On April 15, an explosive-laden drone targeted a U.S. military hosting facility in Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region (KRI), but no casualties were reported. On the same day, a Turkish soldier was killed in a rocket attack on a Turkish military base in the Bashiqa area of Mosul.
The attacks, blamed on pro-Iranian groups based in Iraq, have been widely seen in the context of US-Iranian and Turkish-Iranian rivalries in the region. However, this national analysis ignores an important development involved in the incident: the efforts of Iran-backed paramilitaries in northern Iraq to consolidate their power in the conflict zones between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
The presence and growing power of these groups has profound implications not only for the future of Baghdad-Erbil relations, but also for inter- and communal relations in the ethnically-diverse region. , In a very complex situation characterized by deep militarization of ethnic-religious and communal identities in the governments of Nenveh and Kirkuk.
Militarization of ethnic-religious and communal groups
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 allowed Iran to exert greater influence over its neighbor’s internal affairs. In addition to building a network of supporters within the civilian power structure, Iran also trained and armed a number of paramilitaries, including the Badr organization, Ashaib Ahl-e-Haq, Hezbollah, and Saraya al-Khorsani.
These armed groups became part of the so-called Hashad al-Shabir (Popular Coalition Forces, PMF) in 2014 with the expansion of ISIS into Iraqi territory and the launch of a popular solidarity issued by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest religious authority among Iraqi Shiites. They led the fight against ISIS and gained quite a bit of popularity.
The PMF reached the disputed region of the north in October 2017 after the KRG-led independence referendum, in which they regularly attacked Kurdish forces with Iraqi forces. Although initially operated under orders from Baghdad, the Iran-backed PMF has pursued its own political and military goals.
Pro-Iranian armed groups have sought to establish themselves more permanently in Nineveh and Kirkuk in order for Tehran’s military to reach Iraqi territory. By recruiting local community fighters and forming new parties, the PMF has militarized and politicized ethnic-religious and communal identities.
They established the 30th Brigade in the districts of Nineh, known as Hamdaniya, Telkaif and Bashika, it is occupied by members of the Shabak community, an ethnic and religious minority, which follows the Twilver Shia-Ism. They set up the 53rd Brigade for Shia Turkmen in Telfar, which includes the Yazidi Lalish unit for the Yazidis in Sinjar. They also formed the fiftieth brigade for the Assyrians in the district of Hamdaniah.
In Sinjar in western Nineveh province, pro-Iranian PMF groups also formed during the fight against ISIS and first supported the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) equipped and trained Sinjar resistance unit. They officially joined the PMF’s Al-Nasr Al-Mubin Brigade in 2018.
In the provinces of Kirkuk, a similar spread of local armed groups took place. In the Taza district, Iranian-backed paramilitaries deployed the 16th Brigade, armed and trained by local Shia Turkmen. They also recruited Shia Turkmen for the 52nd Brigade. The pro-Iranian PMF has also tried to form a group on behalf of the Kaka’i community, a religious Kurdish-speaking minority based in Dakk and Kirkuk, but has not yet been fully successful.
Other political and military forces, including the KRG, armed groups affiliated with Sistani and Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and some local Sunni politicians have also sought to establish and support their own parties in the disputed areas.
In addition to gaining influence over the local community through military presence and recruitment, the pro-Iranian PMF has established shadow administrations, creating security, social, political and economic structures that are formally competitive and undermined. They are involved not only in controlling the movement of people and goods, but also in paying “taxes” to local businesses. They have been involved in religious affairs, supporting Sunni religious sites and monetization controls and newly created Shia grants.
The activities of pro-Iranian groups have fueled inter-communal tensions. In the city of Kirkuk, for example, Sunni Turkmen are far more numerous than Shia Turkmen, but with the support of the PMF, Shia Turkmen have become more politically entrenched. As a Shiite unifying force in the center of Kirkuk, it could lead to the breakdown of the new inter-Turkmen. A similar dynamic work is beginning among the Turkmen in the Tilafar district.
