Who Really Controls Iraq? Inside Iran's Powerful Proxy Armies

When social media began to light up with pictures of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani rallying Shiite militiamen and Hezbollah soldiers ahead of Russia and Iran’s joint effort to retake the city of Aleppo, some wondered where all of these fighters came from. After all, even though the IRGC has now all but admitted it sent soldiers to Syria for the offensive, it wasn’t as if the entire Iranian army marched in overnight and if you believe the reports from the frontlines, the ground force marching on Syria’s largest city looks quite a bit different from the depleted SAA which was all but decimated just two months ago. 

Those who have frequented these pages lately know exactly where those troops came from. Some are Hezbollah fighters and the rest were ordered to the Syrian frontlines from Iraq by Soleimani himself. We predicted this would happen months ago and now that the social media selfies are beginning to show up, everyone now seems to be gradually discovering the plan we outlined in “Mid-East Coup: As Russia Pounds Militant Targets, Iran Readies Ground Invasions While Saudis Panic.” Here’s WaPo for instance:

Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds forces and the public face of Iran’s military intervention in the region, has ordered thousands of Shiite militiamen into Syria for an operation to recapture Aleppo, according to officials from three Iraqi militias.The militiamen are to join Iranian troops and forces from Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militia, the officials said. The Iraqi Shiite militia Kitaeb Hezbollah has sent around 1,000 fighters from Iraq, one said.


The Lebanese group Hezbollah and the Quds Force, which is part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, have also sent reinforcements, he said. Last week, a U.S. defense official said hundreds of Iranian troops were near the city in preparation for an offensive.


“It’s not a secret. We are all fighting against the same enemy,” said Saidi.


His militia released a photo of Soleimani, the Quds Force commander, with its fighters near Aleppo on one of its social media accounts last week.


“The operation is an extension for our operations in Iraq because it’s the same enemy, and when we hit them there it means that it will get results in Iraqi lands,” the Kitaeb official said. Soleimani “specifically requested they go there for the launch of the operation for Aleppo,” he said.

But this is more than some general calling in favors from fanatical Khamenei followers operating across the border.

The Shiite militias called to the fight in Syria control Iraq.


Take for instance the recent battle to recapture the Baiji refinery from ISIS. Although badly damaged, the site has both strategic and symbolic significance and even as the victory was claimed by the Iraqi army, there were more Shiite militiamen fighting than Iraqi regulars. Here’s The New York Times:

A spokesman for Shiite militias said that several thousand Shiite militiamen were fighting in and near Baiji, which is more than the estimated number of Iraqi soldiers also fighting there. 

Tehran’s control of the militias mirrors Iran’s influence on Iraqi politics. Although PM Haider al-Abadi certainly wouldn’t put it in these terms, Iraq is now for all intents and purposes a large Iranian colony, an ironic twist of fate given Saddam’s invasion of Iran 35 years ago. 

We bring all of this up because Tehran’s influence in Iraq will be one of the key issues going forward once Russia and Iran retake Western Syria for Assad. Once the regime’s key strongholds are secured, it seems very likely that Russia will begin bombarding ISIS positions in the East while Iran’s Shiite militias will simply drive Islamic State out of Syria and right over the border into Iraq where fighters from the very same militias will be waiting with weapons at the ready. ISIS will, in effect, be encircled. 

It’s with all of that in mind that we bring you the following excerpts from a new Reuters feature report entitled “Power failure in Iraq as militias outgun state.” 

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shi’ite, came to office just over a year ago backed by both the United States and Iran. He promised to rebuild the fragmented country he inherited from his predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki, who was widely accused of fueling sectarian divisions. Since then, though, even more power has shifted from the government to the militia leaders.


Those leaders are friendly with Abadi. But the most influential describe themselves as loyal not only to Iraq but also to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Three big militias – Amiri’s Badr Organisation, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah – use the Iranian Shi’ite cleric’s image on either their posters or websites. Badr officials describe their relationship with Iran as good for Iraq’s national interests.


Initially, Abadi had little choice but to lean on the Shi’ite paramilitary forces. They grew in power after Sunni extremist group Islamic State captured large parts of northern Iraq in June last year and Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for volunteers to fight Islamic State, which soon declared a caliphate straddling the border with neighbouring Syria.


