The role of the [Iranian-backed] loyalist factions in Iraq constitutes a complex problem for Iraqi-US relations as a result of the growing role of those factions, which are among the most effective security and military tools for the Iranian expansionist project in the Arab region. Those loyalist factions had announced a truce to stop firing rockets at the US embassy in Baghdad, as a result of the pressure exerted and the US threats that the US would conduct intensive bombing operations against 80 sites belonging to the Popular Mobilisation Committee (PMC, al-Hashed al-Shaabi) and the factions once the Embassy has been shut down. This paper sheds light on the dimensions of the truce, the nature and future of Iran’s role therein, and the future role of the loyalist factions in Iraq.
The dimensions of the truce of the loyalist factions and the Iranian role therein
Since the end of 2019, the role of the loyalist factions in Iraq has evolved in favour of targeting the US military presence, versus the execution of targeted operations by the US against the headquarters of those factions, amidst the absence of any role for the Iraqi government in stopping those mutual attacks. The assassination of Soleimani and al-Muhandis constituted a severe blow to the Iranian role in the region. Indeed, the Iranian strategy in Iraq subsequently witnessed a state of severe confusion. This is because it lost the most important element of its strategic tools, in terms of both Soleimani’s role as a guide and leader of the Iranian role in Iraq and al-Muhandis who had the capability to control the dynamics of the balance of power between the factions and the successive Iraqi governments or between the factions themselves. The targeting by the factions of US military headquarters and Embassy in Baghdad increased, which led to an escalation of tension, especially with the presence of the Kadhimi government which announced its intention to end the role of the factions and preserve the prestige of the state, although it did not succeed in achieving this for many considerations.
As the tension escalated, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo informed Iraqi President Barham Salih that the US does not rule out targeting the leaders of the pro-Iranian Shiite factions in Iraq. The Washington Post newspaper indicated the possibility of closing the US Embassy in Baghdad and the possibility of moving it to Erbil if the Iraqi government failed to stop the repeated targeting of US interests. This contributed to increasing pressure on the Kadhimi government which seeks to develop Iraqi-US relations. As a result, Kadhimi announced the formation of a supreme security committee headed by National Security Adviser Qasim al-Araji to investigate the crimes of targeting foreign headquarters in Iraq. Those US threats led to doubling the efforts of the Iraqi government to engage in intensive talks with the leaders of the loyalist factions to stop those practices.
On 12 October 2020, the spokesman for the Kataib Hezbollah (Party of God Battalions) Mohammad Mohi announced a truce between the armed factions and the US, whereby the factions would commit itself to refraining from targeting the US military forces or Embassy, on the condition that the US announce the schedule for the withdrawal of its forces by the end of 2020. The next day, he reiterated his warning that any act of treachery against those factions would open the gates of hell to the US forces, as he put it.
In reality, the truce is an Iranian-US truce rather than a truce between the factions and the US. This is because the governing dimensions thereof are related more to the nature of the US-Iranian conflict in the region than to the aspects pertaining to the US military presence in Iraq. Thus, the dimensions of the truce are mainly associated with the Iranian perception of the seriousness of the threats that were conveyed by the US administration to the Kadhimi government that any targeting of the US military forces or Embassy in Baghdad would be met with a harsh US response, through which the Iranian decision-maker may have realised that the said response would be similar to the killing of Soleimani and al-Muhandis by targeting Iranian leaders or leaders of Iraqi Shiite factions.
In the context of discussing the nature of the Iranian role in declaring this truce and the complexity surrounding the relationship of the loyalist factions with the Iraqi government, especially during the era of Kadhimi, who is close to the US, the vacuum brought about by the absence of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis becomes more obvious, given his role as a regulator of the balance in the movement of those factions, their activities, roles and relationship with the Iraqi government and with the other actors, as well as their relationship with each other. The loyalist factions are directly associated with the Iranian strategic goals because the guidelines of the loyalist factions are essentially Iranian, whether at the political, ideological or military level. Furthermore, it has become clear that Iran has significant influence on the movement and activity of those factions that, despite their different names and organisations, all share the fact that they fall within the security-military system of the Iranian strategy in the region.
Given the awareness by the Kadhimi government that the Iraqi political and religious powers are incapable of influencing the positions of those factions after the series of intensive discussions that was held by Kadhimi with the Iraqi leaders, Kadhimi eventually resorted to the Iranian ambassador to Iraq Iraj Masjedi whose role has increased in the post-Soleimani and al-Muhandis era. He intervened to persuade the leaders of the loyalist factions to stop targeting US interests. Thus, the Iranian perception, which is characterised by pragmatism, dealt objectively with the recent US threats, especially in the pre-US election period, so that the Iranian leadership forced the loyalist factions to accept the truce offered by Kadhimi.
Reports indicated that the truce included the release of Iranian funds frozen in Iraq due to the US sanctions, which are estimated at nearly 10 billion dollars. Some sources said that Kadhimi pledged to the Iranian ambassador to seek to help Iran in the economic crisis it is suffering from, especially after the re-imposition of the US sanctions on Iran. In this regard, a few days after the announcement of the truce, Abdul Nasser Hamati, Governor of the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), arrived in Baghdad and met with senior financial officials in Iraq. Sources indicated that he obtained the approval of the Kadhimi government to release nearly 3 billion dollars of frozen Iranian funds in Iraq.
The future of the truce and the role of the loyalist factions in the Iraqi political scene
1. Scenarios for the future of the loyalist factions' truce
First scenario: the continuation of the truce, in light of the emergence of positive features on the part of President-elect Joe Biden in dealing with the Iranian crisis. Among the indications of this is Biden's pledge to resume negotiations in order to return the US to the nuclear agreement, a step that, if taken, would be in Iran's interest by easing the pressure and supporting its strategic role in the region, especially in Iraq.
Second scenario: the resumption of targeting the US military sites and Embassy in Iraq, in the event that the US policy in the Biden era continued to implement the mechanism of imposing sanctions and political and economic pressure on Iran with the possibility that the conservative trend would win the Iranian presidency. Iraqi territories would then be the arena for targeting the US military and political presence through the loyalist factions.
2. Scenarios for the future role of the loyalist factions in the Iraqi political scene
The future role of the loyalist factions is linked to the nature of the future of US-Iranian relations in the stage ahead. In light of the above regarding the future of the truce, it is possible to talk about two scenarios for the future role of the loyalist factions in the Iraqi political scene:
First scenario: the decline in the negative effects of the role of the loyalist factions in the Iraqi political scene: this would be the case in the event that the US-Iranian relations coincide with the tendency of the two sides to support the Iraqi government, especially in light of the preparation for holding the early parliamentary elections in mid-2021. This includes the Iranian trend to support the political actors at the expense of the armed factions in the upcoming elections, which would contribute to the development of Iraqi-US relations and help increase US support for Iraq.
Second scenario: the rise of the negative influences of the loyalist factions on the Iraqi political scene: this would be the case in the event of the continued tension in the US-Iranian relations, through the continuation of the policy of imposing sanctions and political and economic pressure on Iran. This would lead to Iran's tendency to employ the loyalist factions to target the US presence and disturb Iraqi national security, in addition to supporting the armed factions in the upcoming elections and impeding the development of Iraqi-US relations.
The truce that was concluded by the Kadhimi government with the loyalist factions is in fact an Iranian-US truce that includes reducing tension in US-Iranian relations until after the US presidential elections, within the framework of the Iranian leadership's hopes then for the victory of the Democratic candidate Joseph Biden, on whom it counts for the pursuit of a different policy from that of Trump who adopted the escalation of the US-Iranian confrontation, especially in Iraq where Iranian influence is prominent through the loyalist factions associated with the Iranian project.
Consequently, the loyalist factions are committed to the truce and are responsive to Iranian visions and perceptions on this issue, especially in light of the victory of the Democratic candidate Joseph Biden, which indicates the possibility of the return of understandings between the US and Iran, leading even to the return of the US to the Iranian nuclear agreement with the major powers. This would reflect in the decline in the levels of the US-Iranian conflict and the rise of Iran's strategic role in the region.
EPC | 12 Jan 2021
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