On 26 June 2020, the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) carried out a surprise security operation during which it stormed a security headquarters belonging to the Iraqi Hezbollah militia in a Baghdad suburb that housed Katyusha rockets and rocket launchers prepared to target a military headquarters occupied by US troops in Baghdad International Airport. This operation has shed light on the complicated security problem presently witnessed by Iraq and the volume of arduous challenges facing the government of Mustafa al-Kadhimi in order to achieve a sustainable security and political stability in addition to finding solutions to the economic and health crises afflicting the country.

Background and context

The killing of the commander of the Iranian Quds Force Qassem Soleimani together with the deputy chairman of the Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC) Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis on 3 January 2020 has marked the beginning of a new chapter in the conflict between Iran and the US in Iraq. The subsequent stages have witnessed a number of rocket attacks on military bases where US forces are located in Iraq. Pro-Iran loyalist factions view the US presence in Iraq with suspicion. They translated this into practice in January 2020 through the pressure they placed on the Iraqi Council of Representatives (CoR) to issue a parliamentary decision demanding that the government evacuate foreign troops from the country.

Amidst this complicated conflict, the Kadhimi government held the first round of strategic dialogue with the US on 11 June 2020 in order to reach a clear understanding regarding the nature of the future of US presence in Iraq in the hope that the next rounds would be completed after Kadhimi’s visit to Washington in July 2020, according to what has been announced by the Iraqi government. Within this framework, both the loyalist factions and the Fatah Alliance, led by the leader of the Badr Organization Hadi al-Ameri, believe that the said dialogue may have serious consequences for their future and the future of the Iranian influence in Iraq. That is why they announced on more than one occasion their rejection of any agreement resulting from the strategic dialogue between Baghdad and Washington if it does not expressly provide for the full evacuation of US troops from Iraq.

In a step aimed at anticipating Kadhimi’s visit to Washington, both the Fatah Alliance and the State of Law Coalition led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, submitted a parliamentary request to host Kadhimi in Parliament and hold him responsible for the failure in running the health file in Iraq. The Fatah Alliance also demanded that a representative of the Alliance be included in the delegation that will accompany Kadhimi to Washington to be acquainted with the dialogues that will take place between the two sides. The leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous) Qais al-Khazali, who is listed by the US among the Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT), made statements in which he held Kadhimi responsible for any upcoming security consequences in Iraq.

Iran, and consequently loyalist factions, view with great suspicion the moves made by the new Iraqi Prime Minister. Despite the visit made by Kadhimi to the PMC headquarters on 16 June 2020 and the assurances he offered to his hosts, he nevertheless gave clear signs regarding the necessity to implement Law No. 40 of 2016 regarding the structuring of the PMC. That step could pave the way to neutralizing the loyalist factions that operate under the PMC umbrella. In addition, those factions, which dominate the PMC, view with concern and caution the administrative procedures carried out by Kadhimi by introducing changes in a number of sensitive posts, including the reinstatement of Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi as head of the CTS, the appointment of Abdul Ghani al-Asadi as head of the National Security Agency, and Othman al-Ghanimi as Interior Minister, the deposition of Falih al-Fayyadh as Adviser of the National Security Council, and the appointment of Qasim al-Araji in his place. The factions believe that those procedures and decisions could extend to important positions that they assume in the PMC in the future.

Possibilities of escalation between the loyalist factions and the Kadhimi government

In view of the deep ramifications of the Dora operation carried out by the Iraqi CTS, Iraqi Hezbollah may feel that it has to escalate, considering the it has suffered one setback after another in recent months, from reputational damage from its role in orchestrating protester killings and disappearances to the deaths of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, US and Israeli airstrikes on Hezbollah sites in Iraq and Syria, the protests by the Najaf Authority against the promotion of Hezbollah’s current leader Abdul-Aziz al-Mohammedawi “Abu Fadak to replace al-Muhandis as deputy chairman of the PMC, and the appointment of Mustafa al-Kadhimi as Prime Minister, which was expressly rejected by Hezbollah. Thus, Hezbollah may be highly sensitive to another humiliation. Earlier signs indicate how Hezbollah’s equilibrium has been unsettled by a series of setbacks that it went through. Today, Hezbollah appears more erratic and less disciplined than in the past, menacing Iraqi leaders by sending large gangs of fighters to the heart of the Green Zone armed with assault rifles and even with rocket-propelled grenades (RPG), given that Hezbollah has a sizeable military garrison inside that Zone manned with more than two thousand fighters that can be easily reinforced on short notice. One of Hezbollah’s bases sits directly behind the Prime Minister’s headquarters while another is located inside the Republican Palace, the official receiving location of state visits.[1]

The question of legitimacy constitutes today one of the most prominent features of the conflict between Mustafa al-Kadhimi and the loyalist factions. While Kadhimi’s legitimacy stems from his being the Prime Minister of Iraq, having come through consensus between multiple political blocs to deal with the political, economic and health crises experienced by the country, the legitimacy of the loyalist factions is based on their primary role in fighting ISIS and being part of the Khamenei-led resistance axis. They account for nearly 70 percent of the PMC which in turn explains those factions’ significant domination of the PMC.

The months ahead are likely to be decisive in determining the future of the accord-discord between the two sides, especially that the loyalist factions view with great apprehension the output of the forthcoming strategic dialogue between Iraq and the US. The loyalist factions have come to show increasing fear of the possibility of substantive modifications being introduced into the structure of the PMC in a manner that would undermine the factions’ centrality and influence, especially in light of Kadhimi’s announcement that a large scale security operation would be launched shortly to regain control of border crossings that are controlled by those factions and that generate to them billions of dollars every year which they use for self-finance after the disruption of Iranian support and funding due to the US sanctions.

Besides, US proposals with regard to reforming the Iraqi security sector that focus on reforming the status of the PMC through measures such as freezing the current condition of the PMC, supporting the official Iraqi military capabilities, and the appointment of an uncontroversial military commander to lead the PMC, are viewed by the loyalist factions as an effective strategy to transform the PMC from a doctrinal military establishment into an administrative establishment reporting to the Iraqi military establishment, which would amount to the exclusion of the factions from the Iranian strategic calculations in the future. Accordingly, the visit made by the commander of the Quds Force Esmail Qaani to Baghdad in June 2020 was intended to confirm the Iranian policy of escaping forward and Tehran’s attempt to anticipate any undesirable outcomes for Iran that may come out of the Iraq-US strategic dialogue that would affect Iran’s influence in Iraq by preparing alternative action paths, especially in case Kadhimi’s visit to Washington in July 2020 leads to important outcomes that would affect the status of the pro-Iran loyalist factions. One of the paths put forward is the possibility of orchestrating a coup d’état against the Kadhimi government similar to the one carried out by the pro-Iran Houthi Ansar Allah group in the Yemeni capital Sanaa in 2014 when it toppled the legitimate government led by Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and afterwards assumed power in the country with full Iranian support.

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[1] Michael Knights, Testing Iraq’s Ability to Crack Down on Anti-U.S. Terrorism, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Watch 3341, June 26, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2NDFpRx

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