As the Shi’ite militias’ popularity surged, Abadi publicly lamented the lack of Western support. He made plain his desperate desire for help earlier this month after Iran and Russia opened offensives against the group in Syria. The prime minister said he would welcome Russian air strikes in Iraq as well. Abadi is looking not just to hurt Islamic State but to bolster his own position in Iraq.


The Shi’ite militias, which dominate most frontlines, say they support the government and pose no threat to Iraq’s minority Sunni sect. The Popular Mobilisation Committee, or Hashid Shaabi, as the militias are collectively known, belongs “to the Iraqi government,” said Naim al-Aboudi, a spokesman for the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia. “The Hashid doesn’t represent a sect. It represents all Iraqis.”


But the militias make no secret of their independence from Baghdad. Militia leader Amiri warned in a televised interview last month that if the Shi’ite groups did not approve of U.S. military operations in Iraq, “We can go to Abadi and the government and … pressure them: ‘Either you will do this, or we will do that.’” Amiri did not specify what action his group would take.


Abadi took office facing many challenges. He inherited a military that had all but collapsed. Three months before he became prime minister, Islamic State overran the army in Mosul, the largest city in the north. At its height, the militant group, which has used rape as a weapon of terror and executed Iraqi Shi’ites and Christians, controlled nearly a third of Iraq.


Early on, Abadi struggled to work out what was left of the army and federal police. “There wasn’t really a good picture of how many soldiers, how many police he really had, and who the hell is really on the rolls,” said Lieutenant

General Mick Bednarek, the senior U.S. military officer in Iraq from 2013 until July. Bednarek said Abadi and his defence minister worked hard on the issue and by November last year recognised the military was “ill prepared and lacking in leadership."


Abadi also turned to the militias for support. “He doesn’t like it,” said Bednarek, who retired in late August. “But he has to, because Iraqi security forces can’t do it alone.”


The Hashid Shaabi now commands more than 100,000 fighters. On paper, it receives over $1 billion from Iraq’s state budget. Two Iraqi officials said the militias get additional funding from other sources, including Iran, religious clerics and political figures, but declined to give details. U.S. military officials believe large amounts of funding come from Iran.


The Shi’ite militias have also made inroads within the government security apparatus.


The Fifth Iraqi Army Division now reports to the militias’ chain of command, not to the military’s, according to several U.S. and coalition military officials. The division rarely communicates with the Defence Ministry’s joint operation command, from which Abadi and senior Iraqi officers monitor the war, the officials said.


Iraqi security officers, Iraqi politicians and U.S. and Western military officers say the Interior Ministry has become another militia domain. The ministry came under the influence of Shi’ite militias previously, in 2005, and was accused of running death squads.


Today it is run by Mohammed Ghabban, a senior member of the Badr militia. Badr fighters fought alongside Iranian soldiers in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. 

One of the most important things to understand about this is that the US largely supports (in public at least) the Shiite militias fighting ISIS in Iraq. After all, to not support them publicly would be to support ISIS publicly and as we've seen, the US is hell bent on keeping up the charade that Washington hasn't and isn't providing aid to extremists. 

Indeed, these are the same Shiite militias who dropped off an Abrams tank in the Green Zone for service last week. 

And so you can begin to see just how absurd the situation is. The US is now supplying anti-tank weapons and other munitions to the rebels fighting in Aleppo and those weapons are being used to kill these very same Shiite militiamen who are driving US tanks, fighting alongside the Iraqi army, and indirectly receiving US assistance just across the border in Iraq.

So thanks to Washington's twisted foreign policy, they are friends on one side of the Syria-Iraq border and mortal enemies on the other.

Of course they're fighting ISIS in both countries. So what accounts for the Pentagon's schizophrenia you ask? Simple: Bashar al-Assad doesn't run Iraq. 

We leave it to readers to speculate on what will happen once Assad is restored and ISIS vanquished. That is, Iran's Shiite militias pretty much are the Iraqi military and they also effectively control the government, so once there's no longer an excuse (i.e. ISIS) for the US to stick around, we wonder whether Washington will be content to simply cede the country it "liberated" to the Ayatollah. 

Here are some recent images of the Shiite militias the Quds Force controls in Iraq: