Secretive Militia's Challenge Risks Eroding Abadi Power in Iraq

  • Shiite group seeking to defeat PM's bid to unify armed groups
  • National Guard at center of Abadi plan to ease sectarian rifts

A Shiite militia that refuses even to identify its leader is emerging as one of the greatest threats to the Iraqi administration it’s meant to be backing.

Kataib Hezbollah has thousands of fighters deployed against the jihadists of Islamic State. While the Iranian-backed group has played a key role in helping Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi stem the militants’ advance, it’s now joining forces with other Shiite militias to oppose the premier’s push to enact a measure that could limit its own power, and Tehran’s influence.

At the heart of the dispute is the National Guard Law, legislation meant to bring all pro-government armed groups under a unified command. The measure is backed by the U.S. as the only way to halt the breakup of OPEC’s second-biggest oil producer.

“We reject this law and we will chase anyone who votes for it in the Iraqi parliament,” Jaafar al-Husseini, a spokesman for the anti-American Kataib Hezbollah, said by phone from Baghdad. The legislation is a U.S. initiative to divide Iraq and will also allow Islamic State to infiltrate Iraq’s armed forces, he said. “Passing this law will be considered treason.”

Sistani Support

While Abadi retains the support of Iraq’s most senior Shiite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, a series of crises is making him more vulnerable to pressure. The slump in oil prices and surging security costs are hollowing out the economy, relations with the Kurdish minority are strained by disputes over crude exports, and ordinary Iraqis are lamenting the slow pace of drives to tackle corruption and restore basic services.

“The state and government is losing control,” Wathiq al-Hashimi, an Iraqi political analyst, said from Baghdad.

Voting on the National Guard Law was withdrawn from parliament’s agenda after Kataib Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed militias, including Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organization, spoke out against it. Any new version must “take into account the size of victories” won by the Shiite militias, Humam Hammoudi, deputy speaker of parliament, said in a Sept. 9 statement.

The law was originally conceived to give Sunnis, who have for years protested Shiite hegemony, a greater role in providing security in regions where they make up the majority. After the fall of Mosul to Islamic State in June 2014, it was widened to include the Shiite militias of the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces assembled to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the Iraqi army. While some Shiite and Kurdish politicians have also been critical of the law, most Sunnis view it as a necessary step toward national reconciliation.

Turks Held

Kataib Hezbollah is the most powerful of nearly 40 known Shiite militias in Iraq in terms of combat capability, administration and weapons, according to Ahmed al-Sharifi, a Baghdad-based security analyst. Its members have been accused of sectarian attacks in Sunni towns, allegations al-Husseini says are false. He describes it as a jihadist movement under the religious authority of Sistani’s Iranian rival, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

When 18 Turkish workers were kidnapped in Baghdad on Sept. 2, suspicion immediately fell on Kataib Hezbollah. Security forces tried to storm their Baghdad headquarters the next day and several people were killed.

Al-Husseini denied his militia was involved. A previously unknown Shiite group calling itself Death Squads later claimed the kidnappings, offering to free the Turks in exchange for political concessions from Turkey, which has backed Sunni politicians in Iraq. On Monday, the group said it would release all of the Turkish hostages still in its custody, two of them having been freed on Sept. 16.

“The issue of the Turkish workers was masterminded by the Americans and their puppets in the Baghdad military command to damage the reputation of the Kataib Hezbollah,” he said. Still, “we are able to and we will do whatever we want.”

Satellite State

That confidence, which comes from its links to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, is helping to fuel a nationalist backlash against Tehran. Al-Sistani, Abadi and others say that while they want strong ties with their neighbor, they resent any effort to turn Iraq into a Iranian satellite state.

While some militias may now be working together against the National Guard Law, they aren’t a unified force. In fact, “with the Islamic State threat mainly contained to Sunni-populated territories, Iraq is witnessing a revival of intra-Shia competition between various parties and militias,” according to Ramzy Mardini, a non-resident fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.

Abadi will need to maneuver between the militias, while asserting his control where he can, if he’s to survive politically, Mardini said.

For more, read this QuickTake: The Third Iraq War