Iraq already hosts about 60 paramilitary groups, which together consist of upwards of 160,000 fighters. Announcements concerning the formation of yet more Iran-aligned factions thus come as little surprise.
In practice, these entities — like Usbat Al-Thaireen, Ashab Al-Kahf and Qabdat Al-Hoda — are new names for old militants. Such “resistance” factions have a specific mandate to attack American and Western interests. In terms of tactics, munitions and their rhetoric and attire, these radical elements are almost indistinguishable from long-standing entities like Kata’ib Hezbollah.
There has been no serious attempt to dissociate these new factions from Iran. Tehran’s National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani earlier this year declared: “We will establish a new armed group of more than 2,000 people in the region. The main function of this group of mujahideen is to remove US forces from the region.”
Online propaganda by these entities transparently seeks to provoke the Americans, while also boasting of their responsibility for recent attacks. Video footage shows drones surveilling US bases, with the message: “We are watching your movements.” A masked man holding an assault rifle warns foreign troops “to leave vertically before we force them to leave horizontally.” He boasts that his militia’s “victorious, blooming, prideful and dignified arsenal has far longer-range weapons that can kill you in the land of your spoiled child, Israel.”
The desire of Iraqi warlords to reinvent themselves as legitimate politicians has always necessitated that Tehran identify new faces to do their filthy work. Hence the periodic establishment of new militia forces willing to get their hands dirty.
Furthermore, after America’s killing of paramilitary godfathers Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, Iraq’s militant overlords are curiously unenthusiastic about putting themselves next in line for assassination.
Over recent decades, Iran-backed Shiite militia groups have successively traveled a well-trodden path from being unabashedly terrorist entities, trained and armed by Tehran, to seeking legitimacy, quasi-respectability, and political power. The Badr Organization (formed inside Iran during the 1980s to battle the Iraqi state) sought to ingratiate itself with the occupying coalition forces after 2003 and succeeded in being absorbed into Baghdad’s security forces, as well as winning parliamentary seats. Soleimani then oversaw the establishment of Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq as a vehicle for killing Americans. Yet, after 2010, it became Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s favored death squad and a political force in its own right. After 2014, all these militia groups made the astonishing transition onto the state payroll as part of the Iran Militia in Iraq and Syria (IMIS).
IMIS militias may flout Iraqi laws, but they at least require a superficial veneer of legality in order to go about their criminal activities unmolested — hence the need for shadowy and unaccountable new entities that can safely take credit for killing foreign troops or attacking international targets. The fact that Iran reacted to the deaths of Soleimani and Al-Muhandis by green-lighting such terrorist factions demonstrates the ayatollahs’ determination to go on the offensive.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has also ramped up its provocative maritime actions, with 11 Iranian boats obstructing US naval vessels last week. Videos emphasized the extent of the US humiliation, as its warships were forced to change course and passively wait out these maneuvers. A Hong Kong-flagged tanker sailing in international waters was also briefly detained by armed Iranian guards in speedboats.
With Iraq’s foremost cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, increasingly elderly and frail, Tehran has invested millions in the cause of theocratic domination of the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, seeking to dictate the Shiite leadership succession. This includes winning the allegiance of senior scholars, building and renovating religious institutions, and aggressively propagating the Khomeinist Velayat-e Faqih doctrine. Some of these institutions have been described as front entities for the movement of money and munitions.
The political motivations of such activities are amply demonstrated by the fact that the new head of Iran’s “Headquarters for Reconstruction of Holy Shrines in Iraq” was appointed in 2018 by Soleimani himself. Senior aides of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei also serve with this charity, which reportedly enjoys an annual budget of $1.5 billion. Iran’s media last week announced that Iranian institutions were demolishing buildings around the Imam Hussein shrine in Najaf in readiness for a major construction project, flouting coronavirus disease (COVID-19) shutdown measures. Meanwhile, the revolving door of Iraqi politicians occupying the prime minister’s chair is a reminder of the chronic Iranian political manipulation.
Trump administration officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appear cognizant of the threat posed by Iran and are taking steps to combat it. US Ambassador to Beirut Dorothy Shea has become a visible presence, coordinating activities aimed at blocking Hezbollah’s efforts to dominate Lebanon’s financial and political systems. Washington is offering rewards for information regarding Hezbollah’s financing conduits — including a $10 million bounty on Hezbollah operative Mohammad Al-Kawtharani, whose importance as a pro-Iran regional powerbroker has increased significantly since Soleimani’s death. After strategic wobbles throughout 2019, the US military is again signaling its intention to retain a footprint throughout the region to halt Tehran in its tracks.
These additional dimensions to Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy are commendable, but lack a clear endgame. Punishing or provoking a scorpion doesn’t stop it behaving like a scorpion — it simply makes it angry and vengeful.
Nobody wants to see a military confrontation. Yet, even at a time when thousands of Iranians are dying of COVID-19 and with crude oil exports plunging from 2.5 million to half a million barrels per day in three years (while oil prices have recently halved), Tehran remains committed to investing every available rial in overseas sedition and warmongering.
This regime will never abandon its terrorism, militancy, financial and political manipulation, and theological incitement until America and the international community summon up the political will to support the citizens of Iran in ending its tyranny once and for all.