Rogue militias: Rival protests in Iraq show Iran’s grip

Dueling demonstrations swept the streets of Baghdad on Friday. In doing so, they underscored the divide between the country’s two Shia centers of power.

Supporters of the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gathered inside the heavily fortified Green Zone to demand a snap election. They clashed with protesters representing Iran-backed militias. Earlier in the week, al-Sadr gave the judiciary a one-week deadline to dissolve the legislature. Although al-Sadr’s party won the most votes in last year’s elections, Iranian-backed factions refused to allow the cleric’s party to form a government. Almost 10 months have passed since the elections and Iraq is still experiencing political upheaval. This weekend’s protest and counter-protest are just the latest in a surge protests over the past year.

Militias gone rogue

After al-Sadr won the most votes in the October elections, the Shiite cleric called the country Iran-aligned militias dissolve and rejoin his ruling party. He specifically asked the Popular Mobilization Forces to “purify” their ranks of “corrupt individuals” in his organization, according to The Times of Israel. The PMF are understood collectively as Iran-linked militias that operate on behalf of the interests of the Tehran regime. Originally formed in 2014 to help Iraq’s fight against the Islamic State, the PMF has largely devolved into an anarchic militia.

Several PMF coordination groups have gone rogue in the Iraqi security apparatus, including Kataib Hezbollah. These militias are responsible for a series of rocket and drone attacks targeting US assets in Baghdad, and even a drone attack in November 2021 that targeted the residence of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Although Tehran’s proxies have not claimed responsibility for this incident, it is widely understood that the only groups with the weapons used in the attack are part of the PMF.

When the election results were released last year, Iran-backed groups denounced the result as a scam. The political apparatus of the PMF, the Fatah Alliance, lost more than half of its seats. Hadi al-Amirir, one of the main pro-Iranian figures in Iraqi politics, said that the election results were “fabricated”, according to the pro-Iran Iraqi media al-Aahd. Amirir added that “we will not accept these fabricated results, no matter what the cost.”

Clearly, Iran-linked individuals and groups in Iraq took this vow seriously. Almost a year has passed since the elections and pro-Iranian groups refuse to accept the legitimate role of the ruling al-Sadr party. In June, al-Sadr demanded the resignation of his lawmakers in an unprecedented move to protest his party’s failure to form a government.

Iraq in upheaval

Al-Sadr blamed Iran’s evil influence in the country for forcing his departure from parliament. As explained by The Times of Israel, if a seat in the Iraqi parliament becomes vacant, “the candidate who obtains the second highest number of votes in his electoral district will replace him. If so, that would make al-Sadr’s opponents of the so-called Coordination Framework, a coalition led by Iran-backed Shia parties and their allies, the majority. This would allow pro-Iranian factions to determine the composition of the next government.

Therefore, the cleric has called its allies to delay calling a parliamentary session.

On Friday, Sadr supporters were greeted by pro-Iranian protesters inside the Green Zone. Opponents of al-Sadr accuse him and his party of corruption, blaming his supporters for some of the country’s dysfunctions. According Reuterssome pro-Iran protesters carried portraits of General Qassem Soleimani, the revered Iranian commander who was killed in a US airstrike in January 2020.

While Iraqi politics are still in turmoil, the country’s future stability looks fragile. In the meantime, Iran-aligned forces will continue to sabotage the cogs of the Iraqi political structure.

Maya Carlin is a Middle East Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst at the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has bylines in numerous publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post and Times of Israel.

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