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Soleimani's shadow: How the general's death upended Iranian strategy in Iraq

With the famed Quds Force leader gone, Tehran is embarking on a complete overhaul of its Iraqi paramilitaries. If it succeeds, a 'two-headed dragon' will emerge

To say that Iraq's Shia leaders are disappointed in the man who replaced Qassem Soleimani is an understatement. They are shocked.

Soleimani, the top Iranian general who was killed in a US drone strike on 3 January, 2020, moved among them with ease. He knew each leader, commander and many of their subordinates personally. Their bond, forged over decades, was renowned.

Brigadier General Esmail Qaani, the new commander of the Quds Force, Iran's elite unit tasked with overseas operations, boasts none of the same qualities and appears uninterested in replicating them.

In fact, despite a tumultuous year when conflict with the United States seemed a distinct possibility, Qaani has met Iraq's Shia leaders only a handful of times. His manner, the head of a prominent Shia political party said, resembled "an official only concerned with delivering messages and instructions".

'Soleimani had charisma that could not be overlooked. He spoke Arabic and had extended relations with most Iraqi politicians and armed-faction commanders, regardless of their affiliation or sect'

- Prominent Shia politician

Qaani, who cut his teeth in Afghanistan, has made no effort to break the ice with his new partners. His trips to Iraq are quick and businesslike. He invests no time in getting to know Iraq's leaders.

"Soleimani had charisma that could not be overlooked. He spoke Arabic and had extended relations with most Iraqi politicians and armed-faction commanders, regardless of their affiliation or sect," said a prominent Shia politician, who like everyone interview by Middle East Eye for this story declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject.

"This made him close to everyone, built his stature and gave him influence over the leaders, which he used to push them in the direction he desired."

Soleimani, say those who knew him, understood how to deal with each party - friend or foe.

"He could even find a settlement with opponents that made them feel that they'd reached a win-win situation," the politician said.

Qaani, on the other hand, doesn't even personally know Ammar al-Hakim, the towering Shia political leader, despite his influence across all sects in Iraq.

"Imagine that!" the politician said. "He only knows his brother Mohsen instead."

Esmail Qaani (C), weeping over the coffin his predecessor Qasem Soleimani during his funeral ceremony in Tehran (AFP)
Esmail Qaani (C), weeping over the coffin his predecessor Qasem Soleimani during his funeral ceremony in Tehran (AFP)

The contrast between Soleimani's confidence and access and Qaani's officiousness is becoming the thing of legend in Iraq's senior circles.

While Soleimani would arrive in the country unannounced, Qaani applies for a visa weeks in advance.

A new vision

The difference between Soleimani and Qaani matters. Iran has been unable to fill the void left by the general and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the godfather of most of the Iraqi armed factions who was killed alongside Soleimani.

In Soleimani's absence, Iran-backed Iraqi paramilitaries such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq are slipping out of control, ignoring Qaani's instructions.

Meanwhile, sanctions-hit Tehran is looking nervously at Iraq's own financial crisis, as low oil prices and the Covid-19 pandemic take their toll.

Together, these troublesome developments have forced Iran to "review" its foreign policy in the region and "accelerate" its plans to change tack in Iraq in particular, Iraqi politicians, leaders, security officials and armed faction commanders told Middle East Eye.

"The Iranians are currently working on a review of all of Soleimani's plans in Iraq. Previously, no one would dare admit that there were negatives, but after he was killed, everyone started talking about negatives," said one Iraqi politician close to Iranian intelligence.

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"They see that they have greatly exploited Iraq and relied on old allies who have depleted its resources and caused Iran to lose its popular Shia base. The goal now is to try new approaches and rearrange the situation inside Iraq to reduce losses."

Sources across Iraq's political, paramilitary and security scenes say Iranian authorities tasked with Iraq actually began to change policy months ago. They expect the changes to be broadly reflected in Iraqi politics and security soon. Already, the policy shift is being felt on the ground, particularly among the armed factions.

