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Iraq: Armed factions distance themselves from Iran, worried over talks with US and Riyadh

Iranian-backed groups are fearful that Tehran will abandon them during negotiations with the United States and Saudi Arabia
A girl lies next to her relatives after she was wounded during a rocket attack on a military compound at a village in Bashiqa region, Iraq, 15 April (Reuters)
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Baghdad

As Iran and the United States move closer during nuclear deal talks in Vienna, Iraqi armed factions are seeking to distance themselves from Tehran fearing that they will be used as a bargaining chip.

The factions are trying to force the US and Iraqi governments to negotiate with them directly over security and political issues instead of only discussing these issues with the Iranians, commanders and officials have told Middle East Eye.

Iran set up and sponsored dozens of armed groups in Iraq but has lost its grip on them in recent months.

Tehran is now locked in potentially game-changing discussions with the US and regional rival Saudi Arabia.

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From the US the Iranians hope to secure sanctions relief and a return to the 2015 nuclear deal. While from the Saudis, the Iranians are seeking an end to the war in Yemen and a route out of Lebanon’s political and economic crisis.

Both negotiations look promising so far, according to Iranian and American officials.

The Iraqi, Yemeni, and Lebanese armed factions associated with Iran are at the heart of these discussions and the future of Iranian support for them may be used as a negotiating tactic during bargaining with Washington and Riyadh.

This has made the Iraqi factions feel threatened, fearing they will be sacrificed at any moment by their Iranian sponsors.

In response, they have stepped up their attacks on Iraqi military bases that host American troops and US-led coalition forces’ logistical support over the past few weeks.

No known Iraqi armed factions have claimed responsibility for any of these attacks. But commanders of armed factions and Iraqi officials told MEE that groups linked to at least two of the most prominent and powerful Shia paramilitaries are involved in their execution.

Disagreements arise

These attacks have not been “blessed” by Iran, commanders of Iranian-backed armed factions told MEE.

In fact, they said a disagreement arose between the leaders of the factions and Iranian advisors during a meeting held in Baghdad on Monday evening.

The meeting was attended by most of the prominent Iranian-backed Shia factions’ commanders, including Hadi al-Amiri, the commander of Badr Organisation, Falih al-Fayadh, the head of the Popular Mobilization Authority (PMA) paramilitary umbrella group, and Abu Fadak al-Mohamadawi, the PMA’s chief of staff.

It was called “to discuss the consequences of these operations and their impacts on the Iraqi situation, and the ongoing negotiations that Iran is engaging in with the United States and the need to continue the calm in the region until further notice”, a prominent commander who participated in the meeting told MEE.

In that meeting, the leaders of Kataeb Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq insisted that they are not interested in the ongoing negotiations and believe that the Iraqi and Iranian situations should be separated at this stage, according to the commander.

People stand next to a damaged house after a rocket attack on a military compound, at a village in Bashiqa region, Iraq, 15 April (Reuters)
People stand next to a damaged house after a rocket attack on a military compound at a village in Bashiqa region, Iraq, 15 April (Reuters)

“These attacks are aimed at sending a message to all parties suggesting that the armed factions are not concerned with the results of any negotiations conducted by the Iranians, and whoever is seeking to stop these attacks will have to deal directly with them,” the commander said.

"They [Kataeb and Asaib leaders] say that they do not believe that [Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa] al-Kadhimi and the Americans have agreed to schedule the withdrawal of American forces and that these attacks aim to pressure both of them and force the American forces to withdraw,” he added.

"They have explicitly told the Iranians that they will not embarrass them by claiming responsibility for these attacks, but they will not stop them and that any party seeking to stop these attacks must negotiate with them directly."

A truce in name only

Seeking a respite from relentless attacks and the pressure they cause, the Iraqi government and US early last month tried to buy some time by announcing an agreement to withdraw foreign combat forces from Iraq within a year.

However, no timetable for departure was set out, and though the Iraqi side attempted to accelerate the formation of technical committees tasked with drawing one up, no progress has been made since, according to those close to Kadhimi.

Some Iraqi officials and politicians have questioned the seriousness of the agreement. A senior Iraqi official familiar with the details of the talks told MEE that “the agreement was for show and that Kadhimi took the Iraqi people on a ride".

These doubts are apparently now shared by the Iranian-backed armed factions.

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Though the factions have vowed to cease attacks when a troop withdrawal is confirmed, the lack of a detailed timetable is being used as a pretext to resume attacks against US targets that were momentarily paused as part of an unofficial truce, Iraqi security officials told MEE.

The last five weeks have witnessed a noticeable increase in the number of missile attacks targeting Victoria base near Baghdad International Airport and Balad Air Base in northern Salah al-Din governate.

There have also been almost daily raids on the logistical support convoys of Iraqi and coalition forces on the highway south and west of the capital.

Iraq’s armed factions have completely denied responsibility and affirmed their commitment to the truce that they concluded with the US forces through the mediation of the Iraqi government. Instead, the raids have been claimed by previously unknown groups, widely believed to be a cover for prominent Iran-backed factions.

American casualties are rare, but Iraqi ones are increasingly common.

During the past five weeks Victoria base, Anbar province’s Ain al-Assad base, and Balad in Salah al-Din have been targeted with ten missile attacks.

Two of these wounded Iraqi soldiers and caused great damage to military installations, military sources said.

But Balad airbase hosts no US troops, and losses and damage are mounting at the Iraqi facilities located near Victoria, as most attacks have been missing their targets. This has caused disputes among the commanders of Iranian-backed factions, some of whom do not support these ongoing attacks.

'The problem is that the leaders of Kataeb Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq believe that Amiri, Fayyad, and Abu Fadak have become inclined towards Kadhimi and seek to protect him, and they do not like this'

- Prominent PMA commander

Amiri, Fayyad, and Abu Fadek are at the forefront of those rejecting these attacks, a prominent PMA commander told MEE.

The lack of Tehran’s blessing and the Iranians’ insistence on calm as it conducts fraught negotiations has given these sceptical leaders enough reason to criticise the attacks, deepening divisions between the Iran-backed factions, the commander said.

"The three men expressed their rejection of these attacks and declared their readiness to cooperate with the government to uncover the perpetrators and hand them over to the relevant authorities," the commander told MEE.

"The three believe that the harm of these attacks is greater than their benefit, as they now target civilians and Iraqi forces, and there is no justification for launching them as long as the Iraqi government is committed to setting a schedule for the withdrawal of US forces,” he added.

"The problem is that the leaders of Kataeb Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq believe that Amiri, Fayyad, and Abu Fadak have become inclined towards Kadhimi and seek to protect him, and they do not like this."

Attacks may increase

Three factors are in play: Iraqi armed factions no longer have a unified leadership, many feel threatened by Iran talking to their enemies Saudi Arabia and the US, and there is a palpable fear of abandonment.

Armed faction commanders told MEE that for these three reasons the attacks will increase, and the Iraqi government’s crises will pile up if it continues to ignore the groups’ leaders and deal with the Iranians instead.

"They [the factions] want to distance themselves from the Iranians and force the Iraqi government and the Americans to negotiate directly with them,” the PMA commander told MEE.

"Kataeb Hezbollah, in particular, wants to be a decision-maker that cannot be bypassed in any issue related to Iraqi affairs, as well as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, but they have political representation and therefore they seem less concerned than Kataeb Hezbollah,” he added.

"The Iranians did not allow these attacks, and neither did [Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei, and this means that they do not have the power to stop them. It is likely that these attacks will continue until the concerned factions obtain adequate guarantees or the results of the negotiations are clear.”