The loyalist factions, which are associated with the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have transformed into a parallel force to the Iraqi state, even as they present themselves as the main representative of the Shiite component in Iraq. However, this rise has been facing major challenges after the assassination on 3 January 2020 of the Commander of the Iranian Quds Force (QF) Qasem Soleimani together with the Deputy Chairman of the Popular Mobilisation Committee (PMC, al-Hashd al-Shaabi) Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, as disagreements arose within the loyalist factions that have started to threaten the unity of the loyalist home on one the hand, and political and security stability in Iraq on the other hand. Below is a reading of the aspects of the disagreement between the loyalist factions in Iraq and the repercussions thereof.

The emergence and causes of internal disagreements between the loyalist factions

Multiple causes have contributed to the emergence of disagreements between the loyalist factions in recent times, the most prominent of which are the following:

1. The leadership vacuum resulting from the killing of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, given that these two figures played an important role in framing the movement of those factions, controlling rivalry among them, and unifying their positions, thanks to their charismatic personality, long history in armed action, and organisational standing. The new commander of the QF Esmail Qaani was unable to fill the gap left by Soleimani's absence, specifically in terms of imposing compliance with the instructions and positions coming from Tehran. This appeared clearly with regard to the way the loyalist factions dealt with the Iranian de-escalation with the US in Iraq.

2. The state of political instability that Iraq went through, specifically in the period following the outbreak of the October protests in early October 2019, which in turn was reflected in the nature of the political positions of those factions in terms of adopting different positions on many issues and files.

3. The emergence of competition between the leaders of the loyalist factions, be it in terms of seizing the centrality of the factional decision with Iran, assuming the leading position in the political scene with regard to the relationship with the Iraqi government, or adopting the confrontation scene with the US in Iraq. The most prominent manifestations of this conflict are the ones between Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the Badr Organisation, Qais al-Khazali, the leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq (Leagues of the Righteous), Abdul Aziz al-Mohammedawi “Abu Fadak”, whose assumption of the position of the PMC chief of staff was supported by Iran, and Akram al-Kaabi, who was appointed as the QF representative in Iraq. With the clear Iranian support for the Kataib Hezbollah (Battalions of the Party of God) in Iraq, the leaders of other loyalist factions seem to have begun to feel that their role is diminishing, such as Qais al-Khazali, who consequently sought to show a distinct stand from the Iranian positions in Iraq, as was the case regarding the issue of the bombing of the US Embassy.[1] Indeed, Khazali’s faction seems to have been behind the bombing of the Green Zone on 20 December 2020. The Iraqi security forces arrested Hussam al-Azirjawi, who is in charge of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq missile unit. This prompted Esmail Qaani to visit Baghdad on 23 December 2020 and inform all leaders of the loyalist factions that refraining from targeting the US headquarters is an order rather than a request from Tehran, and everyone must abide by it.[2]

4. The widespread disagreements and intensified conflicts between the loyalist factions over financial gains and economic interests. While it was carried out under the heading of law enforcement and imposing discipline, the process of dismantling the Saraya Taliat al-Khorasani (the Khorasan Forefront Companies) and prosecuting its senior leaders does not obscure the complex differences between the powerful factions and the aspiring ones. The method of elimination and cancellation has been resorted to on the basis of survival of the most-powerfully armed and the most politically powerful.[3]

The expected effects of those disagreements between loyalist factions

It could be asserted that the continuation and escalation of those differences would have major repercussions for the future existence of those factions and their role, especially if they exceed the permissible limits. In this context, four important implications are evident, as follows:

1. At the level of the power of the loyalist factions: the cumulative strength that was achieved by those factions in the post-Daesh (Islamic State, ISIS) phase in terms of political influence, economic acquisition and security ascendancy, came as a result of the centralisation with which they were lately characterised. Therefore, the continuation of those differences would undermine the centralisation, which would in turn contribute to the decline in the cumulative strength of those factions and their disintegration.

2. At the level of Iranian influence: Iran is relying considerably on the influence of the loyalist factions to consolidate and perpetuate its influence. Consequently, the escalating differences between those factions would directly reflect on the nature of the Iranian role in Iraq, which justifies the shuttle visits of the QF Commander Esmail Qaani to Iraq to ​​seek to bring an end to those disputes and address them.

