Once more, Baghdad is under siege. This time, rather than ISIS being at the gates, as they were in 2014, it is those who played the role of foot soldiers in the campaign to defeat the Islamic State that are threatening the very existence of the Iraqi state.
This week, less than five months before the nation is due to elect its new leaders, Shiite militias loyal to Iran besieged the Green Zone, Baghdad’s heavily fortified diplomatic quarter, demanding the federal authorities release one of their commanders who was arrested on terrorism charges. The fact that Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is under immense pressure to capitulate to these demands in the midst of a mass demonstration against militia impunity is a clear indication that Iraq is being held hostage by a transnational Shiite jihadist network commanded and controlled from Iran.
The near-total disintegration of Iraq as a functioning state has been on full display for a number of years, but has become markedly more observable since Iraqi demonstrators sparked a protest movement in 2019 that has reignited once more in recent days after years of corruption, catastrophic governance and subservience to foreign interests, particularly Iran and the United States, has gone unaddressed. Making matters worse this time is the fact that Shiite militias, including U.S.-designated terror group Kataeb Hezbollah, have been implicated in dozens of politically motivated attempted murders and assassinations despite government assurances of justice.
On May 10, Ahmed Hassan, a journalist who had criticized the militias, was shot in the head in the southern city of Diwaniyah. A day earlier, Ihab al-Wazni, a prominent organizer of the 2019 protest movement, was gunned down outside his home in Karbala, one of Shiite Islam’s holiest cities. Wazni’s family blamed Qasem Musleh, a senior commander in the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which has strong links to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). That led to Musleh’s arrest on the orders of the federal authorities, who were keen to show that they were acceding to the protesters’ demands for an end to militia impunity.
However, Musleh may soon be back out on the streets after PMF fighters armed to the teeth besieged the Green Zone, demanding he is set free or else there would be violent consequences. Kadhimi has once again shown that he cannot bring these militant groups under control, just as he could not bring the killers of his friend and renowned terrorism expert Hisham al-Hashimi to justice when he was assassinated last year. In a similar incident where militants were arrested last year, a judge loyal to the PMF ordered them released due to “lack of evidence” and Kadhimi was powerless to stop it.
But is any of this surprising? Hardly. Iran’s proxies in Iraq are at the heart of its transnational network, stretching from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus, and all the way to Beirut. Despite their Shiite Islamist credentials, their activities encompass sex trafficking, black market arms dealing and the illicit drug trade, seeping over Iraq’s porous borders with Iran with links to narcotics dealers in Afghanistan. Such is their reach that they were integral to the criminal activities of the Lebanese Hezbollah terror group who trafficked cocaine to the United States during the Obama administration.
Despite all this criminal activity and the fact that these Shiite militias continue to shell military bases housing U.S. and allied troops, the authorities in Baghdad have been utterly powerless to stop them. They are Iraq’s version of “the untouchables”, except rather than being on the side of law enforcement, they are instead agents of chaos, violence, and of Iran’s ambitions of becoming the preeminent regional hegemon.
Faced with this rampant gangsterism, it is no surprise that regular Iraqis who want a chance at a normal life are willing to risk their lives for freedom. The United States and its allies in the international community owe the Iraqi people a deep debt and the fulfillment of the promise they made prior to George W. Bush’s ill-fated invasion and occupation in 2003. Iraqis were promised democracy. Instead, and as one Iraqi who famously helped U.S. troops smash a statue of dictator Saddam Hussein as they entered Baghdad in 2003 put it, now Iraqis have to deal with a thousand Saddams.
As the architects of their misery, and as those who came bearing a promise, it would be a total dereliction of moral duty for the United States to now stand back and simply watch as Iraqis, fighting for democracy, are mercilessly slaughtered by Shiite fundamentalists backed by Iran, a country still deemed to be one of the largest state-sponsors of terrorism by the State Department.
Will the United States step up to fulfill its historic responsibility? It’s doubtful, but it’s nice to dream.
Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute.