The Cradle
Iraq’s Shia house is a mess: Can Iran help put it in order?
Muqtada al-Sadr has called for Iraqi resistance factions to disarm on the eve of the US withdrawal from Iraq. Is this a smart move to consolidate the state or a foolish gamble that will leave Iraq vulnerable?
November 24 2021
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Sadrist leader Muqtada al-Sadr calls for the disarming of resistance factions in Iraq. Only some are heeding his call.

Photo Credit: The Cradle

In a surprising move, Iraq’s Kataeb Hezbollah on Saturday disbanded its Popular Defense Brigades in response to earlier calls by Sadrist movement leader Muqtada al-Sadr for the disarmament of Iraqi militia groups as a step towards building a civil state.

Sadr also announced the closure of all offices belonging to his own military wing, known as Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades).

So what is behind the move to disarm Iraq’s militias, strongest among them the Shia factions that were instrumental in the defeat of ISIS?

Does this initiative have anything to do with Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Commander Esmail Qaani who flew to Iraq to soothe tensions after the alleged assassination attempt on Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi? Or does it have something to do with the highly-anticipated US withdrawal from Iraq by the close of 2021?

The announcement of the closure of all the offices of Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam was swiftly followed by the security official of Kataeb Hezbollah, Abu Ali al-Askari, declaring that they too had dissolved the Popular Defense brigades, suspending their activities and closing their headquarters.

Al-Askari revealed that “they, along with their kit, will be led by the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU or Hashd al-Shaabi), provided that all former militia members will be on an equal footing with their new peers and will secure their dues (salaries).”

Writing on his Twitter account, Al-Askari said: “We hope that our brothers on the initiating (Sadrist) party will transfer their three brigades under the command of the Popular Mobilization Units, and come to an agreement with the Peshmerga (Kurdish militia) leadership to complete its dissolution and join the Iraqi security services, in order to embark on a new phase of security and peace in our beloved Iraq.”

Even well-informed Iraqi sources saw this initiative more as a gesture toward the Sadrists – unlike most of Iraq’s factions that have well-established political wings, Kataeb Hezbollah is essentially only an armed group.

Does this come in the context of an Iranian move to appease Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi, after the attempt on his life? Or is this part of the political settlement that is being prepared to calm the post-election chaos in Iraq?

Iraq has been in turmoil since the results of the last parliamentary elections, in which Iraq’s resistance factions lost many parliamentary seats. Sadr’s movement came first with 73 seats, and is essentially in the position to play kingmaker in the new government’s formation, providing he is able to cobble together the required 166 deputies (out of a total of 329 parliamentary seats) for a workable coalition.

The preference for those trying to avoid inter-Shia conflict is for Sadr to form this coalition with the main bloc of the losing factions, who have filed multiple election appeals to challenge the final tallies. This bloc, also known as the Coordination Framework, consists of the State of Law Coalition led by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the pro-Iran resistance factions and parties,

In an ideal scenario, the Sadrists would form Iraq’s new government with the Coordination Framework, effectively putting the Shia house in order again. But the latter are demanding some conciliatory measures, like having their election appeals addressed and having a say in the cabinet’s selection. They also balk at the idea of Kadhimi gaining a second term as prime minister.

Iran’s position after the Kadhimi incident was clear. It urged pro-Iran Iraqi political parties to de-escalate confrontations in the aftermath of the country’s contested elections and accept the poll’s results. And Tehran showed a public display of support for the Iraqi prime minister, who many of its Iraqi backers reject outright – a cause of division in the Shia-majority political scene in Iraq today.

While Kataeb Hezbollah responded to Sadr’s call, another resistance faction, the Sayyid al-Shuhada Brigades, escalated its rhetoric in an altogether different direction, with its Secretary-General Abu Ala al-Walai declaring: “With the approaching hour of decisiveness and the major confrontation, the Islamic Resistance is declared.”

Walai was referencing the deadline for the US withdrawal of troops at the end of this year, and announced his group’s readiness to join ranks in preparation for “the decisive and historic confrontation with the US occupation on 31 December 2021 after 12 pm.”

Although a pro-Iran faction, the Sayyid al-Shuhada Brigades statement clearly was off-message from the official Iranian position.

Cards are now being re-shuffled to redraw the map of alliances in Iraq and to change the country’s political discourse enough to reach a comprehensive political settlement in the disruptive aftermath of Iraq’s elections.

The Americans know very well that an inter-Shia conflict will plunge the country into a tragically long and dark tunnel from which it may never recover. It may also be the US’s best chance to keep pro-Iran elements in disarray and outside the halls of power. This is something the Iranians also know very well, and will make every effort to avert.

Iran’s attempt to halt the strife was reflected by Qaani’s quick visit to Iraq after the attempt on Kadhimi life, in order to calm the factions within its realm of influence – in particular, Kataeb Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, both accused of involvement in the assassination strike.

While Iran refuses to put itself in a position of enmity with Kadhimi, some of the factions loyal to Tehran continue to insist that the prime minister is an American agent.

Iran categorically rejects this view, as evidenced by Qaani’s declaration during his visit to Iraq that ‘whatever harms Kadhimi harms Iran.’ This Iranian position was also made clear by the Quds Force commander in a reportedly tough private meeting with Secretary-General of Asaib Ahl al-Haq Qais Khazali.

Private sources reveal to The Cradle that Sadr’s call to dissolve armed factions coincided with an effort by several parties to bring about a post-election political settlement and amend the poll results based on submitted appeals, thereby satisfying the Iraqi factions that lost seats in the elections. This would take place in parallel with an effort to form a government in which all election contenders would have representation.

Instead, Muqtada al-Sadr’s reaction was to announce his ability to form a government without integrating the political factions that lost. He also called for the expulsion of the undisciplined elements of the resistance factions. Sources reveal that Sadr’s position provoked both Qais al-Khazali and the Secretary-General of Kataeb Hezbollah, Abu Hussein al-Hamidawi, again fuelling tension.

Meanwhile, the two Shia camps aren’t sitting still. Sources tell The Cradle that Sadr is busy meeting with other coalition candidates, including the pro-US leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), while Maliki and Co. are working to win over many of the 40 independent candidates that emerged in these elections.

Sadr also noted the mediation absence of the former commander of the Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, and the highly-regarded deputy leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandes, as having had a significant impact in Iraq’s inter-Shia relations, saying that Soleimani had left a void that was difficult to fill by anyone else.

Undoubtedly, Soleimani’s ability to control events on the ground, his solid relationships with  all factions, and his long experience on the battlefield gave him immense influence in Iraq’s domestic political scene.

An unexpected benefit has emerged, however, by the US withdrawal from Iraq. Sources reveal that Iran believes that the solution in Iraq today lies in strengthening Iraq’s central authority and its army, come what may. This is likely why Tehran has voiced its support for Kadhimi.

Unless another consensus figure emerges from left field who can firmly take the reins in Baghdad, Kadhimi may be the only alternative to avoid a political vacuum – one that could quickly result in further bloodshed and violence.

Nothing is settled yet in Iraq’s Shia house, but all indicators suggest that this is a priority for the country’s political class.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of The Cradle.