On April 15, a drone-laden drone stormed a U.S. military base in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region Iraq (KRI), but was unharmed. The same day, a rocket that engulfed a Turkish army in the Bashiqa region of Mosul killed one person in Turkey.
The attack, which is said to be by pro-Iranian groups based in Iraq, is evident in the US-Iran and Turkey-Iran rivals in the region. However, such an analysis ignores an important developmental parallel in this regard: an attempt by Iranian-backed forces in northern Iraq to consolidate their power in the conflict zones between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan government (KRG).
The existence of these growth forces also affects the future of the Baghdad-Erbil relationship, as well as inter-state relations between the various governments. Since its arrival, Iranian-backed forces have transformed the region’s conflict situation from a standoff between the two governments, becoming a major issue identified by religious and religious forces in the states of Nineveh and Kirkuk.
Military and sectarian groups
The Iraq invasion of Iraq in 2003 provided an opportunity for Iran to increase its influence on the internal affairs of its allies. In addition to forming an allied force within the armed forces, Iran also trained and struck a number of weapons, including the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Hezbollah, and Saraya al-Khorasani.
With the rise of ISIS in Iraq in 2014 and the fatwa for the formation of a popular group sponsored by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a religious leader among Shia Iraqis, the militants became part of the Hashd al-Shaabi (Prominent Leaders, PMFs). He led the war against ISIS and became less famous.
The PMF arrived in northern October 2017, where they, along with the Iraqi regular army, attacked the Kurdish Peshmerga after the KRG election on its independence. Despite being said to be making the first move from Baghdad, Iran-backed PMFs have achieved their political and military achievements.
Iranian forces want to establish themselves in Nineveh and Kirkuk thus bringing troops to Tehran in Iraq. By recruiting militants in their area and forming new factions, the PMF encouraged political and religious groups.
In the Hamdaniah province of Nineveh, Telkaif and Bashiqa, established the 30th Brigade, ruled by the Shabak people, ethnic and religious minorities, who follow the Twelver Shia-ism. He also founded the 53rd Shia Turkmens in Telafar, which includes the Yazidi Lalish division of Yazidis in Sinjar. He also formed the 50th Assyrian Brigade in the province of Hamdaniah.
In Sinjar in the western part of Nineveh, the pro-Iran faction of the PMF has also supported the Sinjar Resistance Units, which were formed in the fight against ISIS and were initially armed and trained by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). He joined the PMF’s al-Nasr al-Mubeen Brigade in 2018.
In the Kirkuk area, there has been a similar increase in local military forces. In the Taza region, an Iranian-backed army formed the 16th Brigade to fight and train local Shia Turkmens. They also recruited Shia Turkmens at the 52 Brigade. The pro-Iran PMFs have also tried to form a group of Kaka’i, Kurdish-speaking religious groups based in Daquq and Kirkuk, but have not yet succeeded.
Other political forces, including the KRG, militias allied with the Shia and Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr and other Sunni politicians, have also tried to establish and support their militias in conflict zones.
In addition to recruiting local groups through war and recruiting, PMFs admit that Iran has set up shadow, security, political and economic institutions that oppose dissent. They not only oversee the movement of people and goods but also the “taxes” of local businesses. They should also take part in religious activities, direct Sunni religious pages and their offerings and support new Shia offerings.
The actions of pro-Iran groups have fueled internal and external tensions. In Kirkuk, for example, Sunni Turkmens outperforms Shia Turkmens, but the support of the PMF has strengthened Shia Turkmens, who have been politically active. This could lead to the intra-Turkman explosion as the Shia merge power in the middle of Kirkuk. The same power is found in the Telafar region among the Turkmens.
Among the Yazidis, divisions among the people are increasing. Areas led by the Iranian PMF and the PKK have criticized local cultural groups. This was evident in the crisis over the election of Yazidi’s new leader after the death of Tahsin Said Beg in 2019.
In July of the same year, after months of protests that marked divisions within the community, the Yazidis in Sheikhan, with the support of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, elected their son, Hazim Tahsin Beg, as the new prince. In response, the PKK and Yazidis allies of the PMF in Sinjar threatened something similar with secession, and vowed to elect a leader of their choice.
Disruption of state power
Tensions between Baghdad and KRG over the region go back to the legislative process that took place after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 2003 US uprising. The Constitution defined the KRI limits of autonomy, but left the status of the province of Kirkuk and most parts of Nineveh, Salahaddin and Diyala, inhabited by Kurdish people, unchanged. Referendums to mention the future of the contested territories did not take place.
Over the years, these differences have been compounded by a number of issues, including business disputes and temporary security. The availability of Iran-backed PMFs, however, has caused many problems for the Baghdad-Erbil relationship and directly hampered efforts to move forward in this regard.
With Adel Abdul Mahdi leading the Iraqi government in 2018, there was a resumption of conflict resolution with the KRG. The central government has negotiated with Erbil to establish a central location in most of the provinces of Kirkuk and Nineveh. But Iran-backed PMFs have tried to address this issue.
In October 2019, the Iraqi Ministry of Interior and the PRsmerga Ministry of KRG reached a final agreement to create five integration centers in Kirkuk, Mosul, Makhmour, Khanaqin and Kask. A few days later, the Ministry of the Interior, with the help of PMFs, returned to the agreement. Under the government of Mustafa al-Kadhimi, only two sites in Baghdad and Erbil were created.
Iranian-backed forces also tried to destroy the Sinjar Accord, signed in October 2020 between Erbil and Baghdad with the help of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq. The alliance was formed to bring stability to Sinjar in answer to two key questions: the presence of several armed forces and two competitors in the state. But seven months later, nothing has been done to fulfill the agreement.
Some say the failure of the alliance is the lack of alliance and the inclusion of all sections of the Sinjar and Yazidi factions. The truth, however, is that the biggest obstacle is that Iran-backed troops are rejecting the terms of the treaty – the establishment of a single state by the use of force – and refusing to leave.
It is displeasing to pro-Iran groups that KRG and the central government in Iraq have regained control of Sinjar because they will not only lose political power, but also economic. The PMFs located in Sinjar directly benefit from border crossings by establishing a tax system for imports from Syria including meat, agricultural products, and more.
Recent developments against US and Turkish troops appear to have been sparked by the disagreement between Iran-backed groups after they were forced to leave the north and west of the country. There is also growing concern among them that their popularity is declining – which was evident at the notorious anti-government protests in 2019-2020 in Baghdad and many Shia cities in the south.
Iran-backed PMFs, therefore, are seeking “new enemies” in the face of US allies KRG and Turkey to continue to justify their presence in an area that opposes and perpetuates modern security and power.
In a bid to thwart efforts to establish and establish an alliance between Erbil and Baghdad in the conflict zone, Iran-backed forces are blocking the re-establishment of civilian resistance zones that could lead to stability and reconstruction. This is in line with Iran’s ideology of Iraq – to be stable all the time, with weak government institutions and controls.
As long as the Iraqi government is unable to replace non-governmental organizations, it will not improve the country’s stability and economic growth. Their constant presence in conflicting areas creates problems that could soon lead to conflicts.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editor of Al Jazeera.