On September 14, 2019, Iraq’s Ministry of Defense Spokesperson Brigadier Tahseen al-Khafaji, issued a public announcement to state that all weapons of government backed Pubic Mobilization Units (PMU), mostly Shiite armed groups, are stored in the ministry’s warehouses. The statement came after PMU’s bases and arsenals faced mysterious airstrikes in four locations inside Iraq in the past two months, and various sources accused Israeli drones of conducting the attacks. This is how Iraqi government is trying to prevent the PMF from embroiling Iraq to a regional conflict that Iraqi leaders are keen to stay away from it. So far, the airstrikes and the whole regional conflict seem to strengthen the Iranian backed PMU groups at expense of Iraqi government. This article is trying to show how internal dynamics in Israel and within PMU played out to weaken Iraqi government and strengthen Iranian backed PMU groups that are willing to take a side in the Iran’s regional conflicts.
The airstrikes, not surprisingly, divided PMU leaderships reactions. Deputy Commander of Iraqi Government’s PMU Commission Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis rushed to accuse US forces in Iraq of cooperating with the “Israelis’ attacks”. He also called on to defend PMU bases by the weapons available for them. Nevertheless, consistent with the Iraq’s formal response, chairman of the PMU Commission in Iraq Faleh al-Fayyad stated that the Muhandis’s statement does not represent views of the Iraqi government, nor the PMU. Again, beyond Iraq’s formal leadership, later on 22nd August a leading Shia Cleric Ayatollah Kazem Husseini Haeri issued a public religious Fatwa to forbid the presence of US troops and advisers in Iraq. Haeri, an Iranian citizen based in Qum and followed by many Iraqis, stated, “I declare from the position of religious responsibility that the presence of any Americans military force in Iraq is forbidden under any title: military training, advice or the rationale of fighting terrorism. This is what I have confirmed to you before, and today I have confirmed it again in clear words.”
Iraqi Institutions and PMU Influence
PMU branches such as Badr, Asay’b Ahlulhaq, Kataib Al-Huzb Allah, and Saraya Tali’a Al Khurasani publically swore their allegiance to Iran. They recruited more than 150 thousand volunteers to defeat ISIS, but with the end of the ISIS war, they formed a political bloc to participate in the 2018 elections i.e. Fatih Alliance which won 48 out of 329 seats. This upgraded their position from mere militias into a major political force within the Iraqi political arena. Currently they have large stakes in Iraqi government; they are second largest bloc in parliament, and salaries equal to formal Iraqi security forces. They also benefit much of the corrupt illegal an underground business that are conducted by conventional militias in Iraq, especially in liberated areas taken back from ISIS. They function as a separate government within the Iraqi Government, and they spread their influence to delegitimize the Iraqi institutions step by step.
In the formal level, the Iraqi Government wants to avoid becoming a part of any conflicts caused by PMUs, so it started integrating them within the Iraqi army and under the control of the PM. However, in reality, Iraqi Government is weak and unable to control them, and now they are in between two bitter choices. Either fully dissolve the PMU forces, which is impossible, as PMU is the main bloc, which formed the government, or totally separate the Iraqi institutions from PMU, which will set the biggest question about the legitimacy and control of the Iraqi Government over the country and its security. Currently, the situation is choosing the third option, which is a mixture of attempting to control the PMU forces and dissolving them within Iraqi armed forces. This will risk Iraq’s involvement in the case of any regional conflict. Iraq’s major officials are desperately trying to manage the situation, and they are without any real choices to control the PMU forces nor the regional powers. PM Adil Abdul Mahdi, President Barham Salih, and the Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi held a meeting after the attacks to ensure that Iraq’s formal institutions are in charge of any necessary measures needed in order to handle the attacks on PMU bases, insisting on keeping all military decisions under control of PM Abdul Mahdi. It was a clear sign to assure that Iraqi government would not be responsible for any reckless retaliation from the PMU forces.
