Iraq now belongs to Tehran’s henchmen – with fatal consequences

This article was originally published in German by Die Welt on 7 July 2021. The original can be found here.

By Alfred Hackensberger Correspondent for WELT – photos by Sebastian Backhaus

Sadjad’s left arm is tightly wrapped in a blue bandage. The shiny metal rod that stabilizes the bone protrudes from the bandage. “A sniper shot me,” says the 27-year-old in front of a glass of water with fresh mint on the roof terrace of the Babylon shopping mall in Baghdad. The wind high up in the open air makes the afternoon heat of 48 degrees somewhat bearable. On the other hand, you have a breathtaking view of the skyline of the Iraqi capital of 8 million with villas, skyscrapers, and palm groves. Sadjad takes out his cell phone and shows me the pictures of the fateful day he was wounded.

Photos of the gaping hole the bullet tore in his upper arm. Images of him lying on a stretcher, contorted in pain. Videos of people running for their lives in a hail of bullets. Five of them are left dead on the ground. That was 6 weeks ago, when Sadjad and around 7,000 other people once again took to the streets in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square denouncing the “corrupt regime of the ruling elite in Iraq.”

For now, it was the last of the many protests that have regularly taken place in Liberation Square since October 2019. But now it’s all over, says the tall young man in his lime green T-shirt. “Everyone is afraid to take to the streets. Everyone knows that he who protests awaits death.”

Sadjad says he was hit in the arm by a police sniper. Photo: Sebastian Backhaus

The fatality numbers speak for themselves: 600 protesters have been shot dead in total since the protests began. But it is not just the fear of death at protests that keeps people from further action. It is also the looming and imminent danger of simply being shot down in an ambush anytime, anywhere.

Since 2019, the Iraqi Human Rights Commission counted 81 targeted assassination attempts on activists, journalists, and academics. 47 survived, some were seriously injured. 34 died while shopping or outside their homes. Among the victims was Hisham al-Hashimi. The security expert and advisor to Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was gunned down by multiple bullets as he parked his car in front of his house.

Al-Hashimi had made powerful enemies, the militias of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) loyal to Iran. The PMF were founded in 2014 to fight the Islamic State (IS) terror organization. Al-Hashimi had identified over 40 groups within the PMF who received their supreme command from Iran, though officially part of the Iraqi military. The popular protests were also directed against these militias and Iran’s growing influence. Reason enough to also put activists like Al-Hashimi on death lists.

Like the “golden era” of the mafia

The targeted killings have not been solved to this day, and there are no signs that the culprits will ever be put behind bars. “Total impunity” is how a Human Rights Watch report described the killings. “There is no justice, and nothing will change,” says the wounded Sadjad gloomily.

New elections in Iraq are scheduled for October this year. Electoral law has been changed, and there are now more constituencies than before to give independent candidates a chance. But they give the young man no hope. “As long as Iran is in charge, everything will only get worse,” Sadjad believes. He carefully grasps his bandaged arm.

The militias under orders from Tehran are a state within a state in Iraq. The Islamic State was already defeated in 2017. With the defeat of IS, the PMF would have achieved its purpose of existence. But they do not want to step down. And certainly not the Iranian militias, who have only one thing in mind, i.e. to expand their power. Their organizations have already infiltrated the military and other state bodies. Their representatives have seats in parliament and in the government. They are as untouchable as the mafia was in its “golden era” 100 years ago.

At the same time, the militias have set up an elaborate financing system for themselves. “Through their posts in the ministries, friendly contractors receive beneficial contracts,” explains Haidar al-Rubay, a well-known political advisor in Iraq. “They build roads, hospitals, and schools.” In addition, he says, they control checkpoints and numerous border crossings to Syria and Iran. In this way, they profit from the legal movement of goods, and also from smuggling.

Other sources of income are the militias’ involvement in currency exchange offices, the informal money transfer system Hawala, money laundering, and protection money for restaurants and shops. “This earns them millions and millions, which they reinvest in banks, construction, and other sectors,” explains al-Rubay.

He points out, however, that this is nothing out of the ordinary in Iraq. “All political factions have their own financial system based on political henchmen, entrepreneurs, middlemen, and friends.” The Iranian militias of the PMF have only been catching up in the past 4 years.

Their influence grew greater than ever

Their financial and military influence has strengthened their position and power base. Today, they are a factor no one can ignore. According to estimates, the PMF have a total of 164,000 soldiers. 70,000 of them are employed by the Iranian militias within the PMF, and they are well armed by Tehran.

