Deadly attacks by the Islamic State are calling into question Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s declaration of a “final victory” over the so-called Caliphate. With national elections set for May, further attacks could threaten Abadi’s bid for a second term while benefiting pro-Iranian forces.
On February 18, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for an ambush near the city of Hawija, in Kirkuk province, which killed 27 members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), or al-Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic. A week later, Islamic State fighters killed two policemen and wounded another who were guarding the Khabbaz oil field near Kirkuk. The next day, an attempted suicide bombing injured three PMF fighters at the Kirkuk headquarters of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian-backed Shiite militia that is now part of the PMF.
Asaib Ahl al-Haq is under the effective control of the Quds Force, the external operations branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Asaib Ahl al-Haq played a lethal role in Iraq’s anti-U.S. insurgency, claiming 6,000 attacks against U.S. forces. It opened its first Kirkuk headquarters in October 2017.
The targeting of Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s headquarters may reflect the Islamic State’s deep hostility to Shiites, especially those with close ties to Tehran. Asaib Ahl al-Haq and other Iranian-backed elements within the PMF do have a history of committing sectarian atrocities with impunity. On the other hand, many Sunnis’ existential fear of the PMF seems to have abated somewhat, despite lingering concerns about the militias’ Iranian-backed elements.
The PMF is a conglomeration of militias that formed in 2014 following a fatwa from Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, which called on the Iraqi people to dislodge the Islamic State from the country. The PMF is dominated by Iran’s IRGC-backed figures who lead the most powerful groups in it. In 2016, the Iraqi government enshrined the PMF as an official part of the Iraqi security forces, yet the behavior of its key IRGC-backed components – such as fighting in Syria under IRGC command and vowing to fight alongside Lebanese Hezbollah in a future war with Israel – suggests greater loyalty to Tehran than to Baghdad.
In the May elections, the political wings of several leading pro-Tehran militias will be running as part of the al-Fath al-Mubin electoral coalition, led by Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Iranian-backed Badr Organization. That coalition, whose establishment triggered fears over the militarization of the electoral process, is poised to shape the next Iraqi government. If a wave of suicide attacks heightens sectarian polarization, al-Fath al-Mubin is one of the likely beneficiaries.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis observed last month, “ISIS is not down, the fight is not over… We have to work against this ideology, we have to work against (the) financing.” U.S. engagement in Iraq remains critical, lest the country follow the same path it did after the U.S. withdrawal in 2011. With invigorated diplomacy to leverage the pool of reconstruction funding, Washington and allies should incentivize Prime Minister Abadi to build strong cross-sectarian institutions that exclude corrupt figures, especially those who are beholden to Tehran. Only then will Iraq be capable of fully eliminating the threat from the Islamic State and creating an independent government that will not serve as a conduit for Iranian influence.
Romany Shaker is an Arabic-language research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Amir Toumaj is a research analyst focused on Iran. Follow them on Twitter @RomanySh and @AmirToumaj.
Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.