The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

The Iraqi Shi’ite militias form a single, numerous and increasingly able component of the military and paramilitary assets available to Iran in its efforts. They substantially increase the scope for Iranian disruption in the region, and may significantly increase Iranian capabilities in the event of a war on Israel’s northern front.


photo: A poster showing the logo of the Popular Mobilization Units and the face of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, at the Headquarters of the Badr Corps, Baghdad, July 2015. (Photo: Jonathan Spyer).

Introduction

“The Iranian regime must respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi government and permit the disarming, demobilization, and reintegration of the Shia militias,” warned the US State Department on October 30, 2018, as part of the measures Iran needs to take if it wishes to avoid renewed sanctions.

To no one’s surprise, Tehran failed to comply. The Shi’ite militias in Iraq are one of Iran’s most effective foreign policy tools. Along with minor proxies in the Palestinian territories and within Shi’ite communities in the Gulf, Iran had already created the powerful Hezbollah organization in Lebanon, a major threat to Israel and Jews worldwide, and an increasingly active player across the Middle East.  The wars in Iraq and Syria, and the accompanying ethnic strife, have allowed Iran to create new armed Shi’ite organizations. Though of varying quality, several leading Shi’ite militias have proven competent, loyal, and dangerous. These organizations have become a new means for Iran to spread its influence, push back on American interests, and prepare the ground for new threats against Israel.

At first glance, the Shi’ite militias seem to be an issue Israel can largely ignore. They operate far from Israel’s borders, and have been involved in fighting Sunnis, not the Jewish state.

It would be a mistake, however, for Israel to miss the emerging threat. With ISIS broken and Iran consolidating control of a contiguous swath from Iran to Lebanon’s coast – all the more so in the wake of the planned American withdrawal, Tehran and its allies are increasingly turning their attention toward Israel. In December 2017, Iraqi Shi’ite militia leader Qais al-Khazali visited Kafr Kila on the border between Israel and Lebanon.

“I’m here with my brothers from Hezbollah, the Islamic resistance,” Khazali declared. “We announce our full readiness to stand as one with the Lebanese people, with the Palestinian cause, in the face of the unjust Israeli occupation, [an occupation] that is anti-Islam, anti-Arab, and anti-humanity, in the decisive Arab Muslim cause.”1

In August 2018, reports surfaced of Iran transferring ballistic missiles to its militias in Iraq, while helping them develop the capability to create their own missiles. With ranges of 200-700 km, these missiles could potentially strike Israel and Saudi Arabia from within Iraqi territory.2

As the threat grows, it behooves Israel’s leadership to recognize the challenge, deepen its understanding of the militias and their capabilities, and develop appropriate responses. This study is intended to be step in that direction.  It examines Iran’s use of proxy warfare generally, surveys the leading Shi’ite militias, then details their operations on the battlefield and their growth in national politics. Finally, this study lays out the implications of these organizations on Israeli national security.

Iran’s Proxy Warfare

Since ancient times, proxy warfare has been a tool of armed conflict, and since the Islamic Revolution Iran had used it to great effect.3

The use of armed proxies, including its militias in Iraq and Syria, allows Tehran to inflict damage on its adversaries while minimizing its own costs, and maintaining some degree of deniability. Why shed Iranian blood when Arab, Pakistani, and Afghani will do? Foreign militias also indicate the trans-national appeal of the Islamic revolution enhancing Iran’s international status and claim to pan-Islamic leadership. Iran’s determination and skill in creating proxies, and its willingness to send them into harm’s way, have proven one of the Islamic Republic’s most consequential advantages over its Western and Sunni rivals.

The Iranian model for proxy warfare rests on three elements – a sense of shared Shiite community, Iranian revolutionary Shiite presence in these communities, and a clear identification of a common enemy, with whom Iran deliberately seeks friction so as to get a better measure of its capacities.

Iranian success in building proxies hinges on its shared community with other Shi’ites. The concept of community represents a deep, fundamental set of ties – cultural, religious, familial, experiential. It is the idea that members of the community are irrevocably on the same side and share the same fate. The problems of some members of the community are the problems of the entire community. The community bond means that both patron and proxy feel assured that everyone is in the fight for the long-term. In the past, Iran did turn its back on the Hazara in Afghanistan as they fell prey to the Taliban; but by now Tehran feels more empowered and willing to step in when chaotic conditions engulf Shi’ite communities.

