The Buzz

Iran’s Power Play in Iraq: Will Shia Militias Save Maliki?

The territorial advances from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) over the past week, including the swift capture of Mosul, Tikrit, and Tel Afar, has caught every nation with a stake in Iraq’s stability by surprise.  Virtually no one anticipated that the Iraqi security forces deployed in the northern, largely Sunni-dominated areas of the country would collapse as quickly as they did, without virtually a fight.  The fact that tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police officers deserted their posts, shed their uniforms, and left their heavy weapons behind is not only a demonstration of the ISF’s failure as a cohesive, reliable fighting force, but a notable political embarrassment for the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

While it is difficult to estimate how many fighters ISIL possesses in its ranks, the militant group appears determined to sweep southwards towards the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, most likely with the goal of reigniting the type of sectarian fighting that the city experienced in 2006-2007 (the group does not have the numbers to take, let alone hold, Baghdad completely).  Prime Minister Maliki, despite public statements attempting to reassure the Iraqi public that government forces retain the capacity to defend Baghdad and recapture the swaths of Anbar, Salahaddin, Nineveh, and Diyala provinces that have been lost, he no doubt understands the severity of the situation.  Baghdad is simply too important a prize for Iraqi stability and Maliki’s own political future to assume that the city’s security will easily maintained.

A critical element of Maliki’s defense strategy in the capital has been, and will remain, the enlisting of fighters—preferably members of the Shia Muslim community thought to have more of a reason to preserve Iraq’s current government—outside of the official Iraqi military chain of command.  In addition to seeking a national state of emergency from the Iraqi parliament immediately after the seizure of Mosul from ISIS, Maliki called upon Iraqis across the country to form their own armed self-defense groups in order to guard their neighborhoods, families, and homes.  The establishment of self-defense groups would also allow government forces the time that they need to execute a well-planned and effective counteroffensive in the north.  Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential ayatollah in all of Shia Islam (certainly in Iraq) and a man who has historically called for calm and dialogue, has provided Maliki with critical religious justification for this measure—calling on all Iraqis, regardless of sect, to defend themselves and the country from Sunni jihadists.  Thousands of young Shia Iraqis have heeded the call by signing up for service in Baghdad, Karbala, and Najaf.

As the region’s paramount Shia Muslim power, the Islamic Republic of Iran will continue to play an instrumental role in any Iraqi Government counterattack.  The continuation of a friendly and pliant Shia-dominated ally next door is simply too important an objective for Iran to sit back and allow the writ of the Iraqi Government to further dwindle.  Tehran also possesses a sense of moral duty to prevent Shia civilians from being massacred at the hands of the same Sunni jihadists who a national security threat to Iran’s own borders. 

Although some reports suggest that 1,500 to 2,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards-Quds force operatives have entered Iraq to assist Maliki with security, Iran’s real contribution will be in the shadows: that is, fully remobilizing the Shia militias that were once a critical instigator of sectarian violence between and among Iraqis.  Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah, the Abu Fadl al-Abbas brigades (currently fighting in Syria for the regime of Bashar al-Assad), and potentially Lebanese Hezbollah will all be encouraged, funded, and perhaps armed by Tehran to contribute to the defense of both Iraq’s Shia holy sites and Baghdad’s counteroffensive more broadly.  There are indications that IRGC-QF intelligence operatives are organizing Shia Muslims for precisely this effect.

Assuming that Prime Minister Maliki is eventually able to muster the strength to roll back ISIL gains in the north and the west, the Iraqi Government will find itself even more dependent on Iran than it already is.  A far greater challenge for Baghdad in the short term, however, will be convincing the very same militias they have asked for assistance to demobilize and return to their previous lives once the current violence subsides. 

If Prime Minister Maliki has any chance at forming another coalition government and extending his time in the prime minister’s office, he needs to demonstrate to the Iraqi people—and in particular, the Shia constituency that he kept him in power for the past eight years—that he successfully saved Iraq from a predatory Sunni jihadist movement.  Unfortunately, making these assurances will do nothing to bring the Sunni Muslim community into Iraqi political system as equal partners—the one thing that virtually every serious analyst of the country argues is the ultimate cure to the disease that is rampaging Iraq today.  

Image: Office of the President, Iran