Baghdad: When the United States said this week that US forces in Iraq faced threats from Iranian “proxies,” it was referring to the armed groups that helped fight Daesh and have bedeviled Iraq ever since.
The Iraqi armed groups, some with ties to Iran, have a footprint in every Iraqi province.
“You have a range of groups in Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation: Some are Sunni, some are pro-Iraqi government, some have ties to the Quds force and the Islamic Guard,” Anthony H. Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said.
These groups are recognised and funded by the Iraqi government.
This week, the United States ordered an aircraft carrier and bombers to the Arabian Gulf in response to what it termed as threats from the groups.
There are roughly 30 of the militias, known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces, with at least 125,000 active-duty fighters.
30number of the militias active in Iraq
Their relationships with Iran vary widely, according to experts and government officials in Iraq and Washington.
Some Popular Mobilisation groups keep their distance from Iran while others - including some of the most powerful - are deeply intertwined with it.
Now that the fight against Daesh has dwindled, the problem facing Iraq is what to do with these groups.
While there has been talk of having them disband and disarm, only a couple of them seem willing to do so.
Although the militias have been absorbed into the Iraