Exclusive: On the Ground in Iraq, the Stealth Iranian Takeover Becomes Clear

In late June, I traveled to Iraq with the purpose of investigating the role being played by the Iranian-supported Shia militias in that country.

Close observation of the militias, their activities, and their links to Tehran is invaluable in understanding what is likely to happen in the Middle East following the conclusion of the nuclear agreement between the P5 + 1 powers and Tehran.

An Iranian stealth takeover of Iraq is currently under way. Tehran’s actions in Iraq lay bare the nature of Iranian regional strategy. They show that Iran has no peers at present in the promotion of a very 21st century way of war, which combines the recruitment and manipulation of sectarian loyalties; the establishment and patient sponsoring of political and paramilitary front groups; and the engagement of these groups in irregular and clandestine warfare, all in tune with an Iran-led agenda. With the conclusion of the nuclear deal, and thanks to the cash about to flow into Iranian coffers, the stage is now set for an exponential increase in the scale and effect of these activities across the region. So what is going on in Iraq, and what may be learned from it?

Power in Baghdad today is effectively held by a gathering of Shia militias known as the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization). This initiative brings together tens of armed groups, including some very small and newly formed ones. However, its main components ought to be familiar to Americans who remember the Iraqi Shia insurgency against the U.S. in the middle of the last decade. They are: the Badr Organization, the Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Kataeb Hizballah, and the Sarayat al-Salam (which is the new name for the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr). All of these are militias of long-standing. All of them are openly pro-Iranian in nature. All of them have their own well-documented links to the Iranian government and to the Revolutionary Guards Corps.

The Hashed al-Shaabi was founded on June 15, 2014, following a fatwa by venerated Iraqi Shia cleric Ali al-Sistani a day earlier. Sistani called for a limited jihad at a time when the forces of ISIS were juggernauting toward Baghdad. The militias came together, under the auspices of Quds Force kingpin Qassem Suleimani and his Iraqi right-hand man Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Because of the parlous performance of the Iraqi Army, the Shia militias have become in effect the sole force standing between ISIS and the Iraqi capital.

Therein lies the source of their strength. Political power grows, as another master strategist of irregular warfare taught, from the barrel of a gun. In the case of Iraq, no instrument exists in the hands of the elected government to oppose the will of the militias.

The militias, meanwhile, in their political iteration, are also part of the government.

In the course of my visit, I travelled deep into Anbar Province with fighters of the Kataeb Hizballah, reaching just eight miles from Ramadi City. I also went to Baiji, the key front to the capital’s north, accompanying fighters from the Badr Corps.

In all areas, I observed close cooperation between the militias, the army, and the federal police.

The latter are essentially under the control of the militias. Mohammed Ghabban, of Badr, is the interior minister. The Interior Ministry controls the police. Badr’s leader, Hadi al-Ameri, serves as the transport minister.

In theory, the Hashd al-Shaabi committee answers to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi. In practice, no one views the committee as playing anything other than a liaison role.

The real decision-making structure for the militias’ alliance goes through Abu Mahdi al Muhandis and Hadi al-Ameri, to Qassem Suleimani, and directly on to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.