by: Sinan Adnan
Key Take-away: Iranian proxy groups in Iraq have begun to challenge PM Abadi and ISF control in Baghdad through more aggressive means. Kata’ib Hezbollah among other proxy groups recently denounced new initiative to pass the National Guard law, which resulted in the law’s obstruction. Kata’ib Hezbollah also likely kidnapped 18 Turkish workers in Baghdad on September 2 and clashed with the ISF in Baghdad on September 3. The proxy groups are likely to increase kinetic activities in Baghdad to pressure or coerce PM Abadi to limit further reforms. This push is eroding state authority at a time when the state is preoccupied with ISIS threat and is unlikely to be able to confront threats from the proxies.
Iranian proxy militias recently took steps to obstruct the proposed National Guard law, which was scheduled to appear before the Council of Representatives (CoR) on September 8. The Nation Guard law was originally crafted as an accommodation for Iraqi Sunnis to participate in PM Abadi’s government. It was designed to give Iraqi Sunnis semi autonomy in managing security in mostly Sunni provinces. However, discussion over the law expanded after the fall of Mosul to include the Popular Mobilization and other militias fighting with the Iraqi government against ISIS. The National Guard law thereby became a vehicle for the Iraqi government to limit the ability of Iraqi Shi’a militias to operate outside of the command and control of the Iraqi state, which raised major concerns for militia leaders among Iran’s proxies in Iraq. These proxies in particular include Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), Asa’ib Ahl-Haq (AAH), and the Badr Organization. The National Guard law appeared on the national agenda again on September 6, suggesting that PM Abadi’s reform agenda and the newfound consensus within Iraq’s Council of Representatives (CoR) generated new momentum to pass this controversial legislation, which would serve PM Abadi’s cause in limiting the power of political rivals, among them Iranian proxy militias.
On September 6, 2015, the speaker of the CoR, who is also a major leader in the Iraqi Sunni bloc, Etihad, Salim al-Juburi stated the draft National Guard Law was going to be passed in the CoR during the CoR session on September 8, indicating that major CoR blocs were reaching consensus on the law. However, on September 7, discussion of the law was abruptly taken off CoR agenda. According to member of the CoR Presidency Humam Hamudi, the decision was the result of an agreement between the speaker of the CoR and presumably Hamudi in order to ensure the law does not squander achievements of the Popular Mobilization. This shift in the CoR’s plan for the National Guard law was almost certainly the result of pressure exerted by Iranian proxy groups. Pressure by the militias became overt on September 6 when KH, a powerful proxy group expressed its disapproval of CoR efforts to pass the law through a critical statement on its website. KH’s statement portrayed the law as the making of a conspiracy of the U.S, ISIS, the Baath Party, and Arab countries against the “protectors of the people,” in reference to proxies.
KH was not the only proxy group to express such a stance. On September 8, other proxies such as AAH, the Badr Organization, Kata’ib al-Imam Ali, Jund al-Imam, and others announced their collective disapproval of the National Guard law in a strongly worded statement read by a KH leader in a press conference. The statement explained that the law would have a negative impact on the future of the Popular Mobilization and the Islamic Resistance, the latter a direct reference to the proxies and their Iranian agenda. Proxies view the law as a threat for two reasons. The law would give Iraqi Sunnis control over security assets in their areas, which would be problematic for proxies operating in such majority Sunni locations as Samarra, Tikrit, and Baiji. It would also place the proxies under the command and control of the Iraqi Government, which runs entirely counter to the objectives of the Iranian backed militias to exert influence over the Iraqi government through dominance within the security sector. The proxies can leverage the general distrust of Iraqi Sunnis by many Shi’a politicians of in order to obstruct the National Guard law. Many Iraqi Shi’a politicians blame Iraqi Sunni communities for the rise of ISIS, which has fed an inherent phobia that military empowerment of the Sunnis would bring back the disbanded Baathist regime. The general bias against empowering Iraqi Sunnis was likely a major factor in dropping the bill from the CoR session; whereas the statements of the proxies were more focused on the ramifications the law would have on their status as independent forces. Both reasons nevertheless suit the agenda of the Iranian proxy groups in Iraq, upon which they have begun to act more aggressively over the last week.
This rhetorical escalation by Iranian proxy groups over the National Guard law is the latest manifestation of increasing tension between the proxies and the Iraqi government as a result of PM Abadi’s numerous reforms. On September 3, gunmen from KH clashed with a force from the Baghdad Operations Command (BOC) when the BOC element ventured into an area of Palestine Street in eastern Baghdad where KH operates one of its headquarters. The BOC force was pursuing the kidnappers of 18 Turkish workers who were kidnapped on September 2 by unknown gunmen likely affiliated with one of the proxy groups in eastern Baghdad. It is possible that KH kidnapped the Turks on Iran’s behalf, given that Iran and Turkey are currently facing off in Syria as Turkey supports U.S. efforts to fight ISIS, which can also impede Iranian interests in Syria. Iranian proxy groups including KH were known to commit similar kidnappings in the 2006-2007 timeframe. The clash between the BOC and KH gunmen on September 3 killed one BOC member and injured three others. However, aside from a formal statement from the Popular Mobilization Commission (PMC), which minimized the incident by claiming it was the result of lack of coordination, public discussions of the clash ceased shortly thereafter.
A threshold has nevertheless been crossed as KH used force in the capital to pressure or coerce PM Abadi on behalf of Iran. Another manifestation of this trend was the kidnapping on September 8 of the deputy minister of justice and director of investigations in Bunug of Eastern Baghdad, an area where proxies enjoy much freedom of movement. Tensions between PM Abadi’s government and the Iranian proxy militias is therefore likely to escalate further in Baghdad and potentially result in more clashes between proxy fighters and the ISF. Despite PM Abadi’s desire to contain the proxies, the Iraqi government currently has limited means to escalate against the militias in Baghdad while other security threats mount across northern and southern Iraq. As a result, the Iraqi government will not likely take immediate and forceful measures to confront the proxies in Baghdad. However, tension is likely running high between proxies and the ISF in Baghdad. It is therefore important to watch for more violence between the two sides as the proxies aim to challenge the ISF’s control and shape political conditions to their benefit.