BAGHDAD — It was a stark message: A convoy of masked Shiite militiamen, armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, drove openly through central Baghdad denouncing the U.S. presence in Iraq and threatening to cut off the prime minister’s ear.
The ominous display underscored the growing threat that rogue militias loyal to Tehran pose for Iraq. It came at a time when Baghdad seeks to bolster relations with its Arab neighbors and is gearing up for early elections, scheduled for October, amid a worsening economic crisis and a global pandemic.
Last week’s procession also sought to undermine Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s credibility, with Iran-aligned militias driving down a major highway and passing near ministries as Iraqi security forces looked on. Ahead of a new round of talks between the U.S. government and Iraq, it sent a stark warning that the militias will not be curbed.
A fourth round of so-called strategic Iraq-U.S. talks is scheduled for next week after the Iraqi government requested it, partly in response to pressure from Shiite political factions and militias loyal to Iran that have lobbied for the remaining U.S. troops to leave Iraq.
The talks, which began in June under the Trump administration, would be the first under President Joe Biden. On the agenda is an array of issues, including the presence of U.S. combat forces in the country and the issue of Iraqi militias acting outside of state authority. The discussions are meant to shape the future of the U.S.-Iraq relationship, a senior U.S. official recently said.
It is a tightrope for al-Kadhimi, who has said that bringing armed groups under state control is a goal of his administration but finds himself increasingly helpless in reining in the groups. U.S. officials have said Washington will use the meetings to clarify that U.S. forces remain in Iraq for the sole purpose of ensuring the Islamic State group “cannot reconstitute” itself — a signal that the U.S. seeks to keep the 2,500 remaining American soldiers in Iraq.
Political analyst Ihsan Alshamary said the militias’ military-style parade sought to weaken al-Kadhimi’s government and project strength.
The militiamen in the parade were mostly from a shadowy Shiite group known as Rabaallah — one of about a dozen that surfaced after the Washington-directed drone strike that killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad in January 2020.
Both Soleimani and al-Muhandis were key in commanding and controlling a wide array of Iran-backed groups operating in Iraq, and their deaths in the U.S. airstrike outraged Iraqi lawmakers, prompting them to approve a non-binding resolution to oust U.S.-led coalition forces from the country.
Since then, militias have also become increasingly unruly and disparate. Some Washington and Iraq-based observers argue the militias have splintered into new, previously unknown groups, allowing them to claim attacks under different names to mask the extent of their involvement.
Rabaallah, for instance, is believed to be a front for one of the most powerful Iran-backed factions in Iraq, which the U.S. has blamed for rocket attacks targeting the American Embassy in Baghdad and military bases that house U.S. troops.
For his part, al-Kadhimi has tried to curb the militias’ money-making border activities, including smuggling and bribery, and show his American interlocutors that he is capable of keeping domestic adversaries in check.
Badawi said the pressure from the militias will likely increase ahead of the strategic talks with the U.S. on April 7.