Iran’s Influence in Iraq: Hegemony Through Powerful Militias

Iran has maintained a significant interest in Iraq for many years, acting as a safe haven for dissidents from Saddam Hussain’s regime and, following the 2003 intervention, taking up a role as both a major political actor and providing support to Shiite militias who targeted coalition forces and the country’s Sunni population.

This activity has been stepped up considerably since the capture of Mosul by the terrorist organization ISIS in 2014. The then ongoing nuclear negotiations acted to deter any significant U.S. attempt to mitigate Iranian influence. In fact, it appears that the talks may have resulted in just the opposite: in September 2014, it was reported that Iran had offered to work with the U.S. in defeating ISIS in exchange for more flexibility on the number of centrifuges it could retain as part of a deal.

Although it is not possible to quantify in its entirety the impact of the proposal on U.S. behavior, it was ultimately this preferred Iranian option – that they were allowed to retain all of their centrifuges, but with only some in an operation state – which was a cornerstone of the final JCPOA.

Iran currently exerts significant political and economic powers in Iraq. Tehran’s influence is being felt at the highest level by regular visits from General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force – a man described as “the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today” and “Iran’s viceroy for Iraq.”

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki was only forced out of power once Tehran withdrew their support of his premiership. But despite this fall from grace, al Maliki – the man most directly responsible for ISIS’ rise – remains Iran’s point man in the country, and continues to plot his own return to the top.

On the ground, Iranian efforts have centered on training and supplying a variety of Shiite militias under the wider umbrella of the “Popular Mobilization Forces” (PMU), a diverse 60,000 to 140,000 strong group formed in 2014 to counter the rise of ISIS and compensate for the repeated failures of the Iraqi Army.

The group’s aggressive behavior has raised concerns over their potential future role in Iraqi society, especially since a number of the militias pledged spiritual allegiance to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, including the Badr Organization and Saraya al-Khorasani. The official logo of the al-Khorsani group is an exact replica of that of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).


During the Iraqi insurgency of Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq, Hezbollah’s Iraqi branch Kata’ib Hezbollah sprang to prominence in 2007 and was involved in a series of lethal attacks against coalition forces. In the conflict in Iraq against ISIS, Kata’ib Hezbollah joined the alliance of PMU. They have also been party to a litany of human rights abuses and war crimes documented by Human Rights Watch, and yet continue to attract Iranian funding....

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