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Tensions rise between pro-Iran militias in Iraq

By Faris al-Omran

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Elements of pro-Iran Iraqi militias hold a parade in the city of Karbala on October 8th. [Photo circulated on social media]

There has been an escalation in the intensity of disputes between pro-Iran militias operating in Iraq that threatens to deepen rifts between them, Iraqi observers said.

These disputes are especially pronounced between Kataib Hizbullah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, with each attempting to impose its hegemony on the other.

The disputes date back to February, when it was announced that prominent Kataib Hizbullah commander Abdul Aziz al-Mohammadawi, also known as "Abu Fadak" or "al-Khal", had been appointed to succeed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Al-Muhandis, deputy head of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), was killed in a US strike near Baghdad airport in January alongside Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.

Al-Mohammadawi's appointment irritated other militias, including Asaib Ahl al-Haq, as it consolidates the influence of Kataib Hizbullah within the PMF.

Muzahim al-Huweit, spokesman for the Arab tribes in the Kurdish region, told Diyaruna all armed groups loyal to Iran, including Kataib Hizbullah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, are in agreement on "serving the Iranian project".

The pro-Iran militias, known as "loyalists", follow the orders of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, he said, especially on the issue of targeting diplomatic missions and the international military presence in Iraq.

There is no dispute between them over this particular issue, he said.

At the core of the disagreement, he said, is each side's desire to eliminate competition from the other and monopolise loyalty and influence.

"When hegemony is a source of wealth, the relationship between those sides would certainly not be ideal and deep mistrust would prevail," he added.

Struggle for resources, expansion

Al-Huweit said Iran's proxies share influence on the ground while covertly struggling to expand the area where their fighters have a presence and trying to maximise their sources of income.

They do this through engaging in corruption, smuggling and the conduct of illegal economic activities, he said.

In a televised interview broadcast by Iran's al-Alam channel on December 5th, Iran's ambassador to Baghdad Iraj Masjedi acknowledged there had been disputes between the militias.

But he downplayed the tensions, characterising them as "a normal thing" and denying the Iranian government was responsible for provoking them.

Masjedi's assertion in the interview that Iran does not support armed groups who do not follow the orders of the Iraqi state were met with indignation by Iraqis on social media.

Several weeks earlier, in a clear indication of the escalation of disputes between Iran's proxies, IRGC Quds Force commander Esmail Qaani visited Baghdad.

It was reported that his visit came to urge the preservation of the October 10th truce announced by groups linked to Kataib Hizbullah, which called for the suspension of attacks on US and international interests.

This ceasefire has been violated twice already.

On November 17th, a barrage of missiles struck the Green Zone and surrounding area and killed a girl.

And on December 10th, two convoys carrying logistical equipment for the international coalition came under attack: one near Baghdad, and the other in the south of the country.

'Real purpose' of Qaani's visit

Observers, including al-Huweit, said the real purpose of Qaani's visit was to calm the escalating disputes between Iran's proxies for fear relations between them could unravel and get out of control.

This is of particular concern in light of the approach of the elections, set for June 6th, 2021, and the start of the electoral competition, al-Huweit said.

In a stance that suggests Qaani's efforts failed to heal the rift, Asaib Ahl al-Haq leader Qais al-Khazaali played down -- in a November 19th interview on state television -- the role that his rival Abu Fadak played in arranging the truce.

He also announced that it has ended.

Iraqi Centre for Strategic Studies head Ghazi Faisal Hussein told Diyaruna that pro-Iran militias do not adopt a national agenda "and are always pushing the country towards a maelstrom of problems, crises and instability".

"They are unruly chaos-causing groups who are working to implement the strategy of regional expansion pursued by Iran, which is based on spreading havoc and destruction and fomenting extremism in the region," he said.

"These groups engage in this hostile behaviour even among themselves," he added, noting that "signs of division have already appeared".

There has already been a rift between militias that are loyal to the Wali al-Faqih (Khamenei) and groups affiliated with the religious authorities in Najaf, he said.

The four Najaf-aligned factions -- Liwa Ansar al-Marja'iyya, Liwa Ali al-Akbar, al-Abbas Combat Division and Imam Ali Combat Division -- on December 4th reiterated their commitment to safeguarding the authority of the state.

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