They maintain a nationwide network of military bases and checkpoints that are intertwined with local administrations. This opens up new sources of funds: agricultural land and oil production. The units loyal to Iran are getting richer and more powerful – and with them the regime.

Tehran has more influence in Iraq than ever before. The United States, which reduced its troops in Iraq to 2,500, is almost powerless in the face of these developments. In January 2020, former US President Donald Trump tried to sent a strong warning to Iran. An American drone took out two key leaders at Baghdad airport at the same time. One was Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, in charge of Iran’s foreign military operations. The other Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis, the legendary leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces.

A monument in Baghdad honoring PMF leader Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis and General Qassem Soleimani. Both were killed in the US drone strike. Photo: Sebastian Backhaus

But the deaths of the two prominent military leaders had no significant effect on the attacks on US facilities in the country. They continue unabated in Iraq. Only recently did missiles strike a US base in northern Iraq again. A few hours later the US embassy in the Green Zone in Baghdad was targeted. Since 2019, there have been a total of more than 200 attacks on US targets in Iraq.

“The assassination of Soleimani and al-Mohandis was counterproductive,” claims Baha Aradji, Iraq’s former deputy prime minister. “Without these strong leader figures, you don’t know how to control the militias anymore.” Aradji looks tired in his large armchair. “The militias are in power, and that’s not going to change anytime soon,” he says succinctly, as if it were an irrefutable truth that everyone had to come to terms with.

“You see, Prime Minister al-Kadhimi has tried several times to put the militias in their place. But he has no power.” Not even his own military would follow his orders, adds Aradji, shrugging his shoulders.

The veteran politician is running as an independent candidate in the October elections. “Let’s see if I will win,” he says with a grin. He himself does not seem very convinced. “People come by my office every day, wanting to sell hundreds of identity cards, in other words electoral votes,” he says. “Of course, they try the same with other politicians.”

“Secret National Resistance” on Twitter

It is the usual fraud repeated in every election in Iraq. “Of course, you can’t buy the final elections results,” says Aradji, “but at least between 10 and 15 per cent of the vote is for sale.” That, however, is costly, he adds. Aradji estimates the figure “between 30 and 40 million dollars.” He smiles smugly, as if this is the wager some people gamble in the game called politics in Iraq.

Laith Shubber, on the other hand, no longer wants to play a game of chances- and certainly not when it comes to Iranian supremacy. The advisor to former Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi, who resigned in 2019, wants to “liberate Iraq from Iranian occupation” by force. To this end, Shubber has founded the “Secret National Resistance.” Anyone can join the network on Twitter. For Shubber, Iraq has degenerated into an Iranian province. Democracy and freedom must be restored by force of arms if necessary.

No wonder Shubber has gone into hiding. He doesn’t want to meet anyone. He exchanges messages only with people he knows. “I am at the top of the death list,” Shubber writes to WELT. “The militias have killed hundreds of protestors. Those who disagree are slandered, threatened, or simply murdered.” He seems to have made the fight against Iran a life’s mission and has given up everything to achieve this goal. For the time being, a normal life in Iraq is out of the question for him.

Shubber is banking on the “growing anger and hatred of the Iranian regime” to bring the revolution. Shubber is a little late. For the last 2 years, protestors have protested against the pro-Iranian establishment in Iraq. But their will is now broken.

Pictures of General Soleimani and al-Mohandis hang in the corner of the villa’s large oval reception room with lavishly upholstered furniture. Hassan Shaker al-Kaabi proudly takes a seat on the sofa beneath them. The commander of the ninth division of the PMF and member of parliament knew the two “heroes” well. During the war he often discussed battle plans with them. “They were like godfathers to all the soldiers,” al-Kaabi recounts.

Hassan Shaker al-Kaabi, MP and leader of the Badr Bloc, under a picture of Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis. Photo: Sebastian Backhaus

The political leader of the Iran-affiliated Badr Bloc in Iraqi parliament does not understand all the fuss about the militias. They are part of the PMF, officially recognized army units, and they only do good work. “All the allegations of them committing murders have been proven void,” he claims. Instead of accusations at the address of the PMF and its militias, one should be grateful to them. “After all, they have achieved victory over IS.” And as for the missile attacks on US facilities, the PMF has nothing to do with that, he says.

“It could be unorganized resistance groups or individuals paid by someone to do this.” At just over 60 years old, Al-Kaabi is an old-school man, a fighter who misses war. His world views are simple. But he can afford it. His militias are at the center of power in Iraq.

You can follow Alfred Hackensberger via Twitter @hackensberger and on his blog.