Iraq’s top cleric, Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, last month called for the disbanding of all militias. This would involve the state disarming the Iran Militia in Iraq and Syria (IMIS). In turn, this would neuter Tehran’s most reliable partner in Iraq, Kataib Hezbollah, the most dangerous alternative to state power in the country. Such then is the importance of Al-Sistani’s call for the integrity of the Iraqi state. Indeed, the prime minister, now provided cover by the religious leadership in Najaf, should act with haste. Yet all we have witnessed so far is an exhibition of inertia.
Kataib Hezbollah has been busy building a “statelet” within Iraq. If the government does not act quickly, it will soon become stronger than the Iraqi state itself; it will dominate Iraq in the way Hezbollah dominates in Lebanon and will seal Iraq’s slide into failure as a client state of Iran.
For those unfamiliar with Iraq’s recent history of distressing politics, a little elucidation might be helpful.
Modeled after Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Kataib Hezbollah is the spine that holds the IMIS up. It controls the IMIS's “internal security” unit, the intelligence operation that keeps tabs on fighters and disciplines rogue ones. Kataib Hezbollah’s chief, Abdul Aziz Al-Muhammadawi, is also the effective leader of the IMIS instead of its titular chairman, Falih Al-Fayyadh.
It is not hyperbole to describe Kakaib Hezbollah as a statelet. It controls territory within Iraq’s borders since it managed to force Baghdad to lease it vast amounts of agricultural land in Jurf Al-Sakhr, south of Baghdad, and on the Iraqi border with Syria. It operates these territories as fiefs into which it prohibits access by the legitimate state. At its bases, Kataib Hezbollah trains and garrisons its fighters and stocks caches of arms. Western intelligence reports suggest that, with Iranian assistance, it manufactures precision guided missiles at these sites.
Like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Kataib Hezbollah’s fighting wing is only one component of the mini-state. It maintains welfare organizations for the families of its fighters, including those who die in battle. These organizations offer medical care, schooling, housing, social and financial support and religious indoctrination.
Now with the religious leadership in Najaf speaking out against the pro-Iranian militias, and anti-Iran sentiment growing in the country, the legitimate state has an opportunity to reassert its sovereignty. The prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, can count on international assistance in defeating Kataib Hezbollah which Washington has placed on its list of foreign terrorist organizations. Any US administration, whether Republican or Democratic, would be more than willing to help Baghdad put down Iran’s proxies.
So far Al-Kadhimi has made no move. It is a puzzle; no one knows why. Maybe there are some as yet unrevealed political calculations. Or perhaps he simply fears for his life. Whatever the reason, Al-Kadhimi surely must realize that time is of the essence. Either he takes the opportunity to neuter Kataib Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies or he gets out of the way and lets someone else do it.
Indeed, he should appreciate that doing nothing only diminishes his own power, as Kataib Hezbollah and the other Iranian proxies it leads carry on constructing an alternative state power to Baghdad. To add insult to injury, Tehran has even managed to force successive Iraqi governments to fund the IMIS payroll, in effect getting Baghdad to subsidize the expansion of Tehran’s influence and the diminution of Baghdad’s authority. And if Hezbollah in Lebanon is any example, once Kataib Hezbollah is firmly and indubitably entrenched as a shadow state, it will be near impossible to dismantle.
With Iran cash-poor because of renewed US sanctions and weakened by domestic crisis, Al-Kadhimi has his opportunity: He should take advantage of it and remove the cancer of Iran’s militias that is eating away at the sovereignty of his government. Should he not, an eventually resurgent Iran will come after him and any other leader of the legitimately constituted state. If recent history is any guide, the most disposable figure in the Iraqi state is the prime minister.