Kadhimi loses first round of showdown with Iran-backed militias

Some analysts believe that Kadhimi may have begun the confrontation too quickly.

Thursday 02/07/2020
A file picture shows Iraqi protesters walking past a Katai’b Hezbollah billboard during an anti-government demonstration. (AFP)
A file picture shows Iraqi protesters walking past a Katai’b Hezbollah billboard during an anti-government demonstration. (AFP)

BAGHDAD – Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is engaged in a fierce confrontation with Iran-backed militias that his government thought could easily be defeated, but recent developments show that there will be a tough road ahead after Kadhimi lost the first round of the battle.

The popular mood in Iraq has been tumultuous since the end of last week, when security forces arrested members of a Shia group south of the capital, Baghdad, for planning to bomb Baghdad International Airport and the Green Zone, where government offices, ministries and some important embassies, such as the American and British embassies, are located.

The Iraqi military leadership announced that it had referred the detainees, with conclusive evidence obtained during the operation, to the judiciary to complete the investigation.

However, Iraq’s judiciary strangely ordered the release of 13 of 14 suspects arrested during the operation. The government later announced that those arrested were not a target as they were simply found by coincidence at the scene of the incident, leaving only one person under investigation.

The security operation in Baghdad and its aftermath revealed much, including the spread of smuggled weapons and the extent of the political momentum that the Iran-backed militias enjoy in Iraq.

Following the suspects’ arrest, the Iran-backed Iraqi militias responded in three different ways: First, with a direct display of power — using armed convoys to roam the streets of Baghdad and besiege some sensitive areas. Second, detaining family members of a number of military officers to use them as bargaining chips; and third, exerting pressure on Kadhimi to release the detainees.

A senior Sunni official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Arab Weekly that “many parts of the Green Zone fell under the control of the militias, hours after the arrest of the Shia group accused of planning to launch rocket attacks at vital targets in Baghdad,” noting that “the militias may have been ready for confrontation that night and not afraid of escalation.”

These developments ended with a scene raising many questions about the Iraqi government’s ability to contain the threat of Iran-backed militias. Soon after their release, the suspects tread on Kadhimi’s posters with their feet, south of Baghdad, clearly feeling a sense of impunity.

Observers are still divided over how to assess the implications of the latest security operation against Iran-backed militias and whether it really ended in a victory for Tehran’s proxies.

Some analysts believe that Kadhimi may have begun the confrontation too quickly. Others say he made a mistake in starting with targeting Katai’b Hezbollah, the most dangerous Iran-backed militia in the country that is well armed, trained and has significant intelligence capabilities.

Katai’b Hezbollah also enjoys absolute political support from Tehran, which helped it secure the release of the 13 detainees.

According to Iraqi intelligence sources, Katai’b Hezbollah spent nearly two years collecting information on Iraqi officers and military capabilities. As a result, the militia has a detailed database on the army, police and counterterrorism and national security apparatus, including information on weapons, logistics and human capabilities, as well as personal information about officers and their families.

A file picture of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the prime minister’s office in Baghdad. (Reuters)
A file picture of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the prime minister’s office in Baghdad. (Reuters)

Other experts believe that Kadhimi’s decision to start challenging Katai’b Hezbollah was made to send a message to other Iran-backed groups that are weaker and less influential.

With this message, Kadhimi is communicating that the government will not be intimidated and is ready to strike whenever the opportunity presents itself.

By using this strategy, Kadhimi may have pushed Katai’b Hezbollah, which prefers to operate in complete secrecy, to engage in a public debate. This could in turn compel the militia to expose its political and armament assets, perhaps a major gain for the government.

If building the capabilities of the security establishment, enhancing its intelligence capabilities and filling the gaps in its performance require strict confidentiality, then filling the political gap in Kadhimi’s project needs the opposite.

In this context came an announcement by the Iraqiyun coalition, led by the leader of the al-Hikma Movement, Ammar al-Hakim, that it would lend political support to the government.

On Tuesday, Hakim announced “the formation of a political, parliamentarian, and public-based coalition that aims to support the Iraqi government and the sovereignty of Iraq.”

The new coalition is seen as a first step towards providing a political umbrella for the government and hindering any attempts by the Iran-backed parliamentary bloc or that of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to question the prime minister.

The new bloc includes 42 deputies representing different Shia forces, but the number is expected to ultimately exceed 55 if the Al-Nasr coalition led by former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi joins.

Informed sources say that the formation of the new bloc has the support of Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani and Sunni Parliament Speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi, which could give the Kadhimi government a comfortable position if they are all able to effectively coordinate.

Iraqi writer Farouk Youssef believes that Kadhimi sent a message by ordering the latest security operation that militia leaders are now busy trying to decode.

“The state showed an ability to control the militia movements and prevent attempts to carry out sabotage attacks,” Youssef said in a statement to The Arab Weekly.

“Through the arrest of suspects from Katai’b Hezbollah, Kadhimi managed to sound the alarm bell, warning the militias that prudence and caution should be taken when dealing with the state,” he added.

Youssef also pointed out that there are other measures that the government can take in the future, including financial sanctions that could hinder the militias’ work and limit their sabotage operations.