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Iraq reforms stymied by shadowy Iran-backed groups’ wave of attacks

PM’s bid to rein in rogue militias in effort to fight corruption and carry out restructuring has been met with increased instability and violence

An impact crater in the aftermath of US military air strikes at a militarized zone in the Jurf al-Sakhr area in Iraq's Babylon province (south of the capital) controlled by Hezbollah Biridages, a hardline faction of the Popular Mobilization Forces paramilitaries, March 13, 2020. (Photo by AFP)
An impact crater in the aftermath of US military air strikes at a militarized zone in the Jurf al-Sakhr area in Iraq's Babylon province (south of the capital) controlled by Hezbollah Biridages, a hardline faction of the Popular Mobilization Forces paramilitaries, March 13, 2020. (Photo by AFP)

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AFP) — War-scarred Iraq hopes to launch reforms and revive its battered economy, but the drive is being derailed by a wave of violence blamed largely on shadowy pro-Iranian groups.

Since Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi took office in May, he has promised to rein in rogue militias, fight corruption and roll out long-awaited restructuring after years of war and insurgency.

But the closer his government gets to its stated aims, the more armed actors with suspected links to Washington’s arch enemy Tehran are lashing out, top Iraqi officials and analysts told AFP.

“Every time these groups see us getting close to their military or economic interests, they either launch rockets or propaganda campaigns to distract us,” said one senior government official.

Violence, already rising before Kadhemi met US President Donald Trump in Washington in mid-August, has only flared further.

On September 3, an attack targeted the Baghdad headquarters of British-American security company G4S. One intelligence official told AFP a drone had dropped a small explosive charge on the building.

No faction claimed responsibility, but Tehran-backed groups had accused G4S of complicity in January’s US drone strike that killed Iran’s top general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad.

Days earlier, a UN worker was wounded when an improvised explosive device detonated underneath an aid convoy in the northern city of Mosul.

A faction identifying itself as part of the “Islamic resistance” — a catch-all phrase for pro-Iran factions — took responsibility, accusing the UN of using its convoys to transport American spies.

“Your vehicles will burn in the streets of Iraq,” it threatened online.

Members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) paramilitaries stand guard during a funerary procession for Wissam Alyawi, a leading commander of the Asaib Ahl Al-Haq faction that is part of the PMF, in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, October 26, 2019. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)

Smokescreen

A half-dozen previously unheard-of such factions have made similar threats in recent months under the “Islamic resistance” banner, but officials say they are a smokescreen.

“Five groups, including Hezbollah Brigades, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and others, are behind the recent instability across the country,” an Iraqi intelligence officer said.

These hardline groups are members of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Force, a state-sponsored network dominated by factions close to Iran and wary of the United States.

US officials have made similar accusations, naming Hezbollah Brigades and Asaib Ahl al-Haq as the real perpetrators of rocket attacks on American installations in Iraq.

“They declared a unified front after Soleimani’s killing and began working under pseudonyms, which allowed the government of PM Adel Abdel Mahdi to save face as they were nominally under his command,” the Iraqi official said.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi, mask-clad due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, looks on during a joint press conference with the French president in Baghdad on September 2, 2020. (Photo by GONZALO FUENTES / POOL / AFP)

The same groups had accused Kadhemi of plotting against Soleimani when the former was Iraq’s top intelligence official and were furious when he rose to become premier.

They have understood Kadhemi’s pledges to reign in armed groups as an attempt to clip their wings, officials and experts have told AFP.

Beyond escalating rocket attacks, the groups have also ramped up pressure through unconventional media outlets.

Anonymous channels on messaging application Telegram publish taunting warnings of attacks on military convoys well before they happen, deepening a sense of impunity.

The same forums have targeted Iraqi television channels critical of Iran.

Dijla TV was torched last week after the Telegram channels turned on them, and a new wave of threats have targeted Sunni-owned UTV.

The campaign began after the US government seized the website domains of Al-Etejah, an Iraqi television station linked to Hezbollah Brigades.

‘Putting out fires’

The government is not looking for a direct confrontation with these groups, said Kadhemi’s spokesman Ahmad Mulla.

“Instead, we are looking to dry up their funding resources by targeting border crossings,” used for lucrative smuggling from Iran, Mulla told AFP.

Officials knew this could be dangerous. When the prime minister launched a sweeping anti-corruption campaign on Iraq’s porous borders, they braced for the worst.

“They will blackmail officials, threaten their families, mobilize the tribes and maybe even commit assassinations,” one senior official told AFP in July.

File: Smoke billows from the entrance to the US embassy in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, December 31, 2019, after supporters and members of the Popular Mobilization Force military network tried to break into the building, during a rally to vent anger over weekend air strikes that killed pro-Iran fighters in western Iraq. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)

Indeed, two anti-government activists were gunned down weeks later in the southern port city of Basra, and tribal violence erupted north of Baghdad.

“We are constantly putting out fires, so we can’t properly focus on the bigger strategy,” another Iraqi official said, about Baghdad’s efforts to reform the state and revitalize an economy hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and low oil prices.

A third official told AFP that Iraq’s Finance Minister Ali Allawi missed his August 24 deadline to submit an economic reform plan to parliament because of the recent tumult.

Last week, Kadhemi set up an anti-corruption council, authorizing the elite troops of the Counter-Terrorism Service to arrest officials usually considered too senior to touch.

His forces also carried out search operations in Basra and Baghdad to seize unlicensed arms, but few have turned up.

Iraqi security expert Fadel Abou Raghif said the situation was “dangerous.”

“Ultimately, Kadhemi should open a real dialogue with the spiritual leaders of these groups to avoid a clash.”

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