3. At the level of the Iraqi political reality: the great rise of the loyalist factions in Iraq came after they participated in the parliamentary elections on 12 May 2018 within the Fatah (Conquest) Alliance and won 48 seats. Therefore, the current differences would affect the unity of this Alliance, on the one hand, and the Iraqi political reality, on the other hand, especially if those differences lead to splits and the involvement in different electoral alliances. While the Fatah Alliance announced on 24 December 2020 that it would enter the elections within a unified list, with the addition thereto of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), the formation of a leadership body consisting of Hadi al-Amiri, Qais al-Khazali, Ahmed al-Asadi and Humam Hamoudi, and the selection of Hadi al-Amiri as Secretary-General of the Alliance, this announcement may not be final. With the postponement of the early legislative elections to October 2021, there is a great possibility that the Alliance would break apart as a result of intra-rivalries between those leaders

4. At the level of the strategy of the Kadhimi government: the way the Kadhimi government has been dealing with the loyalist factions shows that it is not yet able to show a clear political will to subject those factions to the state structure. Kadhimi’s strategy seems to be based on containing those factions, neutralising their defiant behaviour to the state, and de-escalating with them. In his said strategy, he exploits the state of competition and conflict between those factions and both the Sadrist Movement and the [Najaf] Hashd al-Atabat (the PMC of the Holy Thresholds or Shrines). Kadhimi also relies on the Iranian role to "rein" the unruly factions among those factions.[4] There is no doubt that the growing disagreements and conflicts within the ranks of the loyalist factions contribute to strengthening the strategy of the Kadhimi government to control those factions and subject them to the Iraqi political decision in the short term, or to reform the security sector in Iraq in the medium and long terms, especially that there is popular and international support in this direction.

Conclusion

After the end of the war on Daesh, the loyalist factions turned into a parallel force to the Iraqi state, taking upon themselves to serve the Iranian interests in Iraq and stand in the way of any governmental or popular attempt to end Iranian influence. On the other hand, they faced great challenges in the post-Soleimani and Muhandis stage, as many disagreements emerged at the level of the faction leaders, which was evident in the recent disagreements that surfaced over the de-escalation with Washington and disowning the recent attacks on the US Embassy in Baghdad.

With regard to the relationship between Iran and those factions, it could be said that this relationship has undergone important transformations in the post-Soleimani phase that is characterised by lack of control, given that today Qaani is behaving as a carrier of the Supreme Leader's instructions rather than exercising an influential role, so much so that his continuous visits to Iraq fall within the context of dealing with the immediate issues rather than developing long-term strategies as was the case in the time of Soleimani. Indeed, the current turmoil in the behaviour of the loyalist factions is also due to the ambiguity of the expected Iranian policy with the new Biden administration, as well as the escalating conflict between the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and the QF in Iraq, where each side embraces specific factions. In general, Iran may resort in the coming period to consolidating the centrality of some of the loyalist factions and dismantling and dissolving others, as a prelude to addressing the current failures, both directly and through an understanding with the Kadhimi government.

In this context, Kadhimi's reluctance to control the movement of the loyalist factions has contributed to the absence of clear lines for the roles of those factions, both inside and outside Iraq, which may foretell dangerous repercussions that may be witnessed by the Iraqi reality if those factions rebel further. The challenge remaining ahead of him is how to be able to link the regional and international dynamics opposed to the Iranian behaviour with the Iraqi interior in order to achieve an internal and external consensus that supports the efforts of the Iraqi government in the field of ending the role of the loyalist factions and reforming the security sector in Iraq.

References

[1] Suadad al-Salhy, “Exclusıve: Asaib Ahl al-Haq defying Iran to attack US in Iraq,” Middle East Eye, 12 December 2020: https://bit.ly/34htxx3.

[2] “Gave the orders to stop the faction insurgency and warned against attacking the Americans: Details of General Qaani's visit to Iraq”, Arabic Post website, 28 December 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/34YdK6G

[3] “The Popular Mobilisation launches an internal liquidation process after the escalation of disputes between its factions”, Al-Arab newspaper, 17 December 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/38ag2Ax

[4] Suadad al-Salhy, "Soleimani's shadow: How the general's death upended Iranian strategy in Iraq," middle east eye, 2 Jan 2021. https://bit.ly/2X7U63I

 

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