actions of burning their opponents' buildings.

These thuggish pressure groups try to create social pressure in order to stop any criticism of or action against the militias and their political agendas.

On Aug. 31, for instance, the same groups had burnt the offices of Dijlah TV, in reaction to Dijlah's music programming during the Shiite holiday of Ashura a week earlier. However, this was only an excuse for putting pressure on the TV channel that was supporting the anti-militias' protests in Iraq.

The militias are building an extensive network of influence in Iraq. They are a military force with a large presence in the military and security sectors. The Fatah bloc represents them in the parliament and so they are part of different ministries. In addition, they are building strong social networking and social pressure groups.

Following the attack on the KDP headquarters, the Iraqi security forces arrested some of the attackers. However, Rab Allah has threatened Kadhimi with the burning of the headquarters of the Iraqi Intelligence Service in Baghdad’s Mansour area if their people are not released. The intelligence service is headed by the prime minister directly.

Kadhimi is expected to release those arrested under the militias pressure, as happened following the counterterrorism raid on the Kataib Hezbollah base in southern Baghdad in June.

However, the Iraqi political forces and international community have voiced serious criticism. The Iraqi president, prime minister, parliament speaker, Sadrist leader Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraqioun Movement leader Ammar al-Hakim and the Kurdistan Regional Government, among many other Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish groups and leaders, condemned the incident and called upon the government to take action against the militias and affiliated groups.

The United States and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq condemned the incident in separate statements, too.

Following the assassination in January of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani and his right-hand man in Iraq Abu Mahdi Muhandis, who had an extensive influence among the militias, the militias' network in Iraq has been affected badly.

In order to repair the damage, it seems that Kataib Hezbollah is taking the lead among the militias, reorganizing them by forming several new groups and connecting them through a number of social networking platforms.

The new militias formed after the killing of Soleimani — such as Ashab al-Kahf and Osba al-Thaerin — are affiliated with Kataib Hezbollah, and could even be new names for the exact same group.

In addition, the social pressure groups affiliated with the militias all appear connected to Kataib Hezbollah.

At the same time as these latest developments, the assassinations and abductions of activists, journalists and others opposing the militias are continuing. Most recently, on Oct. 17, eight members of a Sunni family near Balad, in Salahuddin province to the north of Baghdad, were killed.

A high-ranking official in the province told Al-Monitor that Asaib Ahl al-Haq was responsible for the murders. “These people were abducted by Asaib Ahl al-Haq members in the early morning and their bodies were found in the area a few hours later,” the official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. A day prior, a shooting had taken place in the area aimed at an Asaib Ahl al-Haq patrol. So, it seems that the massacre is a retaliatory reaction. 

A day after the killings, on Oct. 18, Kadhimi visited the area promising to bring justice to the victims.

With the US elections approaching, it seems that the militias' activities are increasing. Chaos in Iraq could provide a useful pressure tactic that Iran could use in any upcoming negotiations with the United States, which would certainly include Iran's activities in the region and in Iraq in particular.

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