Inter-communal divisions within the Yazidis are deepening, growing areas that are affected by the pro-Iranian PMF and PKK, challenging the community’s traditional enduring power structure. This was reflected in the excitement of electing a new Yazidi leader in 2019 after the passage of Tahsin Saeed Beg.
In July of that year, Yazidis of the Kurdistan Democratic Party-backed Shikhan appointed his son, Hajim Tahsin Beg, as the new prince, following months of controversy that reflected deep internal divisions within the population. In response, the PKK and PMF-approved Yazidis in Singer threatened to secede, promising to appoint a leader of their choice.
Low quality government power
Territorial disputes between Baghdad and the KRG go back to the drafting process that began after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 as a result of the US invasion. The constitution marked the boundaries of the semi-autonomous KRI, but they left the status of Kirkuk province and many districts of Neneve, Saladin and Diyala, where the Kurdish community lives, unresolved. Referendums have never been held to decide the fate of these disputed territories.
Over the years, the dispute has been complicated by multiple factors, including disagreements over the budget and endless insecurity. The presence of the Iranian-backed PMF, however, has put further strain on the Baghdad-Erbil relationship and reduced direct efforts to make progress on this key issue.
When Adel Abdul Mahdi led the Iraqi government in 2018, there was renewed pressure to resolve the dispute with the KRG. The central government has held talks with Erbil to establish joint coordination centers in many areas of Kirkuk and Nineveh provinces. However, the Iranian-backed PMF actively sought to curb these efforts.
In October 2019, the Iraqi Ministry of Interior and the Peshmerga KRG Ministry reached a final agreement to establish five joint coordination centers in Kirkuk, Mosul, Makhmour, Khanakin and Kask. A few days later, under the influence of the PMF, the Home Ministry reconsidered the agreement. Under the current government of Mostafa al-Qadimi, two such centers have been set up in Baghdad and Erbil.
Iran-backed paramilitary groups, backed by Iraq and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also sought to sabotage the Sinjar agreement signed in October 2020 between Irbil and Baghdad. The purpose of the agreement was to address the two main issues in the process of stabilizing Sinjar: the existence of multiple armed actors for the district and the existence of two rival administrations. But seven months later, no progress has been made in implementing the agreement.
Some have blamed the failure of the agreement on the involvement and inclusion of Singer and Yazidi in all spheres of society. The fact is, however, that the main obstacle is that Iran-backed militias reject the essence of the agreement – the establishment of a government monopoly on the use of force – and refuse to withdraw.
It is not in the interest of the pro-Iranian group to re-establish control over Sinjar on behalf of the KRG and the central Iraqi government, as they have lost not only politically but also economically. The PMFs present in Sinjar make a direct profit by importing animals, agricultural products, etc. from Syria through border smuggling by imposing a tax system.
The recent attacks against US and Turkish forces are probably the result of the sincerity of Iran-backed groups in the face of growing pressure to move north and west of their country. There is also growing concern among them that their popularity is shrinking – which became apparent during popular anti-government protests in Baghdad and the Shiite-majority cities in the south in 2019-2020.
The Iran-backed PMFs are therefore desperately looking for “new enemies” in the face of US-allied KRG and Turkey in order to justify their presence in the disputed region and to maintain the current security and power structure.
Ignoring efforts to execute and implement the agreement between Irbil and Baghdad in the disputed areas, Iran-backed armed groups are blocking the reconstruction of powerful civilian power centers that could pave the way for stabilization and reconstruction in those areas. This aligns with Iran’s overall strategy in Iraq – with weak state institutions and control to keep it in an uncertain state.
As long as the Iraqi government is unable to curb these powerful non-state actors, they will not be able to lead the country towards stability and socio-economic development. Their continued presence in the disputed area is creating tensions that could lead to renewed conflict in the near future.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the author and his editorial position on Al Jazeera.