"The idea is to change the vision according to which the American-Iranian conflict is being managed inside Iraq to match the recent developments locally and regionally," a senior adviser to Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi said.

Three factors are being assessed by Iran: Joe Biden's incoming administration, armed factions loyal to Iraq's Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani breaking from the Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary, and upcoming parliamentary elections in Iraq.

"The idea is no longer about the identity of the winner or loser in this struggle. The idea is how to survive these conflicts with the least possible losses," the adviser said.

"Iran cannot accept the total loss of Iraq, nor can it risk compromising its major national interests. Therefore, making some concessions and stepping back several steps seems a response typical of Iran at the current stage."

The rise of Iranian intelligence

During the 80s, Iran was the main hotbed of Iraqi opposition against Saddam Hussein's rule. Its intelligence services had an active role, working with a number of armed and unarmed Iraqi opposition forces inside and outside Iraq.

But Iranian intelligence's influence in Iraq declined greatly after 2005, "when the direct conflict erupted between Iran on the one hand and the US and British forces on the other hand," said a former fighter with the Badr Organisation, the oldest and largest Iraqi armed group opposing Saddam.

Instead, the Quds Force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' most feared arm, became the institution charged with carrying out Iranian operations outside the borders, a partner for Iranian intelligence in managing the Iraqi file.

The Revolutionary Guard took an active part in directing the fight against US and British troops, and was getting stronger domestically, too.

In 2014, the rise of the Islamic State group (IS) gave the Quds Force its next foothold.

Under Soleimani, the unit directed Iraqi militias as they played a pivotal role in stopping the militants from marching on Baghdad, rolling IS back from towns and cities across north and western Iraq, and seizing control over large areas of territory.

Soldiers of the Hashd al-Shaabi wave the victory sign onboard a pickup truck, on their way to Tal Afar airport in 2016 (AFP)
Soldiers of the Hashd al-Shaabi wave the victory sign onboard a pickup truck, on their way to Tal Afar airport in 2016 (AFP)

The Quds Force now had complete control of Iran's affairs in Iraq, Shia politicians and officials said. Tehran's influence in the country had never been higher.

But underpinning this moment of victory was a tension that refused to subside, and a litany of paramilitary abuses were to follow, destabilizing Iraq as it recovered from the war against IS.

The Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation), a collection of armed factions, was formed in response to a fatwa issued by Sistani that called on Iraqis to mobilise against the militant group. Most were guided by Soleimani during the fight against IS.

Once the dust settled in 2017 and IS had been defeated, Tehran was able to impose near complete control over the Hashd al-Shaabi, which ignored its mandated acquiescence to the orders of the commander in chief of the Iraqi armed forces.

Under Iranian control, the Iran-backed groups in the Hashd subjected civilians to multiple human rights violations, and began posing a threat to Iraq's government, people and the western diplomatic missions it hosted.

'From the Iranian point of view, it is politics that should take centre stage now, not weapons'

- Political leader close to Iran

In response, Sistani's religious authority in Najaf demanded they be restructured and Iranian influence limited.

"The Iranians agreed to restructure the Hashd al-Shaabi just last year and were studying proposals to sacrifice some of the factions associated with them and merge other factions. But the project was stopped due to the outbreak of mass demonstrations in October 2019 and then the killing of Soleimani," said a political leader close to Iran.

"The killing of Soleimani did not impede the project, but it postponed implementation for a while."

Soleimani's death, Qaani's failure to replicate his stature, and various pressing issues have also accelerated a move that was hatched in Tehran before that fateful drone strike on Baghdad airport: handing Iraq back to Iranian intelligence.

"It is no longer possible to risk losing more influence inside Iraq and the region," the political leader said.

The Quds Force is already retreating. According to the political leader, it is organising its assets in Iraq and stepping back from the front-line position it has held in Iraqi affairs.

