On April 15, an explosive-laden drone headed for military installations housing U.S. troops in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region (KRI), but did not cause any damage. death. The same day, a rocket against a Turkish military base in the Bashiqa region of Mosul killed a Turkish soldier.
The attacks, attributed to pro-Iran factions based in Iraq, have been widely seen in the context of US-Iran and Turkey-Iran rivalries in the region. However, this analysis ignores an important development related to these incidents: the attempt by Iranian-backed paramilitaries in northern Iraq to consolidate their power in territories disputed between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
The presence and growing strength of these groups have profound implications not only for the future of Baghdad-Erbil relations, but also for inter-communicative and intra-community relations in these ethnically diverse regions. Since their arrival, Iran-backed paramilitaries have transformed the nature of the dispute over these territories from a conflict between two governments, to a very complex situation characterized by a deep militarization of ethno-religious and sectarian identities in the governorates of Nineveh and Kirkuk.
Militarization of ethno-religious and sectarian groups
The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 gave Iran a chance to massively expand its influence in its neighbor’s internal affairs. Apart from developing a network of supporters within civilian power structures, Iran also trained and armed several paramilitaries, including the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Hezbollah and Saraya al-Khorasani.
With the expansion of ISIS into Iraqi territory in 2014 and the fatwa to start a popular mobilization issued by the great ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest religious authority among Iraqi Shiites, these armed groups became part of the called Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces, PMF). They led the fight against ISIS and enjoyed considerable popularity.
The PMFs reached the disputed areas of the north in October 2017, after, along with regular Iraqi forces, attacking the Kurdish Peshmerga after the independence referendum held by the KRG. Although they allegedly acted under Baghdad’s orders at first, Iran-backed PMFs have pursued their own political and military goals.
Pro-Iranian armed groups have tried to establish themselves more permanently in Nineveh and Kirkuk, thus expanding Tehran’s military reach over Iraqi territory. By recruiting fighters from local communities and creating new factions, the PMFs have militarized and politicized ethno-religious and sectarian identities.
In the Nineveh district, Hamdaniah, Telkaif and Bashiqa, established the 30th Brigade, dominated by members of the Shabak community, an ethnic and religious minority, which follows Shiites from the Twelver. They also created the 53rd Shia Turks Brigade in Telafar, which includes a Yazidi Lalish unit for Yazidis in Sinjar. They also created the 50th Brigade for the Assyrians in Hamdaniah district.
In Sinjar, in the western province of Nineveh, pro-Iranian factions of the PMF have also supported Sinjar Resistance Units, formed during the fight against ISIS and initially equipped and trained by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). ). They formally joined the al-Nasr al-Mubeen brigade of the PMF in 2018.
In the Kirkuk provinces, there has been a similar proliferation of local armed groups. In the Taza district, Iran-backed paramilitaries created the 16th Brigade by arming and training local Shiite Turkmen. They have also recruited Shiite Turkmen for the 52nd Brigade. Pro-Iran PMFs have also tried to create a faction for the Kaka’i community, a Kurdish-speaking religious minority based in Daquq and Kirkuk, but it has not yet been fully successful.
Other political and military forces, including the KRG, armed groups associated with the cleric Sistani and Shiite Muqtada al-Sadr and some local Sunni politicians, have also tried to establish and support their own factions in the disputed territories.
Aside from gaining influence over local communities through military presence and recruitment, pro-Iranian PMFs have deployed shadow administrations, building security, social, political, and economic structures that rival and undermine the formal ones. They have been involved not only in controlling the movement of people and goods, but also in “taxing” local businesses. They have also been involved in religious affairs, controlling Sunni religious sites and endowments and supporting newly created Shiite endowments.
These activities of pro-Iranian groups have exacerbated intra- and inter-community tensions. For example, in the city of Kirkuk, Sunni Turks outnumber Shiite Turks, but PMF support has encouraged Shiite Turks, who have become more politically assertive. This could lead to further intra-Turkmen fractures as Shiites consolidate power in central Kirkuk. A similar dynamic is developing in the Telafar district amid the turmoil.
Among Yazidis, intra-communal divisions are also deepening. Areas falling under the influence of pro-Iranian PMFs and the PKK have challenged traditional community power structures. This was reflected in tensions over the election of a new Yazidi leader after the death of Tahsin Said Beg in 2019.
In July of that year, after months of debate reflecting deep internal divisions within the community, the Yazidis of Sheikhan, with the support of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, appointed their son, Hazim Tahsin Beg, as the new prince. . In response, PKK-affiliated Yazidis and PMF in Sinjar threatened something akin to secession, promising to appoint a leader of their own choice.
Undermining the power of government
The dispute between Baghdad and KRG over territories dates back to the process of drafting the constitution initiated after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime as a result of the US invasion in 2003. The constitution outlined the boundaries of the semi-autonomous KRI. but it left unresolved the status of Kirkuk province and many districts of Nineveh, Salahaddin and Diyala, where Kurdish communities live. Referendums were never held to decide the fate of these disputed territories.
Over the years, this dispute has been complicated by several factors, including budget disagreements and persistent insecurity. The presence of Iran-backed PMFs, however, has put more pressure on Baghdad-Erbil relations and has directly undermined efforts to move forward on this key issue.
When Adel Abdul Mahdi led the Iraqi government in 2018, the resolution of disputes with the KRG was pushed back. The central government negotiated with Erbil the creation of joint coordination centers in many areas of Kirkuk and Nineveh provinces. But Iran-backed PMFs actively sought to undermine these efforts.
In October 2019, the Iraqi Interior Ministry and the Peshmerga KRG Ministry reached a final agreement to set up five joint coordination centers in Kirkuk, Mosul, Makhmour, Khanaqin and Kask. Days later, the Interior Ministry, under the influence of the PMF, renounced the agreement. Under the current government of Mustafa al-Kadhimi, only two centers have been set up in Baghdad and Erbil.
Iran-backed paramilitary groups also tried to sabotage the Sinjar Agreement, signed in October 2020 between Erbil and Baghdad with the support of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq. The agreement aimed to boost Sinjar’s stabilization process by addressing two key issues: the existence of multiple armed actors and two rival administrations for the district. But after seven months, no progress has been made on the ground to implement the agreement.
Some have attributed the failure of the agreement to the lack of commitment and inclusion of all sectors of Sinjar and Yazidi society. The truth, however, is that the main barrier is the rejection of Iranian-backed militias of the essence of the agreement – the establishment of a government monopoly on the use of force – and the refusal to withdraw. .
It is not in the interest of pro-Iran groups for the KRG and the central Iraqi government to restore control over Sinjar because they will lose not only politically but also economically. The PMFs present in Sinjar directly benefit from cross-border smuggling by imposing a tax system on imports from Syria, including animals, agricultural products, and so on.
The recent attacks on U.S. and Turkish forces are likely the result of the intransigence of Iran-backed groups in the face of growing pressure for them to withdraw from the north and west of the country. There is also growing concern that its popularity is declining, which became evident during popular protests against the 2019-2020 government in southern Baghdad and Shiite-majority cities.
Therefore, Iran-backed PMFs are desperately looking for “new enemies” in the face of KRG and Turkey allies of the United States to continue to justify their presence in the disputed regions and maintain the current security and power structure.
Undermining efforts to conclude and implement agreements between Erbil and Baghdad on the disputed areas, Iran-backed armed groups are preventing the re-establishment of strong civilian power centers that could pave the way for the stabilization and reconstruction of these areas. . This is in line with Iran’s overall strategy for Iraq: to keep it in a state of constant uncertainty, with weak state institutions and control.
As long as the Iraqi government is not able to curb these powerful non-state actors, it will not be able to steer the country towards stability and socio-economic development. Its continued presence in disputed areas is causing tensions that in the near future could lead to renewed conflict.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.