Iran’s Interference in Iraq’s Quest for Democracy

Iran continues to destabilize the Middle East. Particularly in neighboring Iraq, Tehran is seeking to subvert the young democracy by financing an anti-American, murderous terrorist militia.

Hisham al-Hishami and the PMF

Hisham al-Hashimi was a specialist in Islamist combat groups — above all the Islamic State. Hardly anyone was as well informed about ISIS as al-Hashimi. He appeared regularly on television, and international think tanks valued his assessments. He even became an adviser to the Iraqi government. Most recently for Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who took office just two months ago. He was killed recently, most likely by the Shiite militias of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).

The killing displays the two most prominent issues in Iraq to this day: First, despite all international efforts, young democracy remains highly volatile. Second, despite all its domestic issues, Iran seeks chaos in the region and continues to support terrorists to conduct its dirty work.

In Iraq Speaking Out Against Iran Can Be Deadly

Al-Hashimi had recently made the Tehran-led militia his subject of study. He criticized its role in Iraqi politics unusually openly and received death threats as a result of it.

The Hashd Ash Shabi, as PMF is called in transliterated Arabic, was founded in 2014 after an appeal by Ayatollah Sistani and was intended to work as a temporary emergency force. The primary goal of its creation was to stop ISIS from advancing on Baghdad at the time. Iran finances part of the militias, making it Tehran’s extended arm in Iraq.

The Iraqi government announced victory over ISIS three years ago. However, the PMF stayed and is not only concerned with subordination towards the Iraqi state. The terrorist units, moreover, pursue their political agenda. They fire missiles at American facilities in Iraq and attack demonstrators who protest against the country’s corrupt political elite.

Recent Raid on Kataib Hezbollah Nets Dozens of Arrests

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi recently arrested 14 members of the Kataib Hezbollah organization in a raid. It was a brave novelty in dealing with the radical association. For this, al-Hashimi — the Prime Minister’s advisor — may very well have paid with his life. His death can be understood as a message to not interfere with the terrorists.

Al-Hashimi is a victim in the power struggle between the Iraqi state and Iran-controlled militias. A power struggle that has been going on subliminally for three years, and which is now being fueled by the tensions between the United States and Iran.

The Menace of Kataib Hezbollah

Most recently, Kataib Hezbollah was responsible for an attempted attack on the US embassy. It was not the first time that the US Embassy and other American institutions in Iraq had been targeted. There have been at least 32 attacks since October. The hardest took place on December 29 at an Iraqi military base near Kirkuk.

In retaliation, the Pentagon bombed Kataib Hezbollah’s bases and killed a number of their fighters. Two days later, terrorists, disguised as civilians attempted to storm the US agency in Baghdad’s green zone.

The US Killing of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Qasem Soleimani

Iranian interference in Iraq first came to the attention of the world when an American drone hit Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis’ car at Baghdad Airport on January 3.

The latter was the leader of the People’s Mobilization Units (PMF).  Iranian General Qasem Soleimani of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards died in the strike along with al-Muhandis. Soleimani was the main individual who militarily implemented Tehran’s foreign policy and destabilizing efforts in Iraq and Syria.

The death of the two well-known leaders did not change the distribution of power in Iraq. The Shi’ite militias continue to act like a state within a state, including with maintaining its array of army, businesses and influential political representatives.

How Much of a Mark Can al-Khadimi Make Against Iran-Backed Militias?

It remains uncertain whether the new prime minister al-Khadimi can eradicate the terrorists or at least get control of the situation. What offers some hope is that al-Khadimi managed to get his candidates for the Department of Defense and the Home Office into his cabinet — in particular, making Othman Al-Ghanmi the Iraqi army’s former chief of staff — into Minister of the Interior, which was a smart move in the fight against the Iranian-backed terrorists.

Nonetheless, despite progress in the resistance to Iran’s violent influence in Iraq, al-Hashimi’s death may be a bitter warning for the Prime Minister and is also evidence of Iran’s ongoing destabilizing actions and the volatility of a young Iraqi democracy.