Iraq is in a fight to show its people who is really in charge

Amidst competing narratives over who controls Iraq's fate, the government's first priority is to protect the integrity of the state

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The past week has witnessed a significant escalation between Iraq’s government and one of the country’s most potent militias. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi warned that “groups carrying out terrorist acts” would be pursued, and for the first time an Iraqi Prime Minister has branded militia groups launching rockets at Iraqi bases and airports as “terrorists” and “outlaws”.

On Friday, Iraqis woke up to the news that a joint operation by the Iraqi counterterrorism and national intelligence services led to the arrest of a number of Kataib Hezbollah militants, caught red-handed as they prepared to launch more rockets in the vicinity of Baghdad’s International Zone (also known as the Green Zone), where the central government and most foreign diplomatic missions are headquartered. It is understood that Kataib Hezbollah was planning to attack the US Embassy as part of its efforts to push all US presence out of Iraq.

What followed were several hours of confusion, as the militants attempted to enter the fortified area of the Prime Minister’s office and residence, only to be pushed back by Iraqi forces. Kataib Hezbollah then arranged for a number of its members to go out and protest, “celebrating” the release of the militants, despite the fact that they remained in detention.

Behind the scenes, Islamist Shia political leaders and militants from the Popular Mobilisation Front were fuming, applying every type of pressure possible on Mr Al Kadhimi and his government. At present, there are up to 5,000 armed men who belong to the most militant PMF groupings in the Green Zone, and several of their leaders have indicated a desire to attack Iraqi state institutions.

After days of false reports on the release of the militants, Iraq’s judiciary released them yesterday, claiming there was insufficient evidence to hold them. Of course, Kataib Hezollah and its allies are framing this as a “victory”, even though there are now warrants against those deemed “outlaws”. The spokesperson for the militia, Abu Ali Al Askari, released a statement threatening Mr Al Kadhimi and accusing him of “treason pledged to the Americans”.

As ever, the battle over the narrative of control in Iraq is heightened. Iran’s allies want to paint Mr Al Kadhimi’s moves as being motivated by American interests. Iran’s Tasnim news agency said the raid “was directed by the US”. Unfortunately, a number of Western media outlets have painted it in a similar manner, saying that Mr Al Kadhimi’s moves against Kataib Hezbollah were to stop an attack on the US Embassy and part of his efforts to keep the Americans happy.

The alternative narrative is that Mr Al Kadhimi is trying to reinstate sovereignty over Iraq and strengthen the state by outlawing the launching of rockets and re-instituting its monopoly over the use of arms. The US Embassy, like all diplomatic missions, has to be protected if Iraq is to prove it is a functioning state with proper security apparatus. The reality is that Iraq’s stability rests on combatting militias who want to remain outside of state control, and who use rocket launchers inside the country to further their own interests and degrade the state. Furthermore, it remains in Iraq’s interest to maintain an international troop presence from both the US and Nato.

Mr Al Kadhimi represents a nationalist, non-Islamist and non-dogmatic approach in Iraq. He is able to attract support from a variety of Iraqi groupings for that reason, but it is also why he is under attack from those with vested interests. Today, a new parliamentary bloc called “Iraqis” was announced under the leadership of one Ammar Al Hakim, declaring its support for the Iraqi Prime Minister and all efforts to strengthening of the Iraqi state. Mr Al Hakim is an influential Islamist Shia leader, and his public support for the government at this tense time is vital. Mr Al Kadhimi came to office promising to protect Iraq’s sovereignty and he is building a coalition of Iraqis based on that promise, with the backing and support of Iraq's President Barham Salih. Yet the pursuit of a strong and secure Iraq is impossible with the presence of militias who take their commands from another country and who do all they can to undercut the Iraqi state.

The battle for control over the narrative of Iraq is as heightened as ever

Iraq’s Prime Minister has difficult choices ahead. The balancing act that his last two predecessors tried to pursue – in trying to acquiesce to militias while calling for the strengthening of state institutions – will not work. And he knows this. Mr Al Kadhimi cannot appear to back down now that he has confronted Kataib Hezbollah, but he also cannot afford a direct confrontation. Even though the Iranian-backed groups in Iraq are divided, they have historically come together if they fear that their interests or influence could be hurt.

Those close to Mr Al Kadhimi say his focus is to bring Iraq back onto the right track and in the right direction. He does not have any illusions about how difficult that is. A few arrests and strong statements alone will not suffice after decades of state corrosion. He is working on a number of tracks, including the removal of a number of the most corrupt officials in several state institutions – from aviation to the pension authority to communications committees. However, his time is quite tight. Elections are expected within the next 18 months, and those with vested interests will do all they can to undercut him.

Mina Al-Oraibi is editor-in-chief at The National