"From the Iranian point of view, it is politics that should take centre stage now, not weapons."

Changing tack

To many in Baghdad, the muddle of messages and actions coming out of Iran and its allies in Iraq reflects a conflict between the Revolutionary Guard and Iranian intelligence.

Some Iraqi leaders believe intelligence is urging restraint to the armed factions, while the Quds Force is clandestinely encouraging them to attack US assets.

The truth is unclear, but all Iraqi leaders spoken to by MEE agree that Tehran's vision for Iraq has fundamentally changed.

The vision, politicians and commanders of Iran-backed armed factions said, is based on three axes:

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Dismantling and dissolving some armed factions, or what they call "removing the outcrops"; supporting and strengthening the Iraqi government; and finding alternative sources of funding for its allies inside Iraq and protecting them with legally recognised political formations.

"The Iranians do not accept the existence of a strong unified force, so in recent years they worked to inflame the differences between the armed factions inside and outside the Hashd al-Shaabi, and this forced everyone, including the Iranians, into the state of chaos that we all are currently suffering from," another of Kadhimi's advisers said.

"The proposed alternative is an acceptable government that enjoys some power but accepts the presence of a two-headed militia force. The pro-Iran Hashd al-Shaabi may be one of them. Therefore, rearranging the Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi became very important at this time."

The first step, the adviser said, will be to find someone to replace Muhandis, co-founder of the fearsome Kataeb Hezbollah paramilitary whose influence among armed factions and closeness to Iran was unparalleled.

"Small factions like the Khorasani Brigades will disappear; some will turn into gangs, while others will merge with a greater force, and Iran will help implement this scenario because the factions have become an obstruction to the new Iranian policy."

Two-headed dragon

The many factions of the Hashd al-Shaabi share state-provided salaries, privileges and equipment. The majority were formed in 2014 at the behest of Sistani's fatwa.

But their loyalties do not all lie in the same place. Some answer to Najaf, others to Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The majority look to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who over the years has secured the loyalty of more groups through the promise of money, influence and weapons.

Nouri al-Maliki, prime minister when IS attacked in 2014, created the Popular Mobilisation Authority (PMA) that year in an attempt to fold the factions under a governmental umbrella. But Baghdad never grasped full control over the PMA.

A November 2016 law to regularize the paramilitaries was passed in an attempt to combat that. The Hashd al-Shaabi were suddenly subjected to the same rules as the rest of Iraq's security forces: factions' budgets, size and logistical support were curtailed along confessional and ethnic parameters.

'Small factions like the Khorasani Brigades will disappear; some will turn into gangs, while others will merge with a greater force'

- Advisor to Kadhimi

Armed groups had been swelling over the past two years, and with the PMA now allowed to administer only a certain number of fighters, tens of thousands were left out in the cold without government salaries or support.

Instead of cowing the paramilitaries, the 2016 law only increased the chaos.

Most of the commanders now out of the PMA continued to take advantage of the perks enjoyed by the Hashd al-Shaabi, including IDs, wheels, weapons and headquarters, which they used "to cover illegal activities and protect fighters who are not registered with the PMA," according to a security official.

Some, the official said, used PMA resources and fighters "to pursue personal and regional agendas and to be involved in acts of violence against civilians, state agencies and diplomatic missions".

Half-in, half-out militiamen filled their coffers through drug trafficking and seizing the property of displaced civilians. They extorted companies and businessmen, and kidnapped unsuspecting Iraqis and foreigners for ransom.

When protests broke out in October 2019, some began gunning down demonstrators and murdering or disappearing activists and journalists. Attacks on western diplomatic missions became routine.

Enough has become enough for Iran, Iraqi leaders say. Tehran's new plan suggests keeping the larger armed factions under the PMA, "provided that they are cleaned and the protrusions cut," and dissolving the smaller ones altogether, according to the head of a prominent Shia party familiar with these matters.

