In Iraq, the factions aligned with the Iran-led Axis of Resistance are confronting the American troops while also aiming to gain full control of the Iraqi state

Last update: 2024-03-14 17:24:14

The Al-Aqsa Flood Operation and the ensuing Gaza War have had a significant impact on the Middle East as a whole. In particular, the local Shia militias and their political bloc, the Coordination Framework, engaged in a perilous confrontation against both Israel and the US troops deployed in the country. What roles do these groups play within the Axis of Resistance and the Iraqi scenario? We have interviewed Michael Knights, analyst at the Washington Institute and expert on Iraqi militias.     


Interview by Mauro Primavera


What is the role of Iraqi militias within the Axis of Resistance, especially after the al-Aqsa Flood operation?


When October 7 happened, it is likely that most of the members of the Axis of Resistance had no prior warning. Hamas maintained strong operational security around the attack, so that it is possible that the Iranians may not have known the exact date of the al-Aqsa Flood. All of them have been surprised by how effective the attack was, and by how strong the US and Israeli reaction was. The Axis of Resistance aimed to support Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad which, despite achieving a significant success, were in danger of being eradicated by Israel’s strong reaction to the events of October 7. The Axis found itself in a position it had not planned for: on one side, it needed to deter Israel from annihilating Hamas and achieve a significant victory; on the other side, it needed to prevent Israel from expanding the war into Lebanon, which would deal a serious blow to Hezbollah. Even though Israel received strong American support, the United States was not very keen on Israel going into Lebanon, because Hezbollah did not represent a significant threat. The military presence of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip became the primary focus.


The Axis players probably did not have high expectations that they could save Hamas’ members who made some mistakes on October 7: they pushed too hard, proved to be undisciplined and did not carry out the plan, going on a wild rampage that triggered Israeli anger. Instead of a clean operation, it turned out to be a very dirty action. Privately, the other Axis members said: “we have to show support for Hamas, we can’t just let Israel destroy one of the members of the Axis and the rest do nothing.” It is almost like NATO: a degree of mutual support is expected, and if that is not provided, what does the whole Axis mean? Think about the smaller members: Iran is Iran, but if you are Hezbollah, Iraqi Shia militias, or even the Houthis and you see Iran just let one of the Axis members get wiped out, that is quite an uncomfortable experience, because it implies that it could be you next. Over the years, some militias especially the Iraqi ones, come to believe that Iran may back off, because supporting them is too demanding. This generates a negative response; we have seen it multiple times.  For instance, the Iraqi militias, having lost the 2021 elections and not receiving sufficient support from Iran, launched drones at the Iraqi Prime Minister’s residence and attempted to overthrow the election through protests. The implicit and dangerous message for Teheran was: “if you won’t help us, we will do it by ourselves.” Iran then did step up and somehow solved, or helped them solve, the problem.


In this crisis post-October 7, the Axis members were allowed to involve themselves to the extent they were comfortable with. Iran has not directly attacked Israel and preferred not to deliberately place itself at risk. Hezbollah has tried to maintain a minimal level of escalation, in order to attract some Israeli attention. However, Hezbollah has not done a lot to help Hamas; the Iraqi militias have done more, taking risks and hits. What is interesting about them is that Hezbollah and Iran are directly related with Israel. Instead, the Iraqi militias have mixed the Hamas war with their intention to remove US forces from their environment, because that serves both their own agenda and the Gaza war, thus establishing a sort of sympathetic conflict. They are adopting the following logic: “we also have occupiers who support the people who are occupying Gaza and the West Bank. So, we are going to attack our occupiers at the same time you attack your occupiers.”


What role do the Houthis play in this scenario?


The Houthis played a crucial role by providing more direct support to Hamas than any other player. Why? Because they have done something that the other members have failed to do, which is to internationalise the conflict and create a tangible global price for the Gaza conflict: the longer it goes on, the longer shipping gets disrupted, the bigger is the price tag for the global economy. It gives another reason for people in the US, Europe and elsewhere to say: “end the Gaza conflict quicker,” which is the best way for Hamas to survive. If the Israelis have to stop before they have found, killed or exiled the Hamas leadership, then Hamas has a better chance of recovering within the Gaza Strip, taking part covertly in elections, building itself into the infrastructure of not just the Gaza Strip, but perhaps of the whole Palestinian Authority. The Houthis can claim that they have done the most and they have risked the most on behalf of the Axis. That doesn’t surprise me, because the Houthis are not so directly tied into the Persian-wing of the Axis, which includes many Iraqi militiamen who have been supporting Iran since the 1980s: they have got wives, families, properties and even citizenship in Iran. In this regard, it is as if the Houthis belonged to the Axis of Resistance from the very beginning, because they are defined by what they are against, which is global arrogance of the US and Israel. They don’t care that Hamas is a marginal player or a Sunni group. In addition, their motto is one of the first Axis of Resistance manifesto.


Can we say that the Iraqi militias have gained more warfare experience? Given their ability to infiltrate state agencies, is it possible for them to fully seize control of Iraq?


The Iraqi militias have tried to gain complete control of the country under two prime ministers, Adel Abdul Mahdi and Mohammed Shia al-Sudani. During the one-and-a-half-year experiment under Adel Abdul Mahdi, an attempt at State capture through the Prime Minister’s office failed. This plan was opposed by the Sadrists and ultimately led to the protests and the Tishreen Movement. Subsequently, Soleimani and Abu al-Muhandis were killed. Premier al-Khadimi was able to slow this State capture and even reverse to some extent. Now that al-Sudani is in office, we do not have a coherent opposition group like Tishreen or the civil society. We don’t have a Prime Minister who is trying, regardless of whether he is succeeding, to hold back the spread of militia State’s capture.


From my perspective, the militias do have the capability to completely control the Iraqi State. They do as much as they can before the next elections in October 2025 and even during the government formation that will follow. They are trying to remove and defang Sadrists from a lot of key positions, including governorships, military headquarters like the Samara Operations Command. They are penetrating Maysan province, the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, the Counter-Terrorism Command, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Oil, the Ministry of Transport, together with judiciary, anti-corruption agencies which are increasingly used in the same manner as de-Baathification committees were in the past. Obviously, many of the people that they hit are corrupt, but the problem is very selectively applied only to their enemies. Almost every Iraqi government does that to some extent, but I think it is accelerating now. The control of the Communications and Media Commission (CMC) is a great example of State capture that used to be independent; it often did things people did not like, but it did not have an obvious political bias. Since al-Sudani came in, we have done our malicious spotlight profile of the CMC: the board composition changed very rapidly, and now we ended up with a majority under the Coordination Framework who is now using CMC in the same way as the judiciary system, the Commission on Integrity and the Intelligence service. They are all being used in a manner that is destroying the political opposition to the Coordination Framework.


There is one simple fact that needs to be stated: right now, they control the Parliament and the Prime Minister’s office. They have effectively gained control of the presidency because the PUK president does what he is told. They have got the judiciary, including Faiq Zaidan, Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Council of Iraq, directly under their control, just like the intelligence services and other special commissions. They currently hold all the levers of power in their pocket, except probably for one, which is Ayatollah al-Sistani. When al-Sadr achieved his election win in October 2021, al-Sudani was concerned about the fact that the Shia house would be broken up by a cross-sectarian multiethnic block that would isolate one key segment of the Shiite community. He and all the other power brokers except for al-Sadr came together and worked cohesively. However, when al-Sudani was asked to choose between an Iraqi government controlled by Iran or an Iraqi government controlled by al-Sadr, he chose the former.


The Iraqi government is in a precarious balance between US military presence and Iranian influence. In this regard, what is the role of the Prime Minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani?


What is important about al-Sudani is that he is not sanctioned by the US. That means that we can talk to him, we can deal with him, but we cannot deal with any of these other people. We cannot speak with al-Khazali, leader of the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia, and it’s hard for us to speak to Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Badr Organization, especially since the Gaza war. As I said, we can still speak to al-Sudani: his role is to be like an interpreter between the US and the Coordination Framework. The problem is that we are getting angrier at him and he is getting angrier at us, because we are both in unsustainable positions. We understand how little authority he has: it is zero. He has to go to the Coordination Framework to receive political approval to do major initiatives. Sometimes he will go to Kurdistan and agree something, or he will speak to Americans and agree something, and the Coordination Framework will not be happy about that. They will not be happy that he took the initiative to do something without asking them: sometimes they can reverse that, and sometimes they cannot. For instance, in the early days of his prime ministership, the Americans said “we are going to change the way we do financial reporting when it comes to dollar transfers.” He accepted that, but the militias went crazy because they understood the issue and the fact that it was going to cost them hundreds of millions of dollars per year. From almost day one we saw al-Sudani just like an administrative typical executive function of the Prime Minister. He runs everything past the Coordination Framework, because even the most trivial issue might actually be quite important to them. He has lost a lot of confidence since the very beginning; his work is increasingly done by his personal secretary and relative, Abdul Karim al-Sudani, who is a former police general from Maysan Province, a sort of a family head for al-Sudani. There is a small kind of trading room, whereby the Coordination Framework comes and speaks to Abdul Karim al-Sudani saying “ok, what do we have on the agenda this week? We have all agreed amongst ourselves at the Framework that this director general will be removed, and he will be replaced with that guy”. Basically, they create their little empire, swap cards and then they go to al-Sudani’s office saying: “make it happen”. The problem is when the US says to al-Sudani “we need you to do this:” all he is doing is carrying that message back to the Coordination Framework. It’s just like putting it in an envelope: al-Sudani is the envelope, he has no agency within this process. All he can do is to say: “listen, having me as the face of your government was meant to keep Iraq criminal, so people could invest here in order to have someone to send to Davos who is not either sanctioned or very corrupt.” You are putting that in jeopardy by undermining him. The problem with al-Sudani is this: if US forces stay in Iraq, it won’t be because al-Sudani made a strong case or a strong argument for it. It will be because the Coordination Framework themselves realised, even though we hate it, that it is probably better if they stay in some capacity. They say: “if we completely break with the Americans, we could lose our access to dollars, accelerate the sanctioning or the kinetic strikes on us, increase US tightening of ties with Kurdistan region. We need to lead the Americans with an alternative.” Even the Iranians somewhat think that way. I believe we will see a process and it won’t be because of al-Sudani, but because of the Coordination Framework, the Kurds and the Sunnis. Al-Sudani is running a country that is not like North Korea, Iran or Syria: he has got to leave these American troops in place.


I think we are all waiting for the Gaza war to end. Since January 28—when the militias killed three US soldiers in Jordan—it has deescalated a great deal in Iraq: the amount of violence has gone right down, and if you look at the malicious spotlight incident tracker, it is practically like it was before October 7; it is gone back to very minimal amount. Some people argue that the militias are trying to get the US forces out, but I don’t think so: the Iranians understood that there were serious risks that they would get hit. All the Iraqi factions understand that they will keep getting hit, that leadership will keep getting hit if they keep hitting us inside Iraq. I also think that the US has been very clear that we will not leave while we are under fire. It is necessary to have a sustained period of no attacks; like Qais al-Khazali is saying: “listen, dummies, you do not understand. If we attack them, we keep them here. If we stop attacking them at some point, they are going to leave.” They only stay because they can’t afford another Afghanistan, they can’t do another retreat under fire.


Did the Syrian civil war contribute to the military capability of Iraqi militias?  


Syria provided another place to use as a base of operations that that would not draw retaliation from Iraq, especially in Deir el-Zor and in the Syrian Euphrates valley. That’s how it was for the first half part of the Gaza conflict. We attacked them in Syria, they retaliated by mainly targeting us in Syria. Then it changed and that’s when things got really bad for Iraq and for US-Iraq relations. It is going back in that direction now. Since January 28, we have only had attacks on US forces in Syria, launched from Syria. Obviously, they are saying we are going back to the old formula: “small number of attacks in Syria from Syria.” The US said “well, we are going to kill some more Kataib Hezbollah guys, but after that, let’s go back to the old rules.” That’s where we are right now.


Syria was very important to groups like Nujaba and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada: they are the ones closer to the revolutionary goal of the Quds forces. They are not really focused on the Iraq environment; they are more transnational jihadi groups that want to attack Israel and support Hezbollah. But what’s interesting about this war is that Assad from the very beginning said: “no, we are not going to do a gallant front. Various people are telling me that it is a bad idea,” such as the Emiratis and the Russians. As a result, they did not have the platform they expected in Syria to directly launch attacks on Israel. I am quite annoyed about that, because I think that if a lot of these militias are deployed to the Golan, we could have killed vastly larger numbers of them using the Israelis. Anyway, it did not happen. I think the key thing that has built out the militia capability is just a small training and equipping effort similar to what the Houthis have received for deploying drones. That is an extremely simple mechanism to use. Just to give your readers with an understanding: the Iranians will provide many of the components of the drones and the designs. Actual fabrication and building of the drones sometimes is made in Iran, Iraq or Yemen. However nowadays they are increasingly using very cheap models like the Shahed 101. To operate this, you simply need to utilize a drone mission planner software, input a couple of coordinates, plug it into the drone, download it to the drone’s guidance system, pull it out and just shoot it from a platform. It does not actually require much skill for nearly anybody in the process, and it is not very expensive either. As a result, they only need to launch one or two attacks a day in Iraq. Such operation does not require fifty people: it suffices to train a small number of individuals in setting up a drone to launch and inputting some coordinates into it. The coordinates are sometimes sent directly from the Iranians on encrypted data sticks. It is a kind of war by remote control.


That’s where we are at the moment. Just after three of our troops were killed, Esmail Qaani, the head of the IRGC Quds, force came into Iraq and a day later Kataib Hezbollah stopped all of its operations. Shortly after that, the key militia propaganda Telegram channel Sabereen News shut down its coverage of the conflict. It is a very clear signal that the Iranians came too close to war and did not want all of their Iraqi militias to be completely destroyed by the Americans. For this reason, they decided to power down.


Is the Biden administration too distracted by other issues and the upcoming elections?


Biden is quite an emotional decision-maker. When we received an attack on US forces that nearly killed people on Christmas Day, we struck back card the next day. Biden is filled up to the top with anger: he has run out of patience with these militias. These Iraqi groups understand that if they do something else, they are probably going to get hit far harder than they would have done three months ago. The President is fed up, and even if he has got an election going on and all sorts of other concerns, the moment somebody kills American soldiers in Iraq or Syria, he is going to hit back very hard. For a guy who is very busy and in a horrible election year, this is the sort of thing that gives him a release. If he is having a bad day and the militias go hit us, they are going to have a bad day too. That is the reality: we are a superpower, but we are still led by ultimately one man. If he gets annoyed at them and they have annoyed him now for 3-4 months, then he is going to hit them hard in the future.



The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation