MS Risk Blog

Protests, PMF and External Powers: can Iraq’s new prime minister solve the countries security problems?

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On the 7th of May 2020, Iraq’s parliament finally approved a new government after six months of political deadlock. The new government is headed by prime minister Mustafa al-Khadimi, Iraq’s former intelligence chief, despite not succeeding in obtaining a full cohort of ministers after several candidates were rejected as sectarian parties argued over cabinet posts. Khadimi’s choices for cabinet posts for the ministries of interior, defence and finance passed with the support of the majority members of parliament present. However, voting on foreign and oil ministers were delayed due to parties failing to agree on candidates. Khadimi’s choices for justice, agriculture and trade were rejected. There are some concerns that the new prime minister may be setting a dangerous precedent by allowing parties in parliament to pick and choose ministers in cabinet through this informal power sharing system known as apportionment. Yet, Khadimi has managed to end many months of political deadlock after mass protests calling for change caused former prime minister Abdul Mahdi to step down, a decision which led to the deadlock as parties in parliament failed to agree on a replacement. Though forming a government has had its challenges, greater challenges lie ahead particularly with regard to security.

The most immediate security challenge Khadimi faces is the resumption of mass anti-government protests particularly in Baghdad and in the southern, predominantly Shia, cities such as Basra. Protests, which had an anti-Iranian sentiment, were discontinued because of curfews imposed due to the coronavirus but demonstrators returned to the streets on the 9th of May after a new government was formed. On the 11th of May protesters in Basra issued a statement calling on the governor of the oil rich province to step down after a 20-year-old protester was killed by Iran backed militia group called Thaa’ar Allah. This incident occurred as the new prime minister of Iraq was attempting to appease the protesters, ordering the release of detained protesters and compensation for the families of hundreds of victims who died since protests began in October 2019. Khadimi also promised to dispense pensions, overturning a decision by the last administration to freeze state spending including civil servant salaries and pensions which roughly a fifth of Iraqis heavily rely on. Following the killing of the young protester al-Khadimi said in a statement that his government would commit to respecting human rights and the right to peaceful demonstrations. He also ordered Iraqi security forces to storm the headquarters of the militia group responsible for the violence which was seen as a rare swift response to protest related violence, yet, observers have said that this may not be enough to calm the anti-government protests.

Another pressing security issue is the existence of numerous armed groups in Iraq. In a short government manifesto submitted to parliament, the new prime minister highlighted his plans to “impose the state’s prestige” through bringing armed groups under government control. The majority of armed groups are within the Popular Mobilization Forces or Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic. The PMF are an umbrella group for approximately forty, mainly Shia, militia groups backed by Iran usually operating outside of jurisdiction of the Iraqi state and, according to Foreign Affairs, answer to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander instead of the Iraqi government. Previous attempts by past administrations to control and limit the influence of the PMF have failed. For example, Haider al-Abadi, prime minister of Iraq between 2014 and 2018, tried to limit their political ambitions making several demands which included making their spending transparent and to separate their political wing from their military wing. In the end, the PMF managed to outmanoeuvre al-Abadi and supported his replacement Adel Abdul-Mahdi who they considered to be sympathetic to the PMF and to Iran. Abdul-Mahdi increased the PMF’s budget by 20 percent in 2019 and enabled the militias to expand their presence in Iraq.

Khadhimi is seemingly attempting to put an end to this state of affairs and to limit the scope of the PMF’s influence while expanding that of the states. His new government has already organized its security leadership very quickly, bringing  back removed and retired commanders such as lieutenant General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi who now leads the Counter Terrorism  Service (CTS). Saadi’s removal as operation chief in October 2019 helped spark protests in Iraq. Moreover, Khadimi’s May 6th 2020 visit to the PMF headquarters signalled immediate changes to come with regard to the PMF’s remit in Iraq. The prime minister’s remarks focused on the PMF’s role against the Islamic State as opposed to supressing protesters or attacking foreign training missions or diplomats. Furthermore, the roots of the PMF lie in a fatwa, an Islamic ruling on a point of law, issued by the powerful Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani in 2014 calling on all able men to take up arms and join the fight against the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria which captured large swaths of Iraqi land. The fatwa rallied 100,000 men to join militia groups who eventually aligned with Iran and formed the PMF which essentially became a parallel military organization with a budget od 2.16 billion dollars and 130,000 armed fighters.

However currently, reports suggests that Ayatollah Sistani is trying to strip militias aligned with Iran of their religious legitimacy. In April 2020 the Abass Combat Division, the Imam Ali Combat Division, the Ali Akbar Brigade as well as the Ansar Al-Marja’iya Brigade, all aligned with Sistani have defected from the PMF and expressed their intension to help other militias do the same. This was conducted with the approval of Sistani and under the supervision of one of the cleric’s close confident effectively withdrawing  his endorsement of the organization. The reduced legitimacy of the PMF makes the organization easier to control and removes some of their power potentially allowing the new prime minister to succeed in controlling the group where others have failed.

A third security problem for Khadimi is having to manage relationships with both Iran and the US, two adversaries who in January 2020 came close to war with each other. On January 3rd 2020 the US killed top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad. Soleimani was in charge of the IRGC’s Quds Force responsible for extra-territorial clandestine operations. The Iranian commander cultivated relationships with Shia armed militias and executed Iranian interests in Iraq reportedly working with Shia militia groups within the PMF to continue attacks against US troops stationed in Iraqi bases. The US has roughly 5000 troops in Iraq as part of an international military coalition to defeat ISIS. On the 8th of January Iran responded to the Killing of Soleimani by launching missiles targeting Iraqi bases hosting US troops. Although no US soldiers were killed at least one hundred of them were diagnosed with brain injuries. Khadimi must balance these relationships to prevent Iraq from becoming a battleground for external powers once again. US officials have worked with Khadimi while he headed Iraqi intelligence and during the war against Islamic state and is likely to mend ties that frayed under the former prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. The US and Iraq are set to hold a strategic dialogue in June 2020 to define the terms of their future relationship. Washington is seeking to reduce its presence in Iraq and sees Khadimi as a partner who could be willing to prevent Iraq from drifting further into Tehran’s political orbit. There could also be an advantage for Tehran in settling for a prime minister who can engage constructively with the US. For instance, once Khadhimi was confirmed in Iraq’s parliament, Washington extended a waiver allowing Iraq to continue importing Iranian gas and electricity for 120 days without being sanctioned. The waiver is considered a lifeline as Iran is facing acute economic pressure from US sanctions as well as an outbreak of the covid-19 coronavirus.

It may be too early to tell if Mustafa al-Khadimi’s appointment to the office of prime minister of Iraq could solve Iraq’s security problems. Releasing protesters and compensating families may not be enough to halt the mass anti-government protests that have only calmed due to the coronavirus. However, it is more than previous prime ministers have done. To truly garner the support of protesters and to see an end to demonstration would be to yield to some of their demands which include less Iranian influence immediately clashing with pro-Iranian groups such as the PMF. These Iranian-backed militia groups are still influential in Iraq despite Sistani’s recent efforts to delegitimise them. But the PMF’s power is not as strong as it once was. Iran, which financially supports the PMF, has been heavily sanctioned and is facing a maximum pressure campaign by the US which could possibly mean less support for the PMF. Furthermore, thanks to Sistani’s efforts, four militia groups have left the umbrella organization encouraging others to do the same. Hence, if there was a moment to bring the PMF under the direct control of the Iraqi state it would be now. Attempting to remove Iranian influence from the PMF can also backfire. The PMF may attempt to outmanoeuvre Khadimi like they did with al-Abadi. Moreover, Iran would not be willing to have their influence over Iraq stripped from them and will likely take action. Therefore, gradual change may be required when dealing with the PMF and Iran as opposed to the quick overhauls demanded by the protesters. Balancing Iraq’s relationships with Iran and the US is also a daunting task. From the US’s perspective, Khadimi should do all he can to prevent Iraq from further drifting into Tehran’s orbit. However, Iran is seeking greater economic ties with Iraq. Thus, appeasing both simultaneously is difficult. Nonetheless, Khadimi’s appointment was welcomed by both Iran and the US suggesting that he could be a medium for both parties to ease heightened tensions which, as a biproduct, solves some of Iraq’s internal security problems.