As for the factions not registered with the PMA, two or three will be kept to represent what is known as the "armed resistance," an unofficial anti-western paramilitary linked to the Quds Force.

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The rest will be employed in economic and political projects.

Kataeb Hezbollah and Herekat Hezbollah al-Nujabaa are "the two factions that are the most fortunate to survive and will form the nucleus of what will be known as the resistance forces," said a prominent commander of an Iran-backed Shia faction who is involved in the discussions.

The result will be two forces - the first a regularised Hashd al-Shaabi, the second the resistance force. "A two-headed dragon," as the second Kadhimi adviser puts it.

"This proposal may be acceptable regionally and internationally, as there will be great opportunities to gradually restore state control over the first force, while it works in cooperation with Iran to keep the latter away from the Iraqi arena," he said.

"Everything will depend on what the Iranian-American negotiations will produce. If the Iranians succeed in returning to the nuclear agreement, Iran will retain the major factions while accepting the Iraqi government's participation in controlling them."

All other fighters and factions are to be abandoned and left to the mercy of the Iraqi government and Washington.

"A goodwill gesture," the adviser said.

Removing outcrops

The importance Iran is placing on those future negotiations with Washington cannot be overestimated.

That's why Tehran has issued strict instructions to its allies in Iraq to stop any attacks on US interests in the country, which the Iranians fear could prompt outgoing President Donald Trump to instigate a war before he leaves the Oval Office.

Yet raids on American forces, bases and the US embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone have not stopped since Khamenei's directive in November.

Meanwhile, the US military build-up in the region is continuing. An Iraqi security official said the American intelligence community has said on multiple occasions that a "retaliatory attack targeting US interests in Iraq on the first anniversary of Soleimani's assassination is expected".

Pictures of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis are seen near the remains of their destroyed vehicles in Baghdad airport (Reuters)
Pictures of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis are seen near the remains of their destroyed vehicles in Baghdad airport (Reuters)

Qaani, who visited Baghdad on 23 December, met with Kadhimi and President Barham Salih "to impart a message to the Americans that Iran has nothing to do with the recent attacks" that recently targeted the US embassy, an Iraqi Shia politician familiar with the talks said.

The general stressed that Tehran has no plans to retaliate on the anniversary of Soleimani's death.

Qaani's visit, which did not last for more than 24 hours, was followed by an official Iraqi delegation visiting Tehran on 27 December, headed by one of Kadhimi's advisers.

Although there is not much information on why an official delegation went to Iran a few days after Qaani's visit, it is clear that the delegation carried an American response to the Iranian message.

A number of Shia leaders suggest that the Iraqi delegation requested Iran's assistance in pursuing "uncontrolled elements". They believe the delegation wanted an agreement with Iran over how to rein in unruly factions and increase coordination between Kadhimi and Mohammed "Abu Fadek" Abdulaziz, the PMA's chief of staff. This could include removing cover for any groups that do not fall into line.

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Yet developments make it likely Kadhimi and Tehran reached this agreement earlier.

On 23 December, Iraqi security forces arrested Hussam al-Azirjawi, a missile engineer and one of the leaders of powerful armed faction Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and three others on the charge of "attacking the American embassy with missiles".

Days earlier saw the arrest of Hamed al-Jazaery and Ali al-Yasiri, the commanders of the Khorasani Brigades, who are accused of kidnapping, extortion, and financial and administrative corruption. A week before that, 30 others from the same group were also seized.

"Dismantling the Khorasani Brigades, arresting its leaders and confiscating its properties is an indication that the process of cleaning up the Hashd al-Shaabi has actually begun," said the head of a Shia political party close to the Iranians.

According to the leader, these tactics will be used to wipe away smaller factions and clean up the larger ones.

"Practically, it is a restructuring process for the Hashd al-Shaabi. Within two weeks, all the details related to Khorasani will be resolved and they will start with another faction," he said.

