Iraqi militias fractured after death of Iranian-backed commander

BAGHDAD – In February, an Iranian-trained Iraqi militia commander took over the empty office of his assassinated superior, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who had been killed weeks earlier alongside Iranian military mastermind Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike American.

Many pro-Iran militiamen hoped that this was the answer to their problems: the experienced commander Abdul Aziz al-Mohammedawi could replace Muhandis at the head of the Iraqi paramilitary groups, dispersed after the murder of their two mentors.

Instead, it led to further splits.

The factions refused to recognize Mohammedawi, known by his war name Abu Fadak, as the commander of the Iraqi militia coordination group, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Even within his own group, Kataib Hezbollah, some oppose him taking on this role, according to militia insiders.

The deaths of Soleimani and Muhandis in January have put Iran-backed militias in Iraq to the test, where the United States wants to reverse the influence of its regional enemy Tehran.

Now sources from Iran-backed PMF factions and commanders of groups less close to Tehran describe growing divides over leadership and shrinking Iranian funds, thwarting attempts at unity in the face of adversity.

The divisions are hastening the withdrawal from the political arena, where the militia leaders who once controlled government jobs and seats in parliament are in hiding out of fear of being assassinated by the United States and confronting anti-Iran dissent in the Street. They are faced with the installation of a US-aligned prime minister who signals he would verify the dominance of Iranian proxy groups.

Bruised, the militias have stepped up their attacks on US-led forces in Iraq. Western military and diplomatic officials say it raises the prospect of a U.S.-Iranian escalation that Baghdad will be powerless to stop.

The focal point of the splits has been the PMF leadership, which was formed to fight the Islamic State after Iraq’s leading Shia Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called on all able-bodied men to take arms against Sunni militants.

The state-funded PMF includes dozens of predominantly Shiite militias with varying loyalties, but is dominated by powerful factions that take their orders from Iran, including Muhandis’ Kataib Hezbollah, Badr Organization, Nujaba and others.

Soleimani held ultimate authority over Iraq’s toughest Shiite militias. But for these groups, the loss of PMF military leader Muhandis, a rare unifying figure, was more significant.

Growing divisions

Kataib Hezbollah announced in February that Mohammedawi would be the PMF’s military leader. Mohammedawi now works in Muhandis’ former office in Baghdad, according to a militia source. He requested anonymity to talk about splits among the paramilitaries.

“It created divisions, including within Kataib,” the source said.

He and two other militia officials described shifting alliances, notably within two pro-Iranian groups. They said the splits concerned both Muhandis’ succession and the destination of Iranian funds – in military action or political influence.

“One camp in Kataib is headed by Abu Fadak. Another is against his taking control of the PMF,” the first source said. “In Badr, there is a wing which supports him and which was closer to Muhandis – and another which does not support him, the political wing.”

The sources did not provide details of the cut in funding to Iran, which is hit hard by the coronavirus and US sanctions.

A spokesperson for PMF could not be reached immediately for comment.

The divisions mean the groups are starting to stage attacks on their own, without consulting each other, militia sources said.

“Not everyone agrees that the Taji military base is targeted,” one official said, referring to an attack that killed two US soldiers and a British soldier in March. “Some groups simply operate without consulting the PMF chain of command.”

Militia sources report a further split in the PMF.

Several factions closer to Sistani, which oppose Iran’s hegemony over the PMF, publicly rejected Mohammedawi’s takeover in February in a rare display of defiance of the pro-Iran camp.

Their commanders said they had since agreed in principle with the Defense Ministry to integrate into the military, a move that would clearly separate them from factions backed by Iran. A source close to Sistani confirmed that his office blessed the movement.

Political weakness

Pro-Iranian militias are worried.

“If Sistani supports this, maybe 70% of the lower-ranking fighters in all groups could follow – they enlisted only because of his edict,” the first militia source said.

None of these measures can be official until a new government is in place. But lawmakers and government officials say it is likely that the prime minister designate, Adnan al-Zurfi, will be approved this month – due to the weakness of pro-Iran militias.

“Before, Iranian-backed groups and politicians could choose their prime minister,” said a lawmaker from Iraq’s largest parliamentary bloc, declining to be named.

“Now they can’t even agree among themselves who they want for the job,” he said, adding that many Zurfi favored the job.

Last month, President Barham Salih appointed Zurfi, who opposes commanders of Iranian-backed militias. He said he would attack the factions hard, posting on Twitter in March that “the PMF’s loyalty will be to Iraq and the Iraqis.”

The Iranian-backed militias will not leave quietly. Kataib Hezbollah warned last week that he would fight any force cooperating with Washington to attack the militias.

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