Within the Shi’ite community, Iran’s long-term efforts to create proxies begin with presence. This can include youth movements, religious schools, social services, military training, and more, well before the need arises to create armed groups. Presence helps Iran forge relationships with potential leaders, many of whom fought for Iran or trained there, which can be leveraged and expanded when Iran wants to build a full-fledged proxy force. Iran’s long-term presence is smoothed over by the existence of Shi’ite communities in areas it wishes to influence.

Iran is no better at predicting the future than any other patron, and in order to maintain a relevant understanding of a permanently changing reality, it seeks to learn through continuous engagement with enemy, or friction. This method of learning demands persistent conflict with adversaries in order to understand their capabilities, modus operandi and intentions. Iran pushes its proxies to prod and poke at enemies to maintain this friction and keep their concepts and understandings relevant. After the 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon, Hezbollah maintained friction with Israel through small-scale border attacks to keep its understanding of the IDF and Israel current. This, of course, led to joint learning with its Iranian patron.

The three-component model has served Iran well across the region, but only in certain conditions. In weak states with significant Shi’ite populations – like Lebanon, Syria, Iraq – Tehran can create effective proxies. In more coherent states with Shi’ite populations – Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – Iran has struggled to find purchase. In areas like Gaza without Shi’ites, Iran seeks to create loyal and effective proxies over the long term by other means, such as the supply of high-quality weapons to Palestinian Islamic Jihad and using Iran’s leverage to secure PIJ from pressure by Hamas.

Iran seeks to integrate its military, religious and political indoctrination, efforts in its creation and employment of proxy forces. This focused campaign is rendered easier by the fact that control over Iran’s proxy use lies in the hands of one organization, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps–Qods Force. Iran does not have to contend with potentially crippling bureaucratic rivalries between competing security agencies. Moreover, the entire proxy effort is dominated by one figure, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who reports directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader. Soleimani can guarantee the political, military, and financial support he relies on to maintain Iran’s many proxies in the region.  The leaders of these proxies enjoy close personal relationships with Soleimani. This focused, multi-faceted effort creates a synergy that has proven extremely effective in both the creation and management of proxies.

The creation of the Basij militia in the wake of the 1979 revolution seems to have shaped Iran’s approach to creating proxies. This model, which begins with the mass mobilization of disaffected youth into a pro-regime force, guided the creation of Hezbollah, and now guides the creation of the Shi’ite militias. Iran’s proxies first create a political party, then a religious militia. Finally, the national government is forced to recognize the militia as part of the state’s official defensive apparatus.4

Iran’s Proxies in Iraq

Shi’ite Islam, numbering over 200 million followers, constitutes over 10% of the world’s Muslims. The largest Shi’ite country is Iran, with 65 million followers, or 95% of the population. Next door in Iraq, Shi’ites also make up the majority, constituting more than 60% of the country. In Lebanon, Shi’ites constitute a third or more the country (Statistics in Lebanon are a political matter and numbers cannot be trusted). The ties between the Shi’ite regime in Iran and the Shi’ites in Iraq are rooted in geographic, religious, and personal connections.

The Shi’ite community in Iraq rests on three pillars. The first is the Shi’ite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, where Shi’ite communal identity was forged. The second pillar is the network of Shi’ite tribes in southern Iraq, who are economically dependent on the holy cities. The third pillar is the urban Shi’ites, some of whom are receptive to Iranian religious messages, while others are devout but strongly reject the Iranian model of velayat-a-faqih, the rule of the supreme jurist. Others yet are secular Iraqi nationalists.5

Shi’ites in Iraq are far from united. Poor urban Shi’ites form the core of support for Imam Moqtada al-Sadr, whose militia fought against the US-led occupation. Though educated in Iran, he has emerged as a rival of Iran-backed militias in Iraq, has resisted Iranian attempts to co-opt him, and is increasingly trying to present himself as a non-sectarian Iraqi nationalist representative of Iraq’s lower classes.6 Sadr’s bloc  winning of the most seats in Iraq’s 2018 elections shocked observers, worrying both America and Iran, who expect him to work to limit their influence in Iraqi affairs.7

The most powerful Shi’ite figure in Iraq is the revered Ayatollah Ali Sistani, an Iraqi nationalist who has pushed for government reforms, while resisting Iranian influence in Iraq.  Sistani helped former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi into office to replace Nouri al-Maliki, who is close to Iran.8 However, it was Sistani who issued the famous 2014 fatwa calling Iraqis to arms to resist the Islamic State. This call led to the formation of the Shi’ite-dominated Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), or Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi, an array of Shiite militias dominated by Iranian-controlled organizations.

