Iraqi militias feud after Suleimani departs scene

After dud attack on US troops in Iraq, Iran hints at proxy warfare, but without its chief enforcer Tehran’s clients in Baghdad are more prone to splits

Members of the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force chant anti-US slogans during a protest over the killings of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, on January 6, 2020 in Karrada in central Baghdad. / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE
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A power struggle is breaking out among Iran’s Shiite allies in Iraq, prompted by the death of their patron Qassem Suleimani, according to Iraqi sources and observers in the region.

The resurfacing of old militia rivalries could undermine Iran's proxies on their home turf in Iraq, somewhat limiting Tehran's immediate options, the sources told The National.

Tehran indicated it might still resort to its militia allies after directly attacking on Wednesday US targets in Iraq, where the militias are backing the government in cracking down on a civil uprising that erupted in early October.

But US forces could also be targeted in or from Syria, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Iran also sponsors militias, European diplomats following the tensions said.

A protest movement and unease about Hezbollah’s agenda could limit such a possibility from Lebanon, they said.

One of the diplomats said Iranian pronouncements since Wednesday "are basically saying expect the militias to do more after the (supposedly) measured Iranian retaliation".
On Wednesday, two bases in Iraq were targeted by what Iranian state media said were 15 ballistic missiles fired from Iran in retribution for the killing of Suleimani in a drone strike at Baghdad airport last week.

His Iraqi sidekick, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, was also killed in the attack. He was Iran’s top man in the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a grouping of militias nominally incorporated into the Iraqi state.

epa08099290 (FILE) - A handout photo made available by the Iranian Supreme Leader's office shows Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Lieutenant general and commander of the Quds Force Qasem Soleimani (R) and Iraqi Shia cleric, politician and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr (L) during the Ashura mourning ceremony in Tehran, Iran, 10 September 2019 (reissued 03 January 2020). Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed on 03 January 2020 following a US airstrike at Baghdad's international airport. The attack comes amid escalating tensions between Tehran and Washington.  EPA/IRANIAN SUPREME LEADER'S OFFICE HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
Iraqi cleric and Iranian-backed militia leader Moqtada Al Sadr with Qassem Suleimani in Tehran in September 2019. Mr Sadr said Iraqi militias must refrain from military action after Iran attacked US targets in Iraq with missiles on Wednesday in retaliation for Suleimani's killing. EPA

The Iranian missiles caused no casualties. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said the attack was "a slap on the face" of the US but “the corruptive presence of the US in the region of West Asia must be stopped”.

In an interview with CNN, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif suggested that Iran’s militia allies could neutralise US military superiority as part of what he termed popular support across the region for Iranian goals.

“The United States has to wake up to the reality that the people of this region are enraged and… want the United States out,” he said.

In Iraq, Qais Al Khazali, head of Asaeb Ahl Al Haq militia, said it was time for Iraqis to take their own retribution against the US. Akram Al Kaabi of Harakat Hezbollah Al Nujaba, another militia supported by Iran, echoed his call.

Mr Al Khazali’s group is an offshoot of the Mahdi Army, founded by populist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr. The two are known to despise each other, but when it comes to splitting spoils from their influence on the Iraqi state, they co-operate.

Mr Al Kaabi had split from Mr Al Khazali’s militia and formed his own, but the two are not sworn rivals like Mr Al Khazali and Mr Al Sadr.

Mr Al Sadr sought to portray himself as more statesmanlike than his rivals after the killing of Mr Al Muhandis. He declared himself “the leader of the resistance”.

But Mr Al Sadr tempered his rhetoric after the Iranian retaliation, saying the tensions were over and that the other militias must refrain from any military action and silence what he described as militant voices among them.

A Shiite political source with good ties to the three groups said their differences bursting into the open show the effects of Suleimani’s absence, but predicated that Iran would re-establish itself through other operatives.

“Iran will not allow the militias to get out of control. It will not deal with them with force now because that would create problems for it,” the source said.

The Iranian attack on US troops helped the clerics in power in Tehran save face without subjecting the country to US military punishment, in line with their doctrine of avoiding a conventional confrontation.

Central to this doctrine is the so-called asymmetrical warfare practised by Suleimani. His assassination, however, might not have occurred, at least not so soon, had the Iraqi militias not attacked a US base in Iraq in December.

The attack killed an American contractor, raising the level of escalation between Washington and Tehran.

Suleimani’s killing marked a turning point in that the US no longer refrained from going directly after Iranian targets in response to attacks by Tehran’s proxies.

Even if they re-unite, the militias, in Iraq but also Syria, may no longer be able to resume their role as a shield taking punishment on behalf of Iran.