Iraq's move to limit Iranian influence aims to calm US concerns

Washington has become suspicious about the role of the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq

FILE - In this May 31, 2019, file photo, Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces march as they hold Popular Mobilization flags in Baghdad, Iraq. Iraq's government is moving to limit the influence of powerfully Iran-backed militias in the country, placing them under the full command of the Iraqi armed forces. In a decree issued Monday night, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi says militias says militia offices who continue to operate independently will be closed and any armed faction working "openly or secretly" against these guidelines will be considered illegitimate. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed, File)
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A decision by Iraqi’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to rein in Iranian-backed armed groups has been seen as an effort to calm international concerns over Iran’s increasing influence in the country, according to analysts.

The group of militias referred to as the Popular Mobilisation Forces, also known as Hashed Al Shaabi, played a vital role in the US-led coalition to drive ISIS out of Iraq, but the majority of them are funded and backed by Iran.

The PMF has around 140,000 fighters and a broad influence in Iraqi politics. An alliance of fighters and leaders finished second in last year’s election.

Yet some of its constituent groups have played a troubling role within Iraq, having been accused of kidnappings and extrajudicial killings.

The decree to limit their power comes amid rising pressure from the US and the Gulf states to tackle Tehran's influence at a time of rising tensions.

"The timing of the order seems to suggest that one of the main goals is to ally American and regional concerns over the possibility that a Hashed faction could be used by Iran in its confrontation with them," Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute, told The National.

With relations between Tehran and Washington having recently been pushed to the limits over the fall out from US sanctions on Iran due to its nuclear activities, there have been fears of a possible confrontation on Iraqi soil.

Several unclaimed attacks on bases in Iraq that are hosting US forces and on a site used by a US energy firm were carried out this month. Local officials blamed the militias for one of the incidents, but Iran has not commented.

Earlier this year, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly asked Iraq to dismantle the PMF but, given the scope of Tehran’s political and military influence in Iraq, such a move would be ambitious.

However, Mr Abdul Mahdi’s order is only likely to bring cosmetic change, Mr Haddad said, because of the ambiguity surrounding the PMF's role in Iraq, and the weakness of the prime minister's position.

In March 2018, Haider Al Abadi, the former prime minister, attempted to control the militias by formally making them part of the country's security forces. But the groups' leaders rejected the decree and have remained largely independent, Hisham Al Hashimi, an Iraqi counter terrorism expert, told The National.

Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi's decree states that the groups must take up political or paramilitary roles, but not both, and demands the militias leave their local military headquarters and shut down their so-called economic offices.

He set a tight deadline of July 31 for the militias to comply, but the government will have to take the decree's enforcement seriously if it is to have any effect.

“The issue remains pending and is dependent on the seriousness of the government and PMF to enforce the order,” Mr Al Hashimi said.

The plan is about preserving the reputation of the PMF in the eyes of the Iraqi people and clergy by trying to reduce organised crime and foreign proxy warfare involving the Hashed, Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank, told The National.

“But good intentions don’t guarantee success. Major Iranian backed militia leaders like Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis are hoping that the reform plan is a way for them to consolidate power over the Hashed so that more elements of it are under Iran’s power,” Mr Knights said.