- Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has caved to the threats of pro-Iranian militia and on June 29, 2020, allowed the release of 14 terrorist operatives who launched rocket attacks on U.S. targets in the country.
- Iran has scored another achievement, and it appears Iran will continue to pressure Iraq’s political system and its decisions through its pro-Iranian militias.
On June 25, 2020, Iraqi forces raided the Baghdad headquarters of the Hizbullah Brigades, a militia loyal to Iran, and arrested 14 operatives on suspicion of planning and carrying out rocket attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq, including on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and Iraqi army bases where U.S. troops are based.
The raid also captured a workshop manufacturing “katyusha” rockets and several ready-to-fire rockets.
The raid was ordered by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who promised Americans a month ago in the first round of Iraqi-U.S. strategic talks to stop the attacks on U.S. military in Iraq. The raid was welcomed by many in Iraq who saw it as a first sign of the new prime minister’s determination to disarm the pro-Iranian militias in the country.
However, shortly after the raid, pro-Iranian militia members of the Al-Hashd Al-Sha’bi (Popular Mobilization Forces) umbrella organization began issuing threats at Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
Qais al-Khazali, Chief of the Aas’ib Ahl al-Haq militia, warned Prime Minister Kadhimi that he should not get into a confrontation with Al-Hashad Al-Sha’bi militias.
“I am giving you some good advice. These militias represent the people. Nobody can prevent the fighters from fighting American forces to get them out of Iraq if they do not withdraw peacefully,” said Khazali.
According to Iraqi sources, Qais al-Khazali threatened Iraqi Prime Minister Kadhimi that he would work to overthrow him and reminded him that Kadhimi’s government is only a transitional government that will hold office until the early elections.
Prime Minister Kadhimi appeared to be alarmed by the threats, and the 14 activists arrested in the raid were released soon after their arrest. As soon as they were freed, they went to the center of Baghdad to celebrate, where they trampled images of Prime Minister Kadhimi and set fire to Israeli and U.S. flags.
“We will not hand over our weapons, only to Imam ‘Al-Mahdi,’ [a messiah-like figure],” the released activists shouted. In interviews with Iraqi media, they claimed that among the counterterrorism forces who arrested them were Americans in civilian dress.
Did Kadhimi Capitulate or Was There a Deal?
Sources close to Prime Minister Kadhimi claimed that the Hizbullah Brigade militants were released as part of a deal, in which they would halt attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq in exchange for release. However, senior officials at the Al-Hashad Al-Sha’bi umbrella organization have firmly denied this.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi took office just a few months ago, and this incident is considered by Iraqis to be a painful humiliation, harming his dignity and status as prime minister.
The Iraqi government is maintaining silence and has not provided a public explanation of what happened.
The obvious conclusion is that the release of the Hizbullah Brigades activists and the surrender of Iraqi Prime Minister Kadhimi to Al-Hashad Al-Sha’bi militia pressure indicate that the pro-Iranian militia can effectively veto any political decision that they do not approve. Kadhimi’s surrender is seen as a big political mistake that would be very difficult to correct.
All the Iraqi assumptions that the pro-Iran armed militias will agree to disarm after the new government is set up have faded. The Kadhimi government faces a major challenge: forcibly dismantling the armed militias or accepting the existing situation.
Akram al-Kaabi, the head of the pro-Iranian al-Nujaba militia, joined the circle of those refusing to disarm the militants, and instead called for “ignoring the demand to disarm and for strengthening the capabilities for the big campaign.”
Al-Hashad Al-Sha’bi militias formally belong to the Iraqi army, but they openly ignore Prime Minister Kadhimi’s demands. According to Iraqi law, Kadhimi is considered the supreme commander of the armed forces.
The bottom line is that the latest incident means that Iran registered another victory in Iraq. It will continue to influence the political system and decisions in the country, such as the Iraqi parliament’s decision to expel U.S. forces from Iraq. There is no doubt the Americans are outraged at Mustafa al-Kadhimi, which raises a question mark over Kadhimi’s expected visit to the United States.