Tehran fails to curb violence of Shia militias in Iraq

Militia leaders populate Baghdad parliament and fighters control villages, towns and cities

Shia militia fighters in Tal Afar, Iraq: Prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has been powerless to end the killings of some 40 activists.  File photograph: Ivor Prickett/New York Times

Shia militia fighters in Tal Afar, Iraq: Prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has been powerless to end the killings of some 40 activists. File photograph: Ivor Prickett/New York Times

 

The weekend killing of the son of a prominent Iraqi human rights activist has reignited popular resentment against Iran-sponsored Shia militias which dominate the Iraqi political scene.

Ali Karim (26) was the elder son of Fatima al-Bahadly, who campaigns for the protection and education of women and against militia recruitment of youths. She has been repeatedly threatened by pro-Iran Shia militias. Her younger son, Ahmad, was killed last year.

Based at the southern port of Basra, Bahadly won a Front Line Defenders Award in 2020.

Prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has so far been powerless to end the killings of some 40 activists or the brutal crackdown by Tehran’s militia allies on anti-government protesters. In June, Qassim Musleh, the first militia leader arrested for alleged involvement in assaults and killings, was promptly freed due to pressure from Tehran.

Shia militia leaders populate parliament and fighters control the streets of Iraqi villages, towns and cities with the aim of retaining power beyond elections scheduled for October.

Tension with US

Pro-Iran militias have not only created widespread Iraqi resentment against Iran, especially among Shias, but also boosted tension with the US during ongoing negotiations for the rescue of the 2015 agreement for limiting Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions.

Tehran last month dispatched to Baghdad Quds Force commander Esmail Qaani, who asked senior militia chiefs to halt strikes on US troops following two retaliatory air raids by the Biden administration on militia posts in Iraq and Syria.

The militia commanders agreed but, in defiance, not only resumed firing rockets at Iraqi military bases hosting US troops, but also at the US embassy compound in Baghdad and Erbil international airport in the Kurdish autonomous region. Qaani does not possess the compelling personality or political clout of his predecessor Qassem Suleimani, who was assassinated by the US in January 2020.

Sectarian regime

The failure of the government to rein in the militias domestically and of Tehran to curb their anti-US activities reveals that they are largely independent and interested primarily in maintaining their position.

Since 2019, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have protested against mismanagement, corruption, and Iranian and US interference in their affairs and called for the replacement of the sectarian regime imposed by the US with a secular democratic system of governance. Their demands have been ignored.

Appointed premier in May 2020, Kadhimi, a former intelligence chief and journalist, has been unable to deliver on promises to rescue the country from bankruptcy, provide employment, curb the militias and prevent Iraq from being used as a US-Iranian battleground.

On Monday, he was to become the second Arab leader to meet US president Joe Biden following negotiations over the withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 US combat troops from Iraq.

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