Not all Shi’ite militias in Iraq are loyal to Iran. The leading militias have pledged their allegiance to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but there are also militias loyal to Sistani, while another bloc follows Sadr. While the Sistani and Sadr groups would prefer to see the PMU integrated into the Iraqi Armed Forces or disbanded, the Khameneist militias have succeeded in maintaining the independence of the PMU with state approval.9

The religious identity of the Iran-backed militias in the PMU is at the core of everything they do. They proudly fly flags showing Shi’ite martyrs, and hang posters of Khomeini and Khamenei. These militias and Iran don’t only have a common religious identity, but also share similar interests. Until recently, they saw ISIS as their main adversary on the ground, threatening Shi’ites in Iraq, Syria, and beyond. In addition, many Sunni communities in Iraq, especially those connected with Saddam’s Baathists, are seen as enemies. Third, despite occasional coordination between the militias and the US, and even tacit US coordination with Iran, the American presence is unwanted. Any cooperation is temporary. Like Iran, the militias are hostile to the US presence and long-term interests.

The most powerful militia in the PMU is the Badr Organization. Many consider the organization the dominant force in Iraq today, at least before the 2018 elections, in which its bloc came in second place. It was established in Iran in the 1980s by Iraqi Shi’ites who fled Saddam Hussein and fought for Tehran in the Iran-Iraq War. The Badr Organization is headed by Hadi al-Amiri, who also served as the Iraqi transportation minister. Badr controlled the powerful Interior Ministry as well.

Like Hezbollah in Lebanon, it has both a political arm and a military arm funded and guided by Iran. Amiri proudly acknowledges this support, and is considered the Iraqi battlefield leader closest to Iran and Qassem Soleimani.10 But the organization “exemplifies the multiple identities and complexities that define Iraq’s Shiite militia groups.”  While maintaining its intimate relationship with Tehran, the Badr Organization cooperated militarily with the US and the West against ISIS, and is deeply integrated into the Iraqi security system.11

Some estimates place Badr’s size at as many as 50,000 fighters, but there are likely closer to 20,000.12 The militia, which is in close contact with the IRGC-Qods Force, featured prominently in the fight against ISIS in Tikrit, Fallujah, and the Mosul area.

It has been accused of atrocities against Sunnis in Iraq, and a US State Department cable indicated that one of Amiri’s “preferred methods of killing allegedly involved using a power drill to pierce the skulls of his adversaries.” 13

PMU organization Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), currently designated the PMU 45th Brigade, initially formed in 2004 to attack Coalition forces. KH was founded by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi Shi’ite who spent decades training in Iran. He faces a death sentence in Kuwait for involvement in 1983 terror attacks against the American and French embassies there, in retaliation for their support of Iraq in the war against Iran in the 1980s. Muhandis is said to dream about creating an Iraqi version of Iran’s Qods Force,14 and is currently second only to Amiri in the PMU. The organization believes in velayat-a-faqih, which recognizes the authority of Khamenei.

Like his PMU superior Amiri, Muhandis is extremely close with Soleimani, and boasts openly about his loyalty to Iran. “The popular mobilization could not do such big operations without major support from the Islamic Republic of Iran, above all Ali Khamenei, who instructed the Al-Qods Forces to back PMU and he is backing us by providing weapons, ammunitions, consultations, advice and planning,” said Muhandis in 2016.15

Kata’ib Hezbollah regularly attacked US forces in Iraq, and after the US-Iraq security agreement in 2008, threatened Iraqi security forces as well. The US considers KH a foreign terrorist organization, and Muhandis is designated a foreign terrorist.16 Though it has featured prominently in the fight against ISIS in Ramadi, Karmah, and Tel Afar, it is much smaller than Badr, probably numbering only around 1,000 fighters. It has another 10,000 fighters in its Saraya al-Difaa al-Sha’bi proxy with up to 3,000 deployed to Syria.17

KH too has shown itself willing to tacitly cooperate with Americans, Kurds, and Iraqi forces against ISIS. But it, like the Badr Organization, has been involved in torturing and killing Sunnis, including after the capture of Fallujah. 18

Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) split off from Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi in 2006, and has carried out thousands of attacks against American, Western, and Iraqi government targets. Like its other major PMU counterparts, AAH is exceptionally close with Iran and Hezbollah. It receives an estimated $1.5 million -$2 million from Iran every month.19 Posters of Khamenei and Khomeini hang at the group’s offices.20 Iran funds the group in order to ensure that it would have a more loyal alternative to the Sadrists. US officials view the AAH project as an Iranian effort to form an Iraqi version of Hezbollah. “I see them first and foremost as an Iranian proxy. Their nature is such that I don’t think they ever gave up their aim of being an Iraqi analog to Hezbollah,” said one such official.21

Hezbollah commanders have provided training to AAH fighters, under the auspices of the Qods Force and Qassem Soleimani.22 AAH tactics were “classic Soleimani,” including stealth attacks and denial of responsibility.23 It moved into the spotlight in 2007, with an attack on a US outpost in Karbala that left five Americans dead. In 2008, AAH members fled to Iran after the Iraqi Army took Sadr City, and underwent military training there. From 2006-2011, AAH claimed over 6,000 attacks on Coalition forces. It currently has around 10,000 fighters, with 1,000-3,000 fighting in Syria. AAH took a leading role in the anti-ISIS fight, especially in Diyala Province, Amerli, Tikrit, and Mosul. Despite its deep anti-American roots, AAH became in effect an American partner in fighting ISIS.

AAH is led by Qais Al-Khazali, who reported directly to the Qods Force Deputy Commander, Abdul Reza Shahlai, during the fighting against US troops.24 In 2007, Khazali, his brother and a senior Hezbollah member were captured by British special forces near Basra, but were released in 2009 in exchange for a kidnapped Briton. After his release, Khazali and the AAH leadership relocated to Iran, where they coordinated attacks against US forces, Iraqi government figures, and Sadrists.25 They returned to Baghdad in 2011 to massive fanfare. Khazali was the leader who recently threatened Israel just across the border in Lebanon.

Like Hezbollah and other Shi’ite armed groups, AAH has created significant political structures and become increasingly involved in political processes. It opened political offices, social services programs for widows and orphans, and a network of religious schools.26 “Little more than seven years ago, they were just another Iranian proxy used to attack the Americans,” said an Iraqi minister. “Now they have political legitimacy and their tentacles in all the security apparatus. Some of us didn’t notice until it was too late.”27

Interestingly, it has also expanded into Lebanon, likely with Iranian backing.  AAH established a Syrian branch, under the pretense of protecting the Shi’a Sayidah Zaynab mosque in the Damascus suburbs. But like other Shi’ite groups, they too try to portray themselves as a defender of all communities, establishing a small Sunni unit in 2015.

The conduit of Iranian aid to its PMU proxies is the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps – Qods Force, headed by Soleimani. Soleimani maintains close personal relationships with the commanders of the militias, and visits them on the battlefield. This also allows him to maintain tight supervision of the Shi’ite militias. Soleimani himself visits Iraq regularly and supervises the militias’ activities, including their operations against ISIS. The closeness to the Iranian border facilitates direct Iranian control, and the provision of aid and guidance. In order to bridge the language barrier, the Iranians employ other Arab Shi’ite proxies, primarily Hezbollah. These Hezbollah fighters serve as both instructors and translators.28

Despite their experience and inherent advantages, the Iranians do run into challenges with their proxies. Rival Shi’ite proxy groups occasionally clash, and some even find their interests at odds with those of Iran. In addition, Iran’s use of Iraqi militias creates broad resentment within Iraq, and casts Iran as a hostile actor in the eyes of a significant part of the Iraqi public.

Shi’ite militias in the war against IS

The Iraqi Shi’ite militias played a significant role in the war against the Islamic State, reflected in their large number of casualties. Around 2,500 Iraqi Shi’ite militiamen were killed in the war against IS.  The legal presence of the militias in Iraq was a result of the June 15, 2014 IS invasion from Syria, and of the ‘jihad fatwa’ of Ayatollah Sistani. This fatwa called on young Shi’ite Iraqis to take up arms to defend the country against IS. The resulting structure, the PMU, eventually grew to encompass 40 militias, and around 150,000 fighters.

