Iranian Militias Are in Iraq to Stay

August 5, 2019 | John Hannah
About the author: John Hannah is senior counselor at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Last month, reports appeared in Arabic-language media that Israeli jets had attacked Shiite militia bases in Iraq. Whether or not these reports are accurate, Jerusalem has good reason to fear that Tehran will use its proxy forces to do in Iraq what it has done in Lebanon and is currently doing in Syria: that is, turn the country into a staging ground for attacks on the Jewish state. The Iraqi prime minister, meanwhile, issued a decree on July 1 that these Iran-backed militias must fully subordinate themselves to the country’s military or disband. But John Hannah doubts that much will change:

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi no doubt believes that the act of issuing the decree, and perhaps enforcing parts of it against less powerful [Iranian-sponsored militias], will buy him time and credit with the United States. . . . The Iraqi leader is also surely suggesting to Washington in private that defeating Iran’s powerful proxies will be a long-term process—one that requires patience, the avoidance of direct confrontation, and the slow but steady process of strengthening state institutions that will eventually smother and neutralize these militias through largely peaceful bureaucratic maneuvers.

Unfortunately, if history is any guide, it’s not at all clear that time has worked in favor of those seeking to oppose Iran’s entrenchment in weak Arab states using powerful Shiite militias. Lebanese Hizballah is of course the archetype. Despite ever-greater amounts of Western assistance to strengthen legitimate state institutions, in particular the Lebanese army, Hizballah’s primacy as Lebanon’s most dominant actor has only expanded—to the great peril of Israel, the Middle East, and U.S. interests. . . . It’s not at all clear what could prevent the full “Hizballah-ization” of Iraq at this point—but it’s unlikely to be the weak tea of Mahdi’s decree.

U.S. officials are facing an unpleasant reality. . . . The United States considers the Iraqi government to be an important security partner, providing its military with billions of dollars of support and advanced equipment. But that same partner has welcomed a group of Iran-backed militias—all sworn enemies of the United States, some designated terrorist groups, and most with American blood on their hands—into the Iraqi security forces as a largely independent, parallel army. The Iraqi government now generously funds those groups through the national budget.

This is not a sustainable U.S. policy toward Iraq—no matter how well-intentioned Mahdi or other Iraqi leaders may be.

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