"The PMA Security Directorate is carrying out this process and it is the one that made recommendations to the leadership of the PMA to clean the Hashd al-Shaabi of corrupt elements and cut off the outgrowths."

Alternative funding

Ultimately, both Iraq and Iran share the same reason to shake up the paramilitaries and pursue less confrontational policies: they are broke.

Iraq, Opec's second-largest producer, has depended on oil sales for 95 percent of its budget for decades. But falling oil prices and the Covid-19 pandemic have hollowed out its revenues. Since April, Baghdad has struggled to secure the salaries of around four million state employees and beneficiaries.

Isolated by US sanctions, Iran has for two years relied heavily on Iraq. Trade between the two is currently at around $12bn, and Iraq is one of the largest consumer markets for Iranian goods in the region.

However, officials say, it is illicit activities in Iraq that provide Iran with the greater revenue, including the smuggling of currency, oil and drugs.

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Iraqi leaders told MEE that Muhandis used to secure Iran $100m-$135m per month by skimming off the PMA's budget provided by the Baghdad government. Without him, that has dried up.

Muhandis is also alleged to have used the Qi Card - the method through which PMA fighters are paid - to skim salaries and collect pay for thousands of fighters who exist in name only.

Without him, Tehran has lost an extra $10m-$15m in Qi Card cash as well, leaders said.

The director of the Qi Card company, the former director of the General Pension Authority and several local banks' managers were arrested in Baghdad in September on charges of financial corruption, which in turn affected the salaries of tens of thousands of retired and current PMA fighters.

With Tehran and Baghdad both broke, it is not clear how the paramilitaries' salaries can be secured moving forward. Iran propped up the armed factions in the first years of the Hashd al-Shaabi's existence, but is not in a position to now.

"The biggest challenge [that faces Iran] is how to keep the fighters of these factions together without breaking their knots. Iran does not have the money to keep them attached, as they have turned into a great burden on its shoulders," said a prominent commander of an Iranian-backed armed faction.

"But it also does not want to sacrifice them or lose control, as happened recently with some factions. One of the biggest reasons for Asaib Ahl al-Haq's rebellion against Iran is that [its leader Qais] Khazali feels that he no longer needs Iran. Rather, he is richer without them and is much stronger."

The answer, Iran believes, is pastoral.

Shia armed factions have been commanded to buy or rent tens of thousands of acres of unclaimed land from the Iraqi government in the arid governorates of Samawah, Diwaniyah and Najaf along the Saudi border.

This is "to form a security barrier with Saudi Arabia and prevent the Iraqi government from signing contracts with it in the future," the commander said.

There is no clear map or specific pattern for selecting these lands, but what is needed is the lower and more salty lands, rich in groundwater.

A view of cattle sitting in the marshes (ahwar) of the southern district of Chibayish in Iraq's Dhi Qar province (AFP)
A view of cattle sitting in the marshes (ahwar) of the southern district of Chibayish in Iraq's Dhi Qar province (AFP)

Commanders select land to acquire using satellite imagery, then task people close to their factions to draw up a deal with the Ministry of Agriculture,  

Politicians and commanders familiar with the process told MEE that the contracts to lease these lands are very cheap. A square kilometre of land does not exceed one million dinars ($680), they said, and the state's Agricultural Bank and the Ministry of Agriculture happily provide loans, investment, equipment and seeds.

On these lands crops such as potatoes, wheat and alfalfa will be grown. Poultry, cows and goats will be reared. Cement and phosphate factories will be erected.

"The plan is to pull the fighters of the armed factions who are not registered with the Hashd out of the cities and throw them into investment projects that secure jobs for them and keep them busy away from interior Iraq," the prominent commander said.

"This is how we will ensure that they stay together without getting into trouble or splitting up, and at the same time we will solve their financing problem. They will turn to civilian work completely, as happened with the Badr Organization after 2003, and as long as there is no external threat, they will put their weapons aside," he added.

"These weapons will not be handed over to the government, but they will disappear from the surface and the money that was used to buy more weapons will be invested elsewhere."

Playing politics

Keeping Asaib Ahl al-Haq leader Khazali, one of the most "ambitious" Shia leaders linked to Iran, under control is one of the great challenges that Iran will face in its next project, Shia leaders say.

Khazali did not hesitate to announce his public rejection of Iranian orders not to target US interests in Iraq, and although Asaib Ahl al-Haq insists that its fighters did not target the US embassy, the confessions provided by Azirjawi to investigators contradict the faction's denials.

It is not clear now what the future of the relationship between Khazali and Iran will be. But what is certain is that Iran will do what is necessary to stop the friction and the competition between Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the rest of the factions, especially Kataeb Hezbollah.

'Khazali is very provocative and tends to escalate and radicalise stances because he feels that the Iranians have let him down'

- Commander of Iran-backed armed faction

The jostling between Asaib and Kataeb over spoils in Baghdad and other provinces, especially in the western Anbar and southern Ramadi, almost led to the outbreak of fighting between the two factions last month, when fighters from the former tried to set up security checkpoints in the areas controlled by the latter, and impose additional fees on trucks coming from Syria.

A rivalry of another kind between Asaib and Herekat Hezbollah al-Nujaba is also rumbling on, but this time is centred around Khazali and Akram al-Kaabi.

Once brothers in arms, Kaabi and al-Nujaba split from Asaib in 2013. Now Khazali and Kaabi have fallen out over Kaabi's perceived closeness to the leadership of factions set to become part of the "resistance force".

Shia leaders say Khazali thinks he should be the one to take command of the "resistance force," believing himself more efficient and fierce than Kaabi. Yet even the name of Khazali's brother Laith has been suggested before him.

The same type of competition is raging between Khazali and Abu Fadak, whose "chances of succeeding al-Muhandis within the PMA are increasing".

"Khazali is very provocative and tends to escalate and radicalise stances because he feels that the Iranians have let him down," the commander of a pro-Iran armed faction closed to the Asaib leader told MEE.

"He sees himself as the right one to lead the Shia armed scene, but the Iranians prefer not to support him for this position, especially since Asaib has been involved in politics a lot and now controls many ministries and top offices in the government.

"The Iranians see Khazali as a political leader rather than a fighter, as he is better at negotiating and bargaining than others."

Qais al-Khazali paying respects by the grave of slain Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Najaf (AFP)
Qais al-Khazali paying respects by the grave of slain Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Najaf (AFP)

Khazali's credentials in politics are clear, as are his ambitions.

Already he controls 15 seats in parliament, but aspires to lead the biggest Iranian-backed bloc, al-Fatah, and has concluded an agreement with the leaders of the Shia blocs to form a quadripartite council, politicians and the bloc's members said.

The council, they revealed, will include him and representatives from the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (ISCI), the National Sind bloc and the Badr Organization. It will manage Fatah's affairs and prepare for upcoming elections, in which they will run together.

"Khazali aspires to play a greater political and governmental role, and is currently preparing for this to expand the participation of his supporters in the upcoming parliamentary elections," a Shia political leader told MEE

"He is qualified to play this role, as he has the money, weapons, supporters and the appropriate opportunity."

Moving forward

The success of Iran's plan depends on many factors, but primarily two: the behaviour of a bitter and irrational Trump, and the health of Khamenei.

Rumours of the Iranian supreme leader's ill health have circulated for weeks, so much so that a recent public appearance was international news.

"If everything goes smoothly, by 2022-2023 Iran will give up all its external arms," said a Shia politician close to Tehran, referring to Iranian-backed armed groups.

"If Khamenei dies, this period will be shortened to days, but if an armed confrontation with the US breaks out next few days, the whole project will return to the dark drawers."