Sistani did not become involved in the daily management of the PMU. Rather, on the day of the invasion, the Interior Ministry announced the formation of the PMU. This body is headed by Falih al-Fayyadh, who also served as national security adviser to former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

However, the main leadership of the PMU, and the core and the most powerful militias comprising it, have been pro-Iranian throughout.  Six of the original seven militias (Badr, Kata’ib Hezbollah, Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Sayyid al-Shuhada and Kata’ib Jund al-Imam) were associated with Iran, openly supportive of Tehran, and receiving direct assistance from the IRGC. The commander of the PMU, Badr’s Amiri, and his deputy, KH’s Muhandis, are both veteran pro-Iran operatives, with intimate links to Soleimani and the Qods Force.  The PMU was officially subordinate to the Iraqi Interior Ministry. This ministry, meanwhile, was itself controlled by the Badr Organization at the time, in its political iteration as a member of the governing coalition.

One of the authors of this article accompanied elements of the PMU during its campaigns in Baiji, Ramadi and Anbar in the course of the war against IS, in 2015.  It was clear that coordination between the Shi’ite militias and the other elements of the Iraqi armed forces engaged in the fight – the army, the Special Operations Forces (known colloquially as the ‘Golden Division’), and the Federal Police (Interior Ministry paramilitary forces) – was complete, with the PMU taking part in briefings and its most senior officials themselves briefing senior Iraqi Army officers.  The author, in this regard, witnessed a briefing given by PMU second-in-command Muhandis in Baiji on June 10, 2015.

Muhandis addressed senior commanders of the PMU and the Iraqi Army. Dressed in civilian clothes, Muhandis was the only speaker at the meeting and appeared to be acknowledged not as one among equals, but rather as the overall commander. One of the senior Iraqi Army officers present explained after the briefing the dynamics to one of the authors. Major-General Juma’a Enad, operations commander of the army and federal police that together constituted the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in Salah ad Din province, acknowledged that “the majority of forces that are clearing the land [of Islamic State militants] are PMU.” Accounting for the PMU’s performance, Enad pointed to two areas: the superior training and equipment of PMU fighters and their greater motivation. Regarding the former, Enad said, “American support now is insufficient. The US has vast forces. But they are carrying out four or five raids per day. The Iranians, by contrast, give the PMU unlimited support, weapons, ammunition, advisers. We are now seeing the results.”

Muhandis himself, in conversation with the author on the same occasion, confirmed that “the PMU relies on capacity and capabilities provided by the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

The military performance of the militias in the fighting against IS is regarded as relatively effective. The militias took part in a number of key campaigns in the war, including the Anbar campaign, the liberation of Baiji, the recapture of Tikrit, the Ramadi campaign and the reconquest of Mosul (where they held the left flank of the anti-IS forces, and were kept 20 km from the largely Sunni city , so as to reduce the possibility of sectarian tension in the city itself).

With the conclusion of the war against IS, the PMU have been formally integrated into the Iraqi armed forces.  However, several PMU militias continue to operate as political actors, and seek to gain political benefit from the prestige they achieved in the war against IS.  The Fatah list of the militias stood in the May 12 general elections and came in second.  It is set to form an important part in the emergent Iraqi coalition of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Hadi.

Yet parallel to their political advances, and their integration into the armed forces, the Shi’ite militias continue to operate as an independent armed force, apparently under Iranian direction.  Thus, according to Reuters, they received ballistic missiles from the IRGC, which could be used in a future confrontation with Israel (while providing Iran with deniability regarding its direct role, as already takes place with Lebanese Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen). They also operate, as noted, under direct IRGC command and independent of any Iraqi official chain of command in the Al-Qaim/Albukamal border area between Iraq and Syria, and in Mayadin, to the west of Albukamal.

A Badr officer in conversation with the author in Baghdad in June 2015 described the future role of the PMU as analogous to the IRGC in Iran, whereby the state armed forces continue to exist, but a parallel armed force structure is also maintained in order to protect the ‘revolution.’  This may well be an accurate depiction of the direction of events with regard to the Shi’ite militias in Iraq.

Role of the Iraqi Shi’ite militias in the Syrian civil war

Iraqi Shi’ite militias, including elements directly supported by Iran, have played an important role in both the defense of the Syrian regime and in the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq.  Their contribution has been considerably greater in the latter battle, reflecting their primary Iraqi loyalties.  This is also reflected in the much higher losses suffered by the militias in the ISIS war when compared with the Syrian civil war. In the civil war they also fought inter alia IS.  In both cases, however, the militias have played an important role in frontline combat.  In Iraq, their part in the war against ISIS has played a large part in the subsequent increased public legitimacy afforded the militias, which has resulted both in their success in electoral politics, and in the formalization of their military role as part of the Iraqi state security forces.

As the Syrian uprising began to take on a clearly military form in the later months of 2011, the Assad regime faced a dilemma.  On paper, it had a vast armed force at its disposal – 220,000 regular soldiers plus an additional 280,000 in the reserves. In practice, much of this force could not be reliably utilized by the regime, because most of it consisted of conscripted Sunni Arab Syrians – precisely the section of society from which the rebellion had emerged.

The regime chose to address this problem in two ways.  Firstly, from late 2011 and in a more systematic way from the summer of 2012 it began to withdraw from areas not deemed essential for regime survival.  Secondly, the regime began to benefit from early 2012 by the deployment of Iranian proxies on Syrian soil, in a process coordinated by the IRGC Qods Force.  In this context, Iraq’s Shi’ite militias were to have a vital role to play.

Iraqi Shi’ite militias, including Kata’ib Hezbollah, the Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and the formerly Sadrist Imam Ali Brigades began to commit members to Syria under Iranian supervision, in the first months of 2012.  Additional militias engaged in Syria included Hezbollah al-Nujaba, and Ktaeb Sayyid al-Shuhada.  Their mission, ostensibly, was to protect the shrine of Sayidah Zaynab, in Damascus.  Also, the IRGC established a Syrian Shi’ite militia, the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigades, which later itself began to recruit among Iraqi Shi’ite, before splintering at a later stage of the war into a variety of militia formations, all of whom were pro-Iran. The process was overseen by IRGC Qods Force personnel on Syrian soil.

Iraqi Shi’ite militias served on a broad variety of fronts in the Syrian civil war and were not limited to the east of the country adjoining Iran (which in any case was a minor front for the regime-rebellion war, which was fought out mainly in western Syria).  Kata’ib Hezbollah, for example, claims to have deployed 1,000 fighters in Aleppo, at the height of the siege of the city in late 2015.

Iraqi Shi’ite militias, significantly, took part in the only major clashes to have taken place between pro-Iranian and Assad regime forces in the course of the Syrian war. This was the episode in August 2018 when Kata’ib Hezbollah, fighting together with the Iran-backed Afghan Fatemiyun Brigades, cleared the Albu-Kamal-Al-Qaim area of regime forces, leaving the border crossing between Syria and Iraq in that area under the exclusive control of the IRGC and the militias.

This episode is significant because control of this border crossing represents a vital objective for Iran in its efforts to establish a contiguous land corridor under its control from Iran across Iraq, into Syria and thence to Lebanon, the Mediterranean Sea and the border with Israel.  The August 2018 fighting clarifies the role of the pro-Iran Iraqi Shi’ite militias as direct instruments of Iranian policy (in a way that Assad’s Syrian Arab Army, for example, is not).  The fighting concluded with the departure of the Syrian regime forces from the area.  Shi’ite militias and IRGC personnel now also control the Iraqi side and the Syrian side of this border.

Examination of available casualty figures point to the relatively modest role played by the Iraqi militias in terms of the regime-rebel fighting in Syria.  The Iraqi Shi’ite militias suffered probably only 117 combat fatalities in Syria. This number is particularly low when compared with the figure of losses among other pro-Iran Shi’ite components in Syria – 2,100 Iranians, around 2,000 Afghans from the Fatemiyun Brigade (often used as ‘cannon fodder’, as first wave in attacks against the rebels), and a little under 2,000 also for Lebanese Hezbollah.  However, that the Iraqi militias have a tradition of secrecy in admitting losses and the figure should be seen as a minimum estimate.

Unlike the Iranian, Lebanese, Pakistani and Afghan elements of the Iran-led effort in Syria, the Iraqi contingents have not been united into a single force, but rather remain gathered in a disparate group of militias, each with their own specific history and identity. There is speculation that this state of affairs may be to the liking of the IRGC and the Iranian regime, since it prevents the possibility of a strong, united Shi’ite Islamist force which could then become independent from Iran.

In Syria, Shi’ite militias have also been centrally involved in non-violent but significant Iranian projects deriving from the war.  An effort by the Iranians is under way to alter the demography in parts of Syria, by the transfer of Shi’ite families, mainly from the Shi’ite-majority south of the country, to areas of strategic importance in Syria.  They are settled in houses of former residents of Sunni Arab origin s who departed in the course of the war. The areas in question include parts of the Damascus suburbs, but also in other areas that connect Damascus to the Alawite coast and the Lebanese border.

Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (HHN), an Iraqi Shi’ite paramilitary force close to Iran, has reportedly overseen this process.  This organization has also formed a ‘Golan Liberation Brigade’ intended to help the Syrian Armed Forces in a future war against Israel.

The significance of the rise of the Iraqi Shi’ite militias for Israel

A future war fought by Israel in the north is unlikely to resemble previous conflicts with Iranian proxies.  Whereas the 2006 Second Lebanon War against Hezbollah was contained both geographically (ground combat never exceeded the area of southern Lebanon) and politically (neither Iran nor Syria nor Lebanon played a direct role in the fighting, which at least officially was conducted between the IDF and the Hezbollah organization alone), a future war in the north is likely to draw in a far wider land area, and a wider list of combatants.

In the event of such a war, however, Tehran is likely to retain its determination to avoid the direct, visible involvement of Iranian personnel in combat with Israel.  The transfer of responsibilities to powerful militia proxies and the improvement of the military capacities of those proxies are thus important elements in Tehran’s stance vis a vis Israel.

The maintenance of freedom of action and maneuver for Iranian proxies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon is also significant in this regard.  The August 2018 report in Reuters indicating the transfer of ballistic missiles is particularly significant in this regard, as it shows the militias acquiring improved capabilities while maintaining their independence and freedom of action.

Similarly, the reports concerning the clashes between Assad’s forces and the IRGC/Shi’ite militias in the al-Qaim/Albukamal area on the Syria/Iraq border are particularly significant.  As of now, the militias/IRGC have independent control of the border crossing, without involvement of either the Iraqi or Syrian state forces. This facilitates potentially the transfer of personnel and supplies to and from a putative future combat zone between Israel and its Iran-associated enemies in the event of a future war between them.  The bombing of a camp of Kata’ib Hezbollah at al-Harra close to the border on June 18, 2018 may indicate a realization of the need for action by Israel against the militias.

The next war in the north may well be a long slog in which Israel’s advantages in firepower and numbers only come into play after the IDF effort wears down and begins to break apart Hezbollah’s rocket array and ground forces. Israel will never be able to kill or capture every last Hezbollah fighter, but a properly planned, persistent assault may convince many Hezbollah fighters that their efforts are hopeless. But when they enjoy an Iranian controlled corridor through which thousands of combat veterans from the Shi’ite militias can flow, Hezbollah fighters will be in a position to withstand much more, in terms of their resilience. As long as they believe that help is potentially on the way, they will likely keep firing.

The Shi’ite militias, if joined with Hezbollah’s forces, intensify another problem for the IDF. Israel’s ground forces – in terms of actual combat soldiers – are smaller than many realize, even with the reserves activated. Israel will need significant ground forces if it intends to capture the territory from which Hezbollah rockets are launched at Israel, instead of relying on stand-off fires as in past operations. This overstretched ground force will be under even more stress when thousands of Shi’ite militiamen are thrown into the fight.

Of course, the Shi’ite militias have never faced an enemy like the IDF in open warfare. Any attempt to rely on ground maneuver like they did successfully in Iraq will turn into target practice for Israeli air and armored forces. They will be fighting a highly advanced, highly capable military that is able to target them rapidly with massive firepower. It will be a shock for a force that has grown out of terrorist attacks against Coalition forces and ground combat against the ragtag military forces of the Islamic State. Still, if the Shi’ite militias learn from Hezbollah, and use pre-prepared defenses and tunnels to ambush advancing IDF ground troops, and remain largely underground or in urban areas, they will make Israel’s already daunting challenge in Lebanon even more difficult. Insofar as intelligence dominance is the key to Israel’s capacity to counter Hezbollah’s assets, more needs to be done to prepare in terms of intelligence collection and analysis to be equally effective against this additional threat.

The Iraqi Shi’ite militias form a single, numerous and increasingly able component of the military and paramilitary assets available to Iran in its efforts.  Their military advance has gone hand in hand over the last half decade with the increase in their political power.  Alongside the preservation of the Assad regime, the rise of the militias represents the salient achievement for the IRGC Qods Force and its methods in the region in recent years.  Their presence substantially increases the potential scope for Iranian disruption in the region, and may significantly increase Iranian capabilities in the event of a future war on Israel’s northern front.


[1] Bill Roggio, “Iraqi Militant Qayis Khazali Warned Us About Iran. We Ignored Him,” The Weekly Standard, September 7, 2018. https://www.weeklystandard.com/bill-roggio/iraqi-militant-qayis-khazali-warned-us-about-iran-we-ignored-him.

[2] John Irish, Ahmed Rasheed, “Exclusive: Iran moves missiles to Iraq in warning to enemies,” Reuters, August 31, 2018.

[3] There are many definitions of proxy warfare in the literature, but this work uses the following: A relationship between two entities, be they states or organizations, in which the more powerful actor (‘patron’) uses the other to accomplish its foreign policy goals; the less powerful actor (‘proxy’) is fighting in a local armed conflict that the patron wants to influence while limiting its own direct involvement; the two share a common enemy; both envision benefits coming from the relationship; and they coordinate activity during the conflict.

[4] Seth Frantzman, “A hitchhiker’s guide to the militias that now dominate much of Iraq,” The Jerusalem Post, April 8, 2017.  http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/A-hitchhikers-guide-to-the-militias-that-now-dominate-much-of-Iraq-486499

[5] Ori Goldberg, To Think Shi’ite, (Ben Shemen: Israel Ministry of Defense, 2012), p. 11-12. (Hebrew)

[6] Ibrahim Al-Marashi, “Iraq: The Reinvention of Muqtada al-Sadr”, Al Jazeera, March 9, 2016. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/03/iraq-reinvention-muqtada-al-sadr-160309061939234.html

[7] Margaret Coker, “Once Hated by U.S. and Tied to Iran, Is Sadr now ‘Face of Reform’ in Iraq?” The New York Times, May 20, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/20/world/middleeast/iraq-election-sadr.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FSadr%2C%20Moktada%20Al-&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=collection

[8] Martin Chulov, “Shi’ite leaders in two countries struggle for control over Iraqi state,” The Guardian, April 15, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/15/Shi’ite-leaders-iraq-iran-ayatollah-ali-sistani

[9] Faleh Jabar, Renad Mansour, “The Popular Mobilization Forces and Iraq’s Future,” Carnegie Middle East Center, April 28, 2017. http://carnegie-mec.org/2017/04/28/popular-mobilization-forces-and-iraq-s-future-pub-68810.

[10] “Hadi Al-Amiri,” Counter-Extremism Project. https://www.counterextremism.com/extremists/hadi-al-amiri%20

[11] Ranj Alaaldin, “The Origins and Ascendancy of Iraq’s Shiite Militias,” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, The Hudson Institute, November 1, 2017.

[12]  Figures on militias manpower and deployment come from Garret Nada and Mattisan Rowan, “Part 2: Pro-Iran Militias in Iraq,” The Wilson Center, April 27, 2018.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ali Kurdistani, “The Militia Leader who Defies the US and Proud of Loyalty to Iran,” Rudaw, July 6, 2016. http://www.rudaw.net/english/middleeast/iraq/07062016,

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Kata’ib Hezbollah,” from Mapping Militant Organizations (Stanford University) http://web.stanford.edu/group/mappingmilitants/cgi-bin/groups/view/361?highlight=kataib+hezbollah

[17] J. Matthew McInnis, “Iranian Deterrence Strategy and Use of Proxies,” American Enterprise Institute, November 29, 2016. https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/112916_McInnis_Testimony.pdf

[18] Ibid.

[19] Martin Chulov, “Controlled by Iran, the deadly militia recruiting Iraq’s men to die in Syria,” The Guardian, March 12, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/12/iraq-battle-dead-valley-peace-syria

[20] Liz Sly, “Iranian-backed militant group in Iraq is recasting itself as a political player,” The Washington Post, February 18, 2013. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/iranian-backed-militant-group-in-iraq-is-recasting-itself-as-a-political-player/2013/02/18/b0154204-77bb-11e2-b102-948929030e64_story.html?utm_term=.da71b52c4e1f

[21] Ibid.

[22] Sam Wyer, “The Resurgence of Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq,” Institute for the Study of War, p. 6. http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/ResurgenceofAAH.pdf

[23] Chulov, “Controlled by Iran,” Guardian.

[24] Wyer, “Resurgence,” ISW, 9.

[25] Ibid., 11.

[26] Sly, “Iranian-backed militant group,” Washington Post.

[27] Martin Chulov, “Controlled by Iran, the deadly militia recruiting Iraq’s men to die in Syria,” The Guardian, March 12, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/12/iraq-battle-dead-valley-peace-syria

[28] Ibid.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *