In recent weeks, there have been a slew of analyses and articles, for the Washington Institute and in Foreign Affairs and the Economist, suggesting that Iranian-backed militias have captured Iraq. While the thesis and, in some cases, the headlines are breathless, the alarmism is unwarranted.
Simply put, the sky is not falling.
Much of the focus on the alleged state capture by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) rests in increasing numbers to them under the current budget. While it is true their numbers have increased, there are other dynamics ongoing that argue against the conclusion that Prime Minister Muhammad Shia’ al Sudani’s administration represents a Trojan Horse for Iranian interests.
First, it is important not to take all PMF numbers at face value. According to Transparency International, Iraq is among the world’s most corrupt countries. This does not surprise. Corruption is not spread equally across the country. On one side of the spectrum, there is Sudani who has a relatively clean reputation. On the other are PMF leaders, former Prime Ministers Nouri al-Maliki, the Barzani family, and the advisors surrounding Mustafa Kadhimi, if not Kadhimi himself. PMF leaders regularly inflate numbers or hire fewer than the numbers allotted to them under the budget in order to skim money off-the-top. A guestimate would be that only three-quarters of the PMF employees on the books actually exist. While it is true the numbers trend higher today, it is important to take them with a grain of salt.
Political dynamics also matter. Sudani may have once served in Maliki’s cabinet but he intellectually broke with Maliki years ago. Maliki is still a force in Iraq, however, and so Sudani must play a political game. To channel some money to Qais Khazali, secretary-general of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, provides balance within his coalition to prevent either Qais or Maliki from overshadowing the prime minister. Consider it the domestic political equivalent of how Iraqi leaders seek to play Iran and the United States off each other in order to ensure Iraqis have space to maneuver independently.
One of the biggest problems with the recent articles, however, is that they fail to address the lag in Iraqi bureaucracy. The passage of the budget incorporates funding for around 109,000 Iraqi Security Force members whose contracts had been suspended pending passage of the budget. Most of these laid-off security force members reported to the Ministry of Defense or the Ministry of the Interior, but around 30,000 are PMF. The key here is that previous administrations had appointed these men. Kadhimi himself was responsible for appointing many of the PMF members whose numbers now inflate the total.
Specifically, Kadhimi approved 35,000 PMF at the end of 2021. Then-Finance Minister Ali Allawi made the transfer for their salary. In 2022, their expenses were folded into an emergency food security bill. Others hiring stalled due to the lack of a budget for 2022. The current budget simply makes good on previous political promises.
Iraqi officials say the budget increase for the PMF also represents cost to build camps outside the cities, as there was broad political consensus—and American pressure—to move PMF militiamen outside of urban centers. It is unfair to demand Iraq take an action, and then castigate it as an Iranian proxy for following through on American demands.
To be clear, this is not to downplay the role of the militias. Recently, militias detained Princeton University graduate student Elisabeth Tsurkov, who reportedly entered Iraq on her Russian passport, after being warned previously not to return. While her case is murky, rumors are rife she was transferred to Iran or something worse. Her twitter account has been dormant since she entered Iraq almost three months ago.
Iraq is a democracy, albeit an imperfect one. Iraq today likely has more retired prime ministers than any other Arab country. While the system is convoluted, Iraqis enter elections not knowing whom their next leader will be. Analysts should assess all prime ministers by the same standards, rather than allow personal relationships or access to color conclusions.
The simple facts are these: Iraqis would be the first to acknowledge that the PMF are a problem. Most Iraqis advise addressing them with a scalpel rather than an axe. The West should support Iraq in its efforts. At the same time, however, it is important to recognize the special dynamics of Iraqi democracy. Prime Ministers seek to define their legacy. Some are content to stand on their record, but those who failed too often seek to redeem themselves by casting aspersions upon their successors, if not directly than by proxy. It is a deeply unpatriotic and counterproductive tactic that is bad for Iraq as few outside the country will differentiate between administrations or individuals.
Now a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).