After al-Qaeda targeted the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, then-US President George W. Bush declared his (in)famous doctrine of the global war on terror, which will continue to have a great effect on the Middle East and the world for the coming decades, if not centuries. The framework implemented an aggressive foreign policy against Iraq, Iran and North Korea, singled out as the “axis of evil” in the new world order.
360˚ Context: How 9/11 and the War on Terror Shaped the World
After 20 years of the doctrine in action, which saw the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq that further ignited regional instability, President Joe Biden has withdrawn US troops from Afghanistan and is determined to end the combat mission in Iraq by the end of the year. Without concluding whether two decades of aggression succeeded in defeating terrorism, it can be said that the war on terror opened a new area of influence for one of the axis of evil, namely Iran in Iraq.
Opening the Gates
Thanks to its Shia population, Iraq has been a significant target of Iranian foreign policy since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Due to both geographic and sectarian proximity, Iran, which sees Washington as an enemy and a source of instability in the region, was suspicious of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
Deeming Baathist Iraq as a major threat to its national security, the regime in Tehran has meddled in its neighbor’s internal politics and strategic tendencies ever since coming to power. With the US toppling of Saddam Hussein, however, Iran succeeded in courting Iraq’s Shia population by taking advantage of its shared border and cultural, religious and economic ties.
The fact that significant Shia figures opposed to the Iraqi regime took refuge in Iran in the early 1980s strengthened Tehran’s relations with these groups in the post-invasion period. During this time, the Shia population has become influential in the Iraqi state and society. For example, Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the Badr Organization militia, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the recently deceased vice president of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), count among some of the most prominent pro-Iranian figures in the current Iraqi political and military establishments.
The Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shia resistance group headed by Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim hoping to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime, was established in Iran in 1982. It became a pioneer organization for various Shia militias and political groups with connections to Tehran, incorporating the Badr Organization, then known as the Badr Brigades.
While Iran benefitted from the support of Iraqi militias during the inconclusive war with Iraq in the 1980s, Tehran redirected this mobilization against the US forces following the 2003 invasion. The Iraqi militia group Kataib Hezbollah was formed in early 2007, followed by Asaib Ahl al-Haq, as part of the campaign by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force against US forces.
Iran’s presence in Iraq came to light when the Americans captured several Iranian operatives in 2006 and 2007, among them Mohsen Chizari of the IRGC. Asaib Ahl al-Haq kidnapped and killed five US soldiers in January 2007, but two months later, coalition forces captured the militia’s leader, Qais al-Khazali, alongside an operative of Hezbollah, Tehran’s proxy in Lebanon, Ali Musa Daqduq. It is well known that the Jaish al-Mahdi militias led by Muqtada al-Sadr, who still has distant dealings with Iran, received intensive Iranian support to fight against the United States.
The disbanding the Iraqi army and establishing the interim government by the US after 2003 provided Iran with new opportunities to secure many significant positions in the bureaucracy. In this process, many members of the Badr Brigades were integrated into the new army and police forces, their political connections winning many rapid promotions. Today, Badr is still one of the most active groups within the police, the army and the Ministry of Interior.
Consolidation of Iranian Power
The Baghdad government was formed along ethnic and sectarian quotas. As per the country’s 2005 constitution, the presidency was allocated to the Kurds, the prime minister’s office to the Shia and the position of parliament’s speaker to the Sunnis. The allocation of the executive position to Shia leaders strengthened Iran’s elbow room in Iraqi politics.
The sectarian policies of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who held office between 2006 and 2014, disquieted the Sunni society further. In addition to the fact that the Shia occupied a central position in the administrative system, the American inability to understand Sunni expectations has marginalized Sunni society. Radicalization led to the resurgence of al-Qaeda and later the formation of the even more extreme Islamic State (IS) group in the Sunni regions of Iraq.
After capturing Mosul in June 2014, IS has taken control of almost a third of Iraqi territory. All Shia groups fighting against the new threat were united under the banner of the Popular Mobilization Units — an umbrella organization controlled mainly by pro-Iran armed groups — after Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for all those able to carry a weapon to take up arms.
The PMU militias were provided with American and Iranian-made weapons during their fight against IS. Pro-Iranian militias such as the Badr Organization, Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq dominated the PMU. Active support by the IRGC provided to Iraqi militias and the presence of Qassem Soleimani, a Quds Force commander, at the front lines pointed to Iran’s effectiveness in the field.
Integrating the PMU as a legal part of the Iraqi security mechanism in 2016 further legitimized Iranian influence in the political and military establishments. For instance, almost $1.7 billion was allocated to the PMU, which consists of some 100,000 militants, from the $90-billion Iraqi budget in 2021.
Defeating the Islamic State
After the declaration of victory against IS in 2017, tensions between Iran and the US, placed on the back burner during the campaign, reignited. While US officials argued that the PMU completed their mission and should be dissolved, pro-Iranian groups reassumed their anti-American tone.
Thanks to their active role in the fight against IS, Iran-backed militias secured their position in the military bureaucracy and were able to establish themselves politically. The Fatah Alliance, under the leadership of Hadi al-Amiri and backed by pro-Iranian militias, gained victory in the 2018 election, becoming the second-largest group in the Iraqi parliament. Iran has thus become one of the decision-makers in post-IS Iraq.
Tensions increased in 2018 after President Donald Trump decided to unilaterally withdraw the United States from the nuclear deal with Iran. Pro-Iranian forces began to attack US forces on the ground in Iraq. While Iran seemed to want to punish the US via the Iraqi militias, these attacks also aimed at forcing Americans to withdraw from Iraq. The situation has come to an apogee with the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis in the US drone strike in Baghdad on January 3, 2020.
The assassinations shifted the tensions to the political arena. On January 5, under the leadership of pro-Iranian groups, a resolution was passed in Iraq’s parliament to call on the government to expel foreign troops from the country. In addition to political pressures, as a result of ongoing attacks by pro-Iranian militias on American bases and soldiers in Iraq, the US abandoned many of its bases in the country. As a result of strategic dialogue negotiations with Baghdad, Washington decided to withdraw its combat forces and retain only consultant support. To a large degree, Iran managed to get what it wanted — to drive the US out and reassert its own influence in the region.
Pro-Iranian militias, already active in the Shia regions, started to show their presence in Sunni-dominated areas such as Mosul, Anbar and Saladin after the defeat of IS. Furthermore, Iran-backed groups pursue a long-term strategy to seize control of disputed areas between the central government and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Iran-backed groups, including the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Imam Ali, Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada and Saraya al-Khorasani, have been active in the disputed territories since 2014.
At the same time, these militias under the PMU umbrella reject control by Baghdad and threaten the central government. So much so that Abu Ali Askari, a spokesman for Kataib Hezbollah, was able to say that “the time is appropriate to cut his ears as the ears of a goat are cut,” referring to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, while militias were able to flex their muscle against the government in the streets of Baghdad amid tensions leading up to the anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination.
Aiming to limit US influence, Iran has been gradually reshaping Iraq‘s internal and security policy since 2003. While millions are still paying the price of the war on terror in Iraq, which resulted in the collapse of the political and economic systems followed by a campaign of terror by the Islamic State, Iran continues to consolidate its power, both in military and political spheres.
After an 18-year-long story of invasion and with the US poised to withdraw its combat forces, Iran’s hegemony over Iraq will inevitably come to fruition. The sectarian and ethnic emphasis within the framework of the government quota system not only prevents the formation of independent Iraqi identity but also keeps fragile social fault lines dynamic, an opportunity that Iran will, without doubt, continue to exploit.