Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi addressing the Iraqi people in a televised speech in the capital, Baghdad, in April 2020. Photo: AFP / Iraqi Prime Minister's Office

Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, last month called for the disbanding of all militias. This would involve the state disarming the pro-Iran Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). In turn, this would neuter Tehran’s most reliable partner in Iraq, Kataeb Hezbollah, the most dangerous alternative to state power in the country.

Such then is the importance to the integrity of the Iraqi state of Sistani’s call. Indeed, the prime minister, now provided cover by the religious leadership in the Shia center of Najaf, should act with haste. Yet all we have witnessed thus far is an exhibition of inertia.

Kataeb Hezbollah – the Brigades of the Party of God, if you will – has been busy building a “statelet” within Iraq. If the government does not act quickly, Kataeb Hezbollah soon will become stronger than the Iraqi state itself; it will dominate Iraq in the manner in which its namesake, Hezbollah, does in Lebanon and seal Iraq’s slide into failure as a client state of Iran.

For those unfamiliar with Iraq’s recent history of distressing politics, a little elucidation might be helpful.

Modeled after Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Kataeb Hezbollah is the spine that stands up the PMU. It controls, importantly, the PMU’s “internal security” unit, the intelligence operations that keep tabs on fighters and discipline rogue ones. Kataeb Hezbollah’s chief, Abdul-Aziz al-Muhammadawi, also is the effective leader of the PMU, rather than its titular chairman, Falih al-Fayyadh.

It isn’t hyperbole to describe Kakaeb Hezbollah as a statelet. It controls territory within Iraq’s borders. It managed to force Baghdad to lease it vast amounts of agricultural land in Jurf al-Sakhar, south of Baghdad, and on the Iraqi border with Syria. It operates these territories as fiefs into which it prohibits access by the legitimate state.

At its bases, Kataeb Hezbollah trains and garrisons its fighters, and stocks caches of arms. Western intelligence reports suggest that, with Iranian assistance, Kataeb Hezbollah manufactures precision guided missiles at these sites.

Like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Kataeb Hezbollah’s fighting wing is only one component of the mini-state. It maintains welfare organizations for the families of its fighters, including those who die in battle. These organizations offer medical care, schooling, housing, social and financial support, and religious indoctrination.

It is the last item that is particularly important. Traditionally, Shia Islam enjoins its followers to pledge allegiance to their rulers, and defer only to clerics on issues of faith. If any Shiite should feel that the world is unfair to him, he would look to the second coming of the Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, to redress the injustice.

Shia Muslims believe that al-Mahdi has been alive since the 9th century, when his Occultation – or “hiddenness” – occurred.

But influenced by the founders of the (ironically Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood, the late Ayatollah Khomeini constructed a Shiite version of political Islam in which Shia Muslims are supposed to pledge allegiance to their state leaders, who deputize on behalf of al-Mahdi until the imam’s return. Tehran, of course, sees itself as the metropolitan and political center for all Shia Muslims.

Sistani and traditional Shia Muslims reject Khomeini’s reinvention of Shiite doctrine, which also has limited appeal among Iraqi Shiite adherents – except Iran-indoctrinated militia members.

Now, with the religious leadership in Najaf speaking out against the pro-Iran militias, and growing anti-Iran sentiment in the country, the legitimate state has an opportunity to reassert its sovereignty.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi can even count on international assistance in defeating Kataeb Hezbollah, which Washington has placed on its list of foreign terrorist organizations. Any US administration, whether Republican or Democratic, would be more than willing to help Baghdad put down Iran’s proxies.

A month later, however, Khadhimi has made no move. It is a puzzle; no one knows why. Maybe there are some as yet unrevealed political calculations. Or perhaps he simply fears for his life.

Whatever the reason, Kadhimi surely must realize that time is of the essence. So either he takes the opportunity to neuter Kataeb Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies, or he gets out of the way and lets someone else do it.

For indeed, he should appreciate that doing nothing only diminishes his own power, as Kataeb Hezbollah and the other Iranian proxies it leads carry on constructing an alternative state power to Baghdad.

To add insult to injury, Tehran has managed even to force successive Iraqi governments to fund the PMU’s payroll, in effect getting Baghdad to subsidize the expansion of Tehran’s influence and the diminution of Baghdad’s authority. And if Hezbollah in Lebanon is any example, once Kataeb Hezbollah is firmly and indubitably entrenched as a shadow state, it will be nearly impossible to dismantle.

With Iran cash-poor because of renewed US sanctions and weakened by domestic crisis, Kadhimi has opportunity on his side: He should take advantage of it and remove the cancer of Iran’s militias that is eating away at the sovereignty of his government. Should he not, an eventually resurgent Iran will come after Kadhimi and any other leader of the legitimately constituted state.

If recent history is any guide, the most disposable figure in the Iraqi state is the prime minister.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now. 

Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.