In February, an Iraqi militia commander trained by Iran took over the empty office of his slain superior, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, killed alongside Iranian military mastermind Qassem Soleimani in a US drone strike.
Pro-Iran militiamen hoped this was the answer to their problems: the experienced commander Abdul Aziz al-Mohammedawi replacing Muhandis as overall leader of Iraq’s paramilitary groups, scattered after the killing of their mentors.
Instead it led to new splits.
Factions refused to recognise Mohammedawi, known by the nom de guerre Abu Fadak, as commander of Iraq’s militia umbrella grouping, the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). In his own group, Kataib Hezbollah, some oppose him taking on that mantle, according to militia insiders.
The deaths of Soleimani and Muhandis in January challenged Iran-backed militias in Iraq, where the UD wants to reverse the influence of its regional foe Tehran.
Sources in the Iran-backed factions of the PMF and commanders in groups not as close to Tehran describe growing fractures over leadership and reduced Iranian funds, thwarting attempts to unite.
The rifts accelerate a retreat from the political arena, where militia leaders who once controlled government jobs and parliament seats hide in fear of assassination by the US and confront anti-Iran dissent on the streets. They face installation of a US-aligned prime minister who would check the dominance of Iran’s proxy groups.
Bruised militias stepped up attacks on US-led forces. Western military and diplomatic officials say this raises the prospect of a US-Iran escalation Baghdad will be powerless to stop.
The focal point for the splits is leadership of the PMF, formed to fight Islamic State after Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called able bodied men to take up arms against Sunni militants.
The state-funded PMF comprises dozens of mostly Shi’ite militias with different loyalties dominated by powerful factions who take orders from Iran, including Muhandis’s Kataib Hezbollah, the Badr Organisation, Nujaba and others.
Soleimani held ultimate authority over Iraq’s toughest Shi’ite militias. For those groups, loss of PMF military chief Muhandis, a rare unifying figure, was significant.
Kataib Hezbollah announced Mohammedawi would be PMF military chief in February. Mohammedawi now works in Muhandis’s office in Baghdad, according to a senior militia source. He requested anonymity to talk about splits among paramilitaries.
“This created divisions, including in Kataib,” the source said.
He and other militia officials described shifting alliances, including in two pro-Iran groups. They said the splits were over Muhandis’s succession and where Iranian funds should go – military action or political influence.
“One camp in Kataib is led by Abu Fadak. Another opposes him taking over the PMF,” the first source said. “In Badr, there’s a wing supporting him and was closer to Muhandis – and another that doesn’t, the political wing.”
The sources did not provide details on reduced funding from Iran, hit hard by coronavirus and US sanctions.
The divisions mean groups are beginning to stage attacks inidividually, without consulting, militia sources said.
“Not everybody agreed Taji military base should be targeted,” an official said, referring to a March attack that killed two US troops and a British soldier. “Some groups operate without consulting the PMF chain of command.”
Militia sources report an additional PMF split.
Factions closer to Sistani, who oppose Iran’s hegemony over the PMF, publicly rejected Mohammedawi taking over in February in a show of defiance to the pro-Iran camp.
Commanders since agreed in principle with the defence ministry to integrate into the military, a move to separate them from Iran-backed factions. A source close to Sistani confirmed his office approved the move.
Pro-Iran militias worry.
“If Sistani is backing this, possibly 70% of lower-ranking fighters in all groups might follow – they joined because of his edict,” one militia source said.
None of those moves will be official until a new government is in place. Lawmakers and government officials say it is likely designated prime minister, Adnan al-Zurfi, will be approved this month – a result of pro-Iran militia weakness.
“Before, Iran-backed groups and politicians were able to have their choice of prime minister,” a lawmaker from Iraq’s biggest parliamentary bloc said.
“Now, they can’t agree among themselves who they want for the post,” he said, adding many favoured Zurfi.
President Barham Salih last month designated Zurfi, who is opposed by Iran-backed militia commanders. He signalled he would come down hard on factions, posting on Twitter in March the PMF’s “loyalty will be to Iraq, and Iraqis”.
Iran-backed militias will not go quietly. Kataib Hezbollah warned it would fight any force co-operating with Washington attacking militias.