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Mafia militias in Iraq reopen Pandora’s Box

The new Iraq war is already underway. For several weeks Israel has bombed sites under the control of Iran-backed Shiite militants. Paramilitaries in turn have attacked US diplomatic and military targets, and regional oil infrastructure.

And while the country is under attack from the outside, a malign sickness is causing it to disintegrate from the inside. District by district, province by province, Iraq has been carved up among criminal gangs that simultaneously function as paramilitary armies. Recaptured oilfields in Nineveh, Saladin and elsewhere have become cash cows for these forces: Iraq’s natural wealth is smuggled on to tankers and flogged off in neighboring states.

When militias retook oil installations from ISIS, sites such as Baiji were looted so voraciously that they were rendered useless. Militia treatment of local people in recaptured areas was even more brutal, rivaling and exceeding ISIS’s ultraviolence.

Baghdad’s districts are controlled by different “mafia” militias, who fight turf wars — Badr and the Imam Ali Brigade in Karrada and Al-Jadriya, Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq and the Peace Brigades in Sadr City, the Hezbollah Battalions along Palestine Street — while smaller factions scrabble over the scraps.

Property transactions and business deals are taxed by militiamen, who also manage the more unsavory trades of drugs, prostitution, black market activity and people smuggling. Banks have been designated for laundering funds on behalf of Tehran, while entire economic sectors — whether municipal waste, scrap metal or reconstruction — are monopolized by paramilitaries. People are abducted for ransom or extorted for their valuables at checkpoints

About 100 people died when an overcrowded and unsafe ferry capsized near Mosul in March 2019. Investigators were threatened when they took an interest in high-profile figures connected to Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq whose corrupt activities had undermined safety in the tourism and travel sectors. Investors at the resort where the tragedy occurred paid 30 percent of their profits to militias as protection money. Experts estimate about a third of Iraq’s economy in areas retaken from ISIS is now in Hashd ash-Sha’abi hands.

Paramilitaries were garrisoned across Iraq with the aim of eradicating ISIS. Instead, they take turns with ISIS to persecute civilians. Both ISIS and the Hashd have been blamed for the deliberate razing by fire of thousands of acres of farmland, ruining livelihoods and destroying food reserves.

Does Iraq even have a functioning government? It took nominal prime minister Adel Abdulmahdi a year just to fill his Cabinet seats. President Barham Saleh is a nice guy, but his role is merely ceremonial. Power is entirely in the hands of Shiits paramilitary leaders — on one hand Muqtada Al-Sadr, head of the hell-raising former Mahdi Army, and on the other the Iran-backed Bina militia alliance. 

The Hashd no longer even pretends to fight ISIS, yet its share of the national budget has mushroomed from $1.6bn to $2.16bn between 2016 and 2019. While non-politicized forces obediently demobilized, pro-Iran factions profited from their domination of the Hashd Commission to devour the entire payroll, with some funds siphoned back to Tehran.

The weak, fragmented situation of Sunnis, Kurds, Christians and other minorities has left the state as a cake to be sliced up among sectarian Shiite forces, which cannibalize government ministries to enrich themselves and entrench their power. In provinces such as Diyala, the Hashd has exploited control of municipal councils to direct funding toward corrupt allies, while starving entire towns and institutions of reconstruction and administrative funding.

These forces are a menace, even to their own Shiite communities. Basra sit on an immense lake of oil and potential wealth, yet its people endure chronic power cuts, grinding poverty and poisoned water. Little wonder they manifested their anger by destroying Hashd local offices and burning down the Iranian consulate. Iraqis tell horror stories of the contemptuous disrespect they endure from Iranian officialdom when travelling to Iran for pilgrimage, tourism or business. Photos circulated last week of an Iraqi woman beaten up by an Iranian airport official.

Tehran’s Iraqi proxies are the very definition of parasites: Spreading their criminality and brutality to every corner of Iraq, sucking out the nation’s natural wealth and sharing the spoils with their Iranian paymasters.

When Tehran began exporting medium-range rockets to Hashd bases in mid-2018, the consequences were obvious; Israel was already pounding similar sites in southwestern Syria to smithereens. Just as Iran’s sponsorship of militancy embroiled Yemen and Lebanon in conflicts not of their making, there was arguably a conscious desire to invite attacks against densely populated areas of Baghdad. Tehran has sadistically placed Iraqis, instead of its own citizens, in the firing line.

Paramilitary commander (and designated international terrorist) Abu-Mahdi Al-Muhandis accused the US of helping Israel to attack Iraqi targets. Acting as if he were both prime minister and commander-in-chief, Muhandis threatened retaliation against both countries. His paramilitary subordinates went further; they claimed they had opened fire on a reconnaissance plane over Baghdad, described recent attacks as a “declaration of war” and warned the US that this would “only end with your removal from the region once and for all.”

When Saddam was removed in 2003, Iran’s leaders resolved to prevent the establishment of a strong Iraqi state that could ever be a threat or a rival, and vigorously deployed sectarian militias to sow division and discord. With Iraq menaced by the resurgence of ISIS, Israeli airstrikes and economic ruination caused by corrupt, criminal militias, Tehran and its paramilitary cronies are displaying their continued determination to render the country a perpetual Dar Al-Harb — a domain of war.
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