BAGHDAD: It was a blunt message: a convoy of masked Shiite militiamen armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades openly crossed central Baghdad, denouncing the US presence in Iraq and threatening to cut off the prime minister’s ear .
The disturbing display underscored the growing threat posed by rogue militias loyal to Tehran to Iraq. It came at a time when Baghdad seeks to strengthen relations with its Arab neighbors and prepares for early elections, slated for October, amid a worsening economic crisis and a global pandemic.
Last week’s motorcade also sought to undermine the credibility of Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, with Iranian-aligned militias driving down a main highway and passing near ministries as Iraqi security forces watch. Ahead of a new round of talks between the US government and Iraq, he sent a stern warning that the militias will not be suppressed.
A fourth round of allegedly strategic negotiations between Iraq and the United States is slated for next week after the Iraqi government called for it, in part in response to pressure from Shiite political factions and militias loyal to Iran who lobbied for the remaining US troops to leave Iraq.
The talks, which began in June under the Trump administration, would be the first under President Joe Biden. On the agenda were a range of issues, including the presence of US combat forces in the country and the issue of Iraqi militias operating outside state authority. The talks are aimed at shaping the future of US-Iraqi relations, a senior US official said recently.
It’s a tightrope for Al-Kadhimi, who has said that bringing armed groups under state control was a goal of his administration, but finds himself increasingly powerless to bring the groups under control. US officials have said Washington will use the meetings to clarify that US forces remain in Iraq for the sole purpose of ensuring that the Daesh group “cannot reconstitute” itself – a signal the United States is seeking to keep the remaining 2,500 US troops in Iraq.
Political analyst Ihsan Alshamary said the militia-style parade sought to weaken Al-Kadhimi’s government and the strength of the project.
“It also aims to send a message to Washington: we are the decision makers, not the government,” he added.
The militiamen in the parade were mostly from a shadowy Shiite group known as Rabaallah – one of a dozen people who surfaced after the Washington-led drone strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in Baghdad in January 2020..
Soleimani and Al-Muhandis both played key roles in commanding and controlling a wide range of Iranian-backed groups operating in Iraq, and their deaths in the US airstrike outraged Iraqi lawmakers, urging approval of a non-binding resolution to oust the US-led coalition. forces of the country.
Since then, the militias have also become increasingly unruly and disparate. Some Washington and Iraq-based observers say the militias have split into new, previously unknown groups, allowing them to claim attacks under different names to mask the extent of their involvement.
“These are tools used for negotiation purposes and to put pressure on Washington regarding (Iran’s) nuclear issue,” Alshamary said, referring to Biden’s efforts to resurrect the 2015 nuclear deal. between Tehran and the world powers from which former President Donald Trump has withdrawn. in 2018.
Rabaallah, for example, is believed to be a front for one of the most powerful Iran-backed factions in Iraq, which the United States has blamed for rocket attacks targeting the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the United States. military bases that house American troops.
Last October, the group attacked the offices of a political party in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq and set fire to the Kurdish party office and media headquarters in Baghdad. He was also blamed for assaults on liquor stores and an Asian spa in the Iraqi capital.
Rabaallah went so far as to try to dictate the Iraqi dinar to dollar exchange rate, demanded approval of a budget, and denounced what he called America’s “occupation” of Iraq. He displayed posters of Al-Kadhimi with a shoe imprinted on his forehead and a pair of scissors on the side of his face, with the words, “It’s time to cut off his ear.”
Iraq sits on the dividing line between the Shiite power, Iran and the predominantly Sunni Arab world, and has long been a scene of regional settling of scores. He was also drawn into the US-Iran proxy war. And although its relations with the United States were affected in the wake of the airstrike that killed Soleimani, relations have improved since Al-Kadhimi – endorsed by both Iran and the United States. – became Prime Minister.
Political analyst Tamer Badawi said the Shiite militias aim to send a double message to the Al-Khadimi administration. The first is a warning against any attempt to curb the influence of militias under the banner of the fight against corruption. The other is to put pressure on the government to push the United States to reduce the number of coalition forces in Iraq.
For his part, Al-Kadhimi has tried to curb the lucrative activities of border militias, including smuggling and corruption, and to show his American interlocutors that he is capable of controlling national adversaries.
Badawi said pressure from militias is likely to increase ahead of strategic talks with the United States on April 7.
In the days following Rabaallah’s parade, Iraqi security forces deployed in the streets and main squares of the capital Baghdad in what a senior Iraqi security official called a “reassuring message.”
But for Baghdad trader Aqeel Al-Rubai, who watched the February militia parade from the street, the militia spectacle was a terrifying sight reflecting a powerless government.
“I saw that this country is insecure and unfit to live in peace,” he said.
Iraq plans to increase non-oil budget revenue, the postponed Egyptian, Jordanian and Iraqi finance ministers said.