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Iran-backed PMFs are destabilising Iraq’s disputed regions

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On April 15, a drone laden with explosives targeted military facilities hosting US troops in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), but resulted in no casualties. On the same day, rocket fire on a Turkish military base in Mosul’s Bashiqa region killed one Turkish solider.

The attacks, attributed to pro-Iran factions based in Iraq, have been widely seen in the context of the US-Iran and Turkey-Iran rivalries in the region. However, such analysis ignores an important development linked to these incidents: the attempt of 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- and intra-communal 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 characterised by deep militarisation of ethno-religious and sectarian identities in Nineveh and Kirkuk governorates.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 gave an opportunity to Iran to massively expand its influence on the internal affairs of its neighbour. Apart from developing a network of supporters within civilian power structures, Iran also trained and armed a number of paramilitaries, including the Badr Organisation, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Hezbollah, and Saraya al-Khorasani.

With the expansion of ISIS into Iraqi territory in 2014 and the fatwa to initiate a popular mobilisation issued by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest religious authority among Iraqi Shia, these armed groups became part of the so-called Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces, PMFs). They spearheaded the fight against ISIS and enjoyed quite a bit of popularity.

The PMFs arrived in the disputed areas of the north in October 2017, after they, along with regular Iraqi forces, attacked the Kurdish Peshmerga in the aftermath of the independence referendum conducted by the KRG. Although allegedly acting under orders from Baghdad in the beginning, Iran-backed PMFs have since pursued their own political and military goals.

The pro-Iranian armed groups have sought to establish themselves more permanently in Nineveh and Kirkuk thus extending the military reach Tehran has over Iraqi........

© Al Jazeera

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