U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has demanded that the Iraqi government disband Iran-sponsored militias in the country. BBC reported that the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, strongly disagrees, calling the militias the “hope of Iraq and the region.” These militias were necessary when the Islamic State took key areas of Iraq and decimated Iraqi forces. As the Islamic State continues to lose power in Iraq, allies of the government hope to rebuild several parts of the country that have been ravaged by combat. If these militias remain, there are two main concerns about Iraq’s future. First, stabilization efforts rely on Iraqi unity and leadership that may be undermined by the presence of militias sponsored by Iran. Second, the militias will allow Iran to spread its influence across the Middle East and disparage Sunnis in the region.
The Carnegie Middle East Center (CMEC) has kept good record of the militias in question. Their formation began in 2014 when Iraq’s state forces collapsed in the wake of the Islamic State’s growing influence in the region. Iranian leaders helped form the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Rather than joining the established Iraqi security forces, many volunteers joined the PMF. Estimates of their size range from 60,000 to 140,000, according to the CMEC. Several members have been trained in Iran or advised by Iranian officials. Since the decimation of Iraqi forces, the PMF has provided much needed support to the fledgling Iraqi forces. Now that Iraq is ready to rebuild and heal, several critics of the PMF and Iran believe their continued presence will undermine Iraqi leadership.
The Rand Corporation released a report this year outlining the goals of the Iraqi government in the aftermath of battling the Islamic State. Their report indicated that full recovery could take more than a decade. This is especially true in Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq and one of the more problematic areas in the country. Rand’s recommendations include, but are not limited to, restoration of public services, resolution of property disputes among displaced citizens, and doubling the throughput of police training. This requires a stable, transparent, and united Iraqi government. Many believe this is impossible while the PMF is still functioning. According to the CMEC, the PMF is comprised of too many factions that report to various leaders, including Iran’s current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Their presence may support Iran’s goals rather than uniting Iraq under stable leadership.
After clearing the IS out of Mosul and the Diyala Province, it seems that Iran is intent on securing its own interests in Iraq and other areas of the Middle East. The New York Times has suggested that Iran can use these cleared areas to create a new trade route. By continuing to send materials into Iraq through areas the Islamic State previously controlled, Iran can forge a path to Syria and Lebanon to support Shiite allies in the region. This support will disparage Sunnis in the Middle East. The marginalization of Sunnis is already well underway in Iraq. The New York Times reported that the Iranian sponsored militias helped clear the Diyala Province two years ago. The Sunni families that were displaced are still unable to return home.
Despite Iran’s growing influence in Iraq, Iraqi leadership does not want to disband these militias. The Iraqi cabinet said in a statement, “The fighters of the [militias] are Iraqis who are concerned for their country and have sacrificed for its defense and for its people.” Clearly, Iraqi leaders view the militia volunteers as patriots. While their sacrifice should be recognized, it is important to understand that Iran’s influence could continue to disparage Sunnis in the Middle East. Their continued presence could turn Iraq into a puppet state for Iran, allowing them to reach several countries in the region.