Iran’s militia allies in Iraq eye election victory to consolidate gains, expel US

By Ahmad Majidyar | Fellow and Director of IranObserved Project - The Middle East Institute | May 11, 2018
Iran’s militia allies in Iraq eye election victory to consolidate gains, expel US

As Iraqis are heading to the polls on Saturday to vote in the country’s parliamentary elections, the Fateh Alliance, a coalition dominated by Iranian-backed militia groups, is confident that it will win sufficient parliamentary seats to choose the country’s next prime minister. Abu Ala al-Wa’eli, the commander of Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, a militia unit within the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) and part of the Fateh Alliance, said the alliance has not nominated anyone to become the next prime minister but will play the kingmaker in the post-election government formation process. The Fateh Alliance is led by Hadi al-Amiri, who is the head of the powerful Badr Organization and has close ties with Tehran. Other Iranian-backed and anti-American groups such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and the Iraqi Hezbollah are also part of the coalition. Several leaders of the Fateh Alliance has said that the coalition's priority after the election will be to further straighten the PMF as an independent military entity and “expel” the American troops from the country.

In an exclusive interview with Tasnim News Agency, an outlet affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the militia commander, whose group is also a member of the Fateh Alliance, emphasized that the Hashd al-Shaabi (PMF) echoed similar views.  He accused Washington and its regional allies of aiding terrorists. “Daesh [ISIS] is the continuation of al Qaeda’s path, and al Qaeda is an American creation. All regional countries, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar supported Daesh. They also backed Jabhat al-Nusra,” he said in response to a question by Tasnim.

Al-Wa’eli said the PMF paramilitary forces were instrumental in toppling the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Iraq, and stressed that it was now time for its leaders to translate their military achievements into political victories.

He attributed the military triumph over ISIS to three key factors: a religious edit by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistan, Iraq’s top Shiite religious leader, in 2014 calling for armed struggle against ISIS; the mobilization of “resistance” forces; and support to these groups by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and the Lebanese Hezbollah.

According to al-Wa’eli, ISIS, despite its territorial losses, remains a potent threat to Iraqi security and stability. “Their sleeper cells are numerous,” he said, adding that the terrorist group still has about 70,000 militants across Iraq. He also described the reemergence of Baathist political parties and militant groups such as Jeish Muhammad as a threat.

According to al-Wa’eli, the PMF currently has 152,000 members. A vast majority of them are Shiites and only 12,000 are from Sunni and other minority communities. He said the government has asked the PMF to reduce its number to a total of 122,000.

He also claimed that the paramilitary forces are in some respects even more powerful than the Iraqi Army, praising the PMF’s intelligence capabilities, Special Forces, and advanced weapons. “We have not come to replace the Army,” he stressed. “Quite the opposite, we are a parallel force to the Army. Therefore, I emphasize that Hashd al-Shaabi will continue to exist and all voices against it will be silenced.”

The militia commander further highlighted that one main objective of PMF leaders running for political office is to influence future legislations to institutionalize and further empower the Hashd al-Shaabi. “Some Shiite parliamentarians did not vote for the Hashd-e Shaabi law,” he said, referring to an Iraqi law that legalized the PMF as an integral part of the Iraqi security forces. “Therefore, we now need a group in parliament who support them. This was one of the reasons that we entered the process of political reforms in Iraq,” he added.

Al-Wa’eli also claimed that Hashd al-Shaabi exerts a lot of influence in Mosul and surrounding regions and controls Iraq’s 2,400-kilometer border with Syria.

Fateh Alliance is confident that it can translate its military gains into a political victory by either winning the premiership or playing kingmaker in the post-election government formation process.

Last week, Qais al-Khazali, the secretary-general of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, expressed a similar view. “The next prime minister will be someone chosen by the Fateh Alliance or selected in accordance with conditions set by the Fateh Alliance,” he stressed. “The current project is separate from the project of Hashd al-Shaabi [PMF]. This project is called Fateh, which is the same project of Imam Khomeini,” Amiri noted, referring to Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni, the founder of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Amiri’s remarks came after Muqtada al-Sadr, a prominent Iraqi Shiite cleric and politician, criticized Fateh Alliance leaders for misusing the PMF name for electoral purposes. 

The participation of Iran-backed militia leaders has prompted concern among Iraqi Sunnis who have been persecuted and marginalized by these sectarian groups in the past. Shiite nationalist leaders and civil society groups in Iraq are also alarmed.

A significant win for Iran’s allies in the elections would also undermine US interests in Iraq and endanger the safety of American troops stationed there to help the Iraqi security forces.