Drone attacks by Iraqi militias reflect declining Iranian grip

BAGHDAD – Iranian Expeditionary Force Commander Quds gave one main directive to long-indebted Iraqi militia faction leaders in Tehran, when he met with them in Baghdad last month: keep calm, until the end of nuclear talks between Iran and the United States.

But he was greeted with suspicion. One of the six faction leaders spoke at their meeting: they could not remain silent until the death of his predecessor Qassim Soleimani and top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a strike US drones were not avenged.

Militia attacks have only increased against the United States at military bases in Iraq and Syria. Three missile attacks in the last week alone have left minor injuries, stoking fears of an escalation.

Details of Esmail Ghaani’s visit, confirmed to The Associated Press by three Shiite politicians and two senior militia officials, show how Iraqi militias aligned with Iran are claiming some independence, sometimes even flouting orders from Tehran. Iran is now relying on Lebanese Hezbollah to support it and it is possible that the new Iranian president will play a role in doing the same.

Officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private meetings.

Iran’s influence, backed by ideological ties and military backing, has frayed over the US murder of Soleimani and al-Muhandis last year, due to competing interests and financial strains in Tehran. With the resumption of nuclear talks after the inauguration of US President Joe Biden this year, these differences have become evident.

“Iran is not the same as it used to be, with 100% control over the militia commanders,” said a Shiite political leader.

The rise in rocket and drone attacks targeting US troops in Iraq and Syria has alarmed Western and coalition officials. There have been at least eight drone attacks targeting the U.S. presence since Biden took office in January, as well as 17 rocket attacks, according to coalition officials.

The attacks are blamed on the Iranian-backed militias who make up the bulk of the state-backed Iraqi popular mobilization forces. The Biden administration responded by twice targeting Iraqi militias operating inside Syria, notably near the Iraqi border.

“What is happening now is that when Ghaani asks for calm, the brigade leaders agree with him. But as soon as he leaves the meeting, they ignore his recommendations, ”said another Shiite politician.

The strongest voice of the rebel militias has been Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq faction, which also maintains a political party. On June 17, just days after Ghaani’s meetings with the militias, he said in a televised address that they would continue to target the US “occupier” and would not take nuclear talks into consideration.

“And this decision is Iraqi,” he said.

The coalition has officially ended combat operations and drastically reduced troop numbers over the past year. Only 2,500 American troops remain in Iraq and discussions are underway with NATO for a transfer to an advisory mission. Iraq still needs coalition support for surveillance and intelligence gathering and airstrikes against ISIS targets.

Some argue that the ongoing attacks are benefiting Iran by keeping the pressure on the US

In discussions with Shiite politicians during his visit, Ghani said Iran does not interfere in their political work, but military issues are different. “These must be approved by the Revolutionary Guards,” said a politician.

Yet Ghaani did not reprimand the militia groups during the meeting. Instead, he told them he understood their concerns.

Iran has struggled to fill the void left in the absence of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, who commanded figures capable of bringing factions into line and resolving differences between them.

“Ghaani has a different style and ability,” said Michael Knights, Washington Institute fellow. He has a looser framework, setting out big red lines on some issues, while “other things are ‘don’t ask, don’t say,” he said.

In addition to asking for less, cash-strapped Iran has also given less. Aid to groups has been drastically cut since US sanctions began crippling Iran’s economy last year.

Divisions between factions worsened, with increasing competition between militias and Shia politicians.

Ghaani came to meet with militia leaders to ease tensions that had been sparked weeks earlier when Iraqi authorities arrested a paramilitary commander, Qassim Musleh, causing an impasse between PMF fighters and the security forces. Ghaani brought a letter from Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei criticizing the PMF for its reaction, saying it was weakening its position.

To pressure factions, Iran has come to rely on Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah in Lebanon, a figure the militias have great respect for. Almost every week, various faction leaders hold face-to-face meetings with him in Lebanon, Shiite political leaders said.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, elected in June, could also be a unifying figure for the militias, which he holds in high regard, politicians and militiamen have said. When Raisi visited Baghdad in February, he met the PMF commanders and told them, in common Arabic: “Our flesh is your flesh, and our blood is your blood. Ghaani communicates with the brigade leaders through an interpreter.

“The resistance will gain strength and have its best moments thanks to Raisi’s electoral victory,” Abu Alaa al-Walae, commander of Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, said in a recent interview.

Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed from Beirut.

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