The conclusion of the counter-ISIS campaign, far from stabilizing Iraq, is creating the context for future conflict and disorder that will have regional consequences and create complications for the United States. A key unintended consequence of the U.S. move to effect regime change in Iraq is that the country fell into Iran’s geopolitical orbit. Tehran was able to place its political proxies – largely among elements of Iraq’s Shiite majority community – in the new political system built by the United States. However, the nascent state was going to be weak and thus insufficient for the Islamic Republic’s efforts to dominate its western neighbor. For this reason, Iran moved to cultivate Shiite militias as a key instrument through which it could transform a state that represented a threat into a one that is weak and subordinate to its wishes.
It was not until well after the 2011 U.S. military departure from the country, and really after ISIS was able to establish its caliphate in 2014, that the Iranian-aligned Iraqi Shiite militias became visible as a major force. Through the critical role it played in the dismantling of the ISIS caliphate in Iraq, the Shiite militia coalition known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) established itself as a major force. By 2017, and as a consequence of its heavy involvement in the liberation of areas that had been taken over by ISIS, the Shiite militia alliance emerged as a power center rivaling Baghdad and a threat to human security in the country. Not only did these militias in an unprecedented manner seize control over largely Sunni areas of the country, but they also posed a major challenge to the writ of the Iraqi state.
In this briefing, we offer granular details of the extent to which Shiite militias have embedded themselves into the political economy of areas that they took from ISIS. While attempts to bring these militias within the fold of the Iraqi state have been unsuccessful, this report shows how these nonstate actors have become a parallel state by creating their own political economy, which is riddled with corruption. Additionally, these Shiite militias have coerced their way into Iraq’s national security apparatus and have been recipients of official state funds since the prime minister at the time, Haydar al-Abadi, moved in 2018 to try to incorporate them into the state security system. The writ of the federal government in Baghdad is being weakened in the process. The January 2020 U.S. decision to assassinate a top leader of the PMF, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, along with the top Iranian commander, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani – the architect of the Iran’s Iraqi Shiite proxy network – did strike a major blow to these militias but also emboldened them, and as a result they remain deeply rooted in the country.