Security

Iraq reforms stymied by shadowy groups' wave of attacks

By AFP

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A photo taken October 26th, 2019, shows members of the Popular Mobilisation Forces during a funerary procession in Baghdad for Wissam Alyawi, a commander of the Iran-aligned militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq. [Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP]

Iraq hopes to launch reforms and revive its battered economy, but the drive is being derailed by a wave of violence blamed largely on shadowy pro-Iran groups.

Since Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhemi took office in May, he has promised to rein in rogue militias, fight corruption and roll out long-awaited restructuring.

But the closer his government gets to its stated aims, the more armed actors with suspected links to Iran are lashing out, top Iraqi officials and analysts said.

"Every time these groups see us getting close to their military or economic interests, they either launch rockets or propaganda campaigns to distract us," said one senior government official.

Late Tuesday (September 8th), a bomb hit a supply convoy heading to an Iraqi base where US troops are deployed, killing one member of the Iraqi forces.

On September 3rd, an attack targeted the Baghdad headquarters of British-American security company G4S. One intelligence official said a drone had dropped an explosive charge on the building.

No faction claimed responsibility, but Iran-backed groups had accused G4S of complicity in January's US strike that killed Iran's top general Qassem Soleimani.

Days earlier, a UN worker was wounded when an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated underneath an aid convoy in the northern city of Mosul.

A faction identifying itself as part of the "Islamic resistance" -- a catch-all phrase for pro-Iran factions -- took responsibility, issuing an online threat.

Smokescreen

A half-dozen previously unheard-of such factions have made similar threats in recent months under the "Islamic resistance" banner, but officials say they are a smokescreen.

"Five groups, including Kataib Hizbullah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and others, are behind the recent instability across the country," an Iraqi intelligence officer said.

These hardline groups are members of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a state-sponsored network dominated by factions close to Iran.

US officials have made similar accusations, naming Kataib Hizbullah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq as the real perpetrators of rocket attacks on US installations in Iraq.

The same groups had accused Kadhemi of plotting against Soleimani when the former was Iraq's top intelligence official and were furious when he rose to become premier.

They have understood Kadhemi's pledges to rein in armed groups as an attempt to clip their wings, officials and experts have said.

Beyond escalating rocket attacks, the groups also have ramped up pressure through unconventional media outlets.

Anonymous channels on messaging application Telegram publish taunting warnings of attacks on military convoys well before they happen, deepening a sense of impunity.

The same forums have targeted Iraqi television channels critical of Iran.

Dijla TV was torched last week after the Telegram channels turned on them, and a new wave of threats have targeted Sunni-owned UTV.

The campaign began after the US government seized the website domains of Al-Etejah, an Iraqi television station linked to Kataib Hizbullah.

'Putting out fires'

The government is not looking for a direct confrontation with these groups, said Kadhemi's spokesman Ahmad Mulla.

"Instead, we are looking to dry up their funding resources by targeting border crossings" used for lucrative smuggling from Iran, Mulla said.

Officials knew this could be dangerous. When Kadhemi launched a sweeping anti-corruption campaign on Iraq's porous borders, they braced for the worst.

"They will blackmail officials, threaten their families, mobilise the tribes and maybe even commit assassinations," one senior official told AFP in July.

Indeed, two prominent activists were gunned down weeks later in the southern port city of Basra, and tribal violence erupted north of Baghdad.

"We are constantly putting out fires, so we cannot properly focus on the bigger strategy," another Iraqi official said, about Baghdad's efforts to reform the state and revitalise an economy hit by the coronavirus pandemic and low oil prices.

A third official said Iraq's Finance Minister Ali Allawi missed his August 24th deadline to submit an economic reform plan to parliament because of the recent tumult.

Last week, Kadhemi set up an anti-corruption council, authorising the elite troops of the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) to arrest officials usually considered too senior to touch.

His forces also carried out search operations in Basra and Baghdad to seize unlicensed arms, but few have turned up.

Iraqi security expert Fadel Abou Ragheef said the situation was "dangerous".

"Ultimately, Kadhemi should open a real dialogue with the spiritual leaders of these groups to avoid a clash," he said.

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