Soleimani’s assassination was supposed to weaken the Iraqi militias. Instead, they flex their muscles.
Atop a scene on the left, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi greeted the saluting troops as they passed, flanked by senior PMF leaders who had largely avoided appearing in public since the fateful state strike -United.
The show was a show of force intended not only to mark an anniversary, but also to signal the recovery of the paramilitaries after the setback suffered by the assassinations of Soleimani and Mohandis, and the groups’ determination to push back the US military presence in Iraq.
“It was a message to those who were trying to weaken and dismantle the PMF, including America,” said Jaafar al-Husseini, the military spokesman for Kataib Hezbollah, one of the groups backed by the PMF. Iran within the PMF whom the United States accuses of targeting its forces.
“The message is that the PMF is here to stay and that it is developing in terms of equipment, training and institutionalization,” Husseini told POLITICO in a rare interview in his Baghdad office, adorned with photos of Soleimani, Mohandis and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah. Ali Khamenei.
The PMF’s military parade has been closely watched by US officials, who are grappling with a new wave of militia attacks on US facilities in Iraq.
“They certainly have a lot more money and they have a lot [more] weapons, ”a US official with extensive knowledge of Iraq told POLITICO when asked to compare the capabilities of the PMF today and two years ago. The official, like several other interviewees for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive topics.
Since the assassinations of Soleimaini and Mohandis, Iranian-backed militias within the PMF have mobilized to avenge the deaths of their leaders and have found more sophisticated ways to target the US-led military coalition further. besieged in Iraq, according to Iraqi and American officials, militia leaders and regional experts. These changes suggest that the assassinations, the The Trump administration has claimed would establish “real deterrence” against the militias, failed to prevent further attacks on US troops.
Instead, the strike plunged Iraq into a new round of instability as militias intensified and expanded their operations, while consolidating their grip on power within the loose PMF group. On two occasions this year, the Biden administration has ordered strikes against Iranian-backed militias in retaliation for attacks on US forces.
The fallout has exposed the limits of Iraqi security forces to control the increasingly powerful and well-resourced militias as the United States reduces its military presence in Iraq. Last week, Kadhimi and US President Joe Biden agreed to withdraw US “combat troops” from Iraq after seven years of fighting ISIS there – a largely symbolic decision, as most troops will be reclassified in non-combatant roles. Ahead of the announcement, the US official described the impending move as a “face-saving” strategy for Kadhimi, who has come under pressure from Iran-backed groups to completely withdraw foreign troops from Iraq.
Iraqi officials say the inability to anticipate the consequences of the assassinations indicates the US government’s limited understanding of the country’s complex internal dynamics. They believe the killings motivated militias to step up attacks on US and Iraqi targets, making an already fragile Iraq even more unstable.
PMF was formed in 2014, and initially found success in the fight against ISIS alongside US forces and the coalition. But after ISIS’s territorial defeat in 2017, latent differences between Iranian-backed militias and US forces began to spill over.
The January 2020 strike on Soleimani’s convoy near Baghdad airport was the culmination of months of growing US-Iran tensions in the region, most of which took place on Iraqi soil.
At the end of 2019, a series of attacks between the United States and Iran-backed groups left one American entrepreneur and 27 Kataib Hezbollah fighters dead. The deaths of the militiamen prompted an angry mob to burn down and vandalize the exterior doors of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad during a two-day siege over New Year’s Eve. Days after drone strike killed Soleimani and Mohandis, more than 100 US servicemen seeking refuge in bunkers suffered brain damage when Iran fired retaliatory missiles at a base in western Iraq.
Then President Donald Trump noted the strike against Soleimani aimed to “stop a war” and was based on intelligence that the commander was planning imminent attacks against US interests. But no evidence to support these claims has been made public. A UN investigation later, the deaths of the two leaders and the eight others killed by the strike were described as “illegal”.
The unilateral action on Iraqi soil sparked a backlash against the American presence. After the assassinations, the Iraqi parliament voted to overthrow all US and coalition troops. The United States subsequently reduced its strength from 5,000 to 2,500 and consolidated its presence in fewer bases. Although coalition officials said the pullout was planned because anti-ISIS operations were ending, the two assassinations made the coalition presence more difficult to maintain, putting US troops at risk of retaliation and tending to US-Iraqi ties.
A complete withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 soldiers is under discussion at ongoing negotiations between Washington and Baghdad. The recent announcement to reclassify US operations as non-combat operations will allow US trainers and advisers to remain on the ground, while allowing Kadhimi to show he is following through on parliament’s decision to oust foreign troops .
Even as the political aftershocks As the murders of Soleimani and Mohandis continue to complicate the US presence in Iraq, they appear to have turned against them in their original objective: to prevent Iranian-backed militias from attacking US forces.
As part of the groups’ efforts to reaffirm their strength, leaders and analysts point to the increased militia attacks not only on US interests, but also on Iraqi activists, analysts, protest leaders and security officials. The Iraqi Human Rights Commission has documented 81 assassination attempts since October 2019, of which 34 were successful. The UN has published several reports detailing crimes against protesters and critics by militias.
“Their operations have increased,” said a senior Iraqi government official who is not authorized to speak to the press. The official noted that as part of a campaign to subvert the state, militias are now openly show their strength in the streets, including through newly formed vigilante groups. These measures undermined US efforts to support Kadhimi’s government and further eroded public confidence in the Iraqi state’s ability to assert the rule of law.
“It is a threat because these forces weaken Iraq”, admitted the American official.
These campaigns are a sign that the disappearance of Mohandis and Soleimani did not hamper the tactical capabilities of the paramilitaries, even though their deaths left a leadership vacuum that reduced Iranian influence in Iraq.
“You cannot underestimate the damage the killing of people like Soleimani and Mohandis has done to Iranian strategy in the region,” said Hamdi Malik, an associate researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which monitors the activities of the militias in Iraq.
“However,” he added, “now that [the PMF] is part of the state and to a large extent financially independent, their organizational capacities are improving.
The PMF was nominally incorporated into the Iraqi security forces by a 2016 law and a 2018 decree. This official status enabled its factions to gain legitimacy, weaponry and public funds. The government budget allocation for PMF was $ 2.5 billion in 2021, an increase of 45.7% compared to 2019.
Some groups within the PMF also used their military power to take control lucrative sectors of the economy. Although data on their business activities is scarce, the additional resources have enabled them to become more financially and operationally independent from Tehran.
“They don’t need the same support from Iran,” says Malik.