On April 15, a drone laden with explosives was aimed at military installations housing US troops in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). However, there were no victims to complain about. On the same day, rocket bombardment of a Turkish military base in Mosul’s Bashiqa region killed a Turkish soldier.
The attacks attributed to pro-Iranian factions in Iraq have been widely seen in the context of rivalries between the US, Iran and Turkey and Iran in the region. However, such an analysis ignores an important development related to these incidents: the attempt by Iranian-backed paramilitaries in northern Iraq to consolidate their power in areas disputed between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
The presence and the growing strength of these groups have profound effects not only on the future of relations between Baghdad and Erbil, but also on inter- and intra-community relations in these ethnically diverse regions. Since arriving, Iran-backed paramilitaries have transformed the nature of the dispute over these areas from a conflict between two governments to a very complex situation marked by a deep militarization of ethno-religious and sectarian identities in the Nineveh and Kirkuk governorates.
Militarization of ethnic-religious and sectarian groups
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 gave Iran an opportunity to massively expand its influence over the domestic affairs of its neighbor. In addition to building a network of supporters within civilian power structures, Iran also trained and armed a number of paramilitaries, including the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Hezbollah and Saraya al-Khorasani.
With the expansion of IS to Iraqi territory in 2014 and the fatwa to initiate popular mobilization by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest religious authority among the Iraqi Shiites, these armed groups became part of the so-called Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces ( PMFs) They led the fight against ISIS and enjoyed great popularity.
The PMFs arrived in the disputed areas of the north in October 2017 after attacking the Kurdish Peshmerga along with regular Iraqi forces following the KRG’s independence referendum. Although Iran allegedly initially acted on orders from Baghdad, the Iran-backed PMFs have since pursued their own political and military goals.
The pro-Iranian armed groups have tried to settle more permanently in Nineveh and Kirkuk, expanding Tehran’s military reach beyond Iraqi territory. By recruiting fighters from local communities and creating new factions, the PMFs have militarized and politicized ethnic-religious and sectarian identities.
In Nineveh, Hamdaniah, Telkaif and Bashiqa, they founded the 30th Brigade, which is dominated by members of the Shabak community, an ethnic and religious minority that follows Twelve Schiism. They also established the 53rd Brigade for Shiite Turkmens in Telafar, which includes a Yazidi-Lali unit for Yazidis in Sinjar. They also established the 50th Brigade for Assyrians in Hamdaniah District.
In Sinjar in the western province of Nineveh, pro-Iranian PMF factions have also supported the Sinjar resistance units that were formed during the fight against ISIS and were originally equipped and trained by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). They officially joined the PMF’s al-Nasr al-Mubeen Brigade in 2018.
There was a similar spread of local armed groups in Kirkuk provinces. In the Taza district, the Iranian-backed paramilitaries formed the 16th Brigade by armed and trained local Shiite Turkmens. You have also recruited Shiite Turkmens to the 52nd Brigade. The pro-Iranian PMFs have also tried to create a faction for the Kaka’i community, a religious Kurdish-speaking minority based in Daquq and Kirkuk, but have not yet been fully successful.
Other political and military forces, including the KRG, armed groups linked to the Sistani and Shiite clergy, Muqtada al-Sadr, and some local Sunni politicians have also tried to create and support their own factions in the disputed areas.
Pro-Iranian PMFs have not only gained influence over local communities through military presence and recruitment, but have also used shadow administrations to build security, social, political and economic structures that compete with and undermine the formal. You have dealt not only with the control of the movement of people and goods, but also with the “taxation” of local businesses. They have also been involved in religious affairs, controlling Sunni religious sites and foundations, and supporting newly created Shiite foundations.
These activities by the pro-Iranian groups have exacerbated internal and inter-communal tensions. In the city of Kirkuk, for example, the Sunni Turkmens are more numerous than the Shiite Turkmens, but support from the PMFs has encouraged the Shiite Turkmens, who have become more politically assertive. This could lead to new inner-Turkman rifts as the Shiites consolidate power in the center of Kirkuk. A similar dynamic is taking place in the Telafar district among the Turkmens.
Intra-community divisions are also increasing among the Yazidis. Areas under the influence of pro-Iranian PMFs and the PKK have challenged the community’s traditional power structures. This was reflected in tensions over the election of a new Yazidi leader following the death of Tahsin Said Beg in 2019.
In July of this year, Yazidis in Sheikhan, supported by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, named his son Hazim Tahsin Beg as the new prince after months of debates that reflected deep internal divisions within the community. In response, the PKK and the PMF-affiliated Yazidis in Sinjar threatened some sort of secession and vowed to appoint a leader of their choice.
Undermine government power
The dispute between Baghdad and the KRG over territories stems from the constitutional process that began after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime as a result of the US invasion in 2003. The constitution outlined the limits of the semi-autonomous KRI but left the status of Kirkuk Province and many districts of Nineveh, Salahaddin and Diyala where Kurdish communities live unresolved. Referendums to determine the fate of these disputed areas were never held.
Over the years this dispute has been compounded by a number of factors, including disagreements over the budget and ongoing uncertainty. However, the presence of Iran-backed PMFs has put a greater strain on Baghdad-Erbil relations and directly undermined efforts to make progress on this key issue.
When Adel Abdul Mahdi headed the Iraqi government in 2018, there was renewed urge to settle disputes with the KRG. The central government negotiated with Erbil to create joint coordination centers in many areas of Kirkuk and Nineveh provinces. However, Iran-backed PMFs actively sought to undermine these efforts.
In October 2019, the Iraqi Interior Ministry and the KRG Ministry for Peshmerga agreed to set up five joint coordination centers in Kirkuk, Mosul, Makhmour, Khanaqin and Kask. Days later, under the influence of PMFs, the Home Office revoked the agreement. Under the current government of Mustafa al-Kadhimi, only two such centers were created in Baghdad and Erbil.
Iran-backed paramilitary groups also attempted to sabotage the Sinjar Accords signed between Erbil and Baghdad in October 2020 with the support of the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq. The agreement was designed to accelerate the stabilization process for Sinjar by addressing two main issues: the existence of multiple armed actors and two rival administrations for the district. However, seven months later, no progress was made on the ground in implementing the agreement.
Some have attributed the failure of the agreement to a lack of commitment and involvement from all areas of Sinjar and Yazidi society. The truth, however, is that the biggest obstacle is that the Iran-backed militias oppose the essence of the deal – the establishment of a government monopoly on the use of force – and refuse to withdraw.
It is not in the interests of pro-Iranian groups that the KRG and the central Iraqi government restore control of Sinjar because they can lose not only politically but also economically. PMFs existing in Sinjar benefit directly from cross-border smuggling by introducing a tax system on imports from Syria including animals, agricultural products, etc.
The recent attacks against US and Turkish forces are likely the result of the intransigence of Iran-backed groups in the face of mounting pressure to withdraw from the north and west of the country. There is also growing concern among them that their popularity will decline – which was evident in the 2019-2020 anti-government protests in the cities of Baghdad and the Shiite majority in the south.
The Iran-backed PMFs are therefore desperately looking for “new enemies” in the face of the US allied KRG and Turkey to further justify their presence in the disputed regions and to maintain the current security and power structure.
By undermining efforts to conclude and implement Erbil-Baghdad agreements on the disputed areas, the Iran-backed armed groups are preventing the restoration of strong centers of civilian power that could pave the way for the stabilization and reconstruction of these areas. This is in line with Iran’s overall strategy for Iraq – keeping it in a constant state of uncertainty, with weak state institutions and controls.
Unless the Iraqi government is able to contain these powerful non-state actors, it will not be able to steer the country towards stability and socio-economic development. Their constant presence in disputed areas creates tension that could lead to renewed conflict in the near future.
The views expressed in this article are from the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.