All these conflicting stances show Iraq’s vulnerability amid the heated regional tensions, while the ongoing situation will continue to weaken the Iraqi institutions and the government legitimacy and control over the Iraqi affairs. Any direct conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia will drag Iraq in to the heart of the confrontations. News outlets closed to Saudi Arabia reported that drones attacked Aramco oil facilities came from Iraq and not Yemen, as it was claimed from the beginning. However, top Iraqi officials denied their country’s territories have been used to attack the Saudi’s oil installations.
Iraqi Government is trying to avoid involving into any regional conflict and take the same distance from all sides. However, its lack of control over some of the PMUs, which are supporting Iran in its regional conflicts, will not make Iraq just a part of the regional conflict, but it will create opportunity to consider Iraq as a target for proxy conflicts. While the periodic attacks such as those coming from Israel are expected to continue, that will continue to consolidate positions of the Iranian backed PMU groups while weakening the Iraqi Government more and more through time.
Besides, the airstrikes destroyed weapons and missiles that are quite replaceable by Iran and its proxies. They have not reduced their combat capacity that mostly depends on military manpower rather than new military technology. They only changed the Iranian backed groups to national heroes and embarrass the Iraq’s government officials and moderate national Shiite leaders who want to keep Iraq away from Iranian sponsored regional conflicts. The extreme elements of the PMU will succeed in controlling and directing the upcoming events because they will capitalize on Iraq’s sovereignty, which has been attacked, and sectarian language, which is still very effective within the majority of the Iraqis.
Tracing Israeli Airstrikes in Iraq
On June 7, 1981, Israel launched the Opera Operation, an air strike with a squadron of F15 and F16 fighter jets, targeting an Iraq’s nuclear reactor and completely destroyed it. The Iraq’s nuclear program ended with the operation, and Israel had no incentive to invest in a military conflict with a country that they do not share borderline with it. Later, Saddam Hussein’s regime never posed any real threat to Israel. Iraq drowned itself in costly regional wars, from the eight-years Iran-Iraq war, to the invasion of Kuwait, and then the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, which ended the regime. The 2003 regime transformation permanently changed the calculus of Israeli-Iraqi relations. Although post-invasion Iraqi government did not rush to normalize relations with Israel, yet the modified government regime of Iraq’s post 2003 was more conciliatory with the acceptance of Israel as a fait accompli and possibly considering the eventual establishment of relations with it.
The long military silence in Israel-Iraq relations came to an abrupt end in the past two months when the Likud government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, targeted the PMU’s bases in Iraq. The start was on July 19 when an explosion targeted a PMU’s base in Salah al-Din province, north of Baghdad. Later, on August 12th, another explosion destroyed a PMU’s arsenal near the Saqr Military Base south of Baghdad. Last but not least, explosions hit a weapons storage facility near Balad Air Base, 80 km north of Baghdad. Officials say that it’s been used by Iran to move weapons to Syria.
Likud’s History Policy in Attacking Iraq
Israel’s Likud party has a long history in externalizing its crises by attacking Iraq. At the beginning of 1981, Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin knew that he would face a very difficult battle to retain his position during the elections, scheduled for mid-year. In fact, Likud’s expectation to win the election was very low. After the June elections, with the expected fierce competition from the Labor Alliance led by Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, the ruling Likud was suffering from widespread internal strife, corruption allegations, and international pressure over the ongoing skirmishes of Israeli planes on Lebanon at the time. This internal Israeli dynamic could be a perfect setting for the 1981 airstrike. Likewise, similar internal crises are affecting current Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s decisions and incentives to widen his country’s war with Iranian proxies to reach Iraq.
Although Israel has not publicly claimed responsibility for the recent attacks, Netanyahu, like Begin, did not mind taking some credits for the recent operations, especially as he finds himself caught with corruption charges few weeks before crucial elections. This was particularly evident in the way Netanyahu responded when asked if Israel could strike Iranian targets in Iraq. He gave his security services the green light “to take any action necessary to thwart Iran’s plans. It will not grant Tehran immunity anywhere,” He said. If Netanyahu’s indirect remarks left some doubt, the leaks of US officials who spoke to the Wall Street Journal clearly showed Israel’s responsibility for the July 19 attacks in Salah al-Din.
Netanyahu sees Iran and its proxies as the greatest threat to Israel’s existence, which is not unrealistic taking into account the active role Iranian backed groups in the region play against Israel. Wars and Arab Spring upheavals devastated political structure of several Israeli neighbors and turned them into dysfunctional systems that can not protect their own sovereignty and security. This situation also made it much easier for Iran and its proxies to confront Israel regionally on many fronts. In the past two years, Israel has conducted more than 200 attacks against Iran and its proxies in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, countries that have formed a geographical barrier to prevent a direct war between Tehran and Tel Aviv in recent decades.
Risking the Iraq’s Relative Stability Ends with a Lose-Lose Game
Iraq is quite affected by the Iran’s regional conflicts with Israel, the US, and Saudi Arabia. Its shared borders, culture, religious believes, and weak institutions have put it in the weakest position of all the regional tensions. When deputy commander of the PMU Commission Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, on September 5th, 2019 issued an order to establish PMU’ “air forces” in response to the recent airstrikes, powerful Iraqi Shiite cleric and politician Muqtada al-Sadr tweeted that it was an announcement to “the end of Iraqi government.” Al-Sadr, who is the founder of the largest block in Iraqi parliament Saairun Alliance, started his tweet by “Farewell my country,” and he expressed his concerns over undermining Iraqi government’s authorities. “This is a change from a state ruled by law to the state of chaos,” as he said.
The concerns are related to existing systematic approach, which will weaken Iraqi army and formal security forces, while using state resources to strengthen PMUs and turn them into a second version of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). Iraqi military sources revealed that the PMU had submitted a request to the Joint Operations Command to establish their own air force under the pretext that the Iraqi Army’s air defenses did not protect its arsenals and bases from the recent airstrikes.
Prior to this order, the Iranian backed PMU organizations accused leader of Anbar’s Commander of Operations Major General Mahmoud al-Falahi of communicating with foreign parties and providing coordinates of the Iraqi Hezbollah bases’ locations. Even though the accusation was officially rejected by the Iraq’s defense ministry, Al-Falahi was removed from his position in a step that was described “to be a trial to please the militias” and a blow to the Iraq’s defense military. Two months later, Col. Brigade Naser Al Ghannam was appointed as the commander of operations in Anbar, which was considered as a victory of the militias.
The Israeli airstrikes and the Iranian backed PMU groups’ responses have achieved nothing except undermining of Iraq’s government, army, and security institutions. This is a perfect lose-lose game for both, the US and Iraq, which have invested a lot to help Iraq’s army and security forces overcome their challenges during ISIS war.
Take into account still active ISIS’ insurgency in various Iraqi areas, the Israel-Iran conflicts further threaten regional political and security arrangements. Iraq has not recovered from its war against ISIS, so using it by either Iran or its enemies will backfire and end up with terrible consequences that may again destabilize the whole region, like what happened in 2014, when the fall of Mosul strengthened ISIS to the level of challenging the entire international community.
The Iranian regional conflicts, which have invited the Israeli airstrikes, so far just sidelined Iraqi government and its legit leadership and commander of security and armed forces in dealing with the Israeli air strikes and any outside threats. Iraq’s instability directly affects Iranians’ security and economic interests. Moreover, it is going to increase the risk of growing ISIS insurgency, which will again cost lives of thousands PMU volunteers. Nobody can benefit destabilizing Iraq as much as ISIS and its remained insurgents.
Both the United States and Iran should understand the fact that everyone will lose what has been achieved in fighting ISIS and stepping towards stable Iraq if they will not control their confrontations and limit their interventions in Iraq. The US administration can prevent the Israeli attacks and push them to fight the Iranian proxies outside of Iraq. Iranians, of course, can control their proxies in Iraq and get them to obey the Iraqi government. The both sides will lose more than what they might win in turning Iraq into battle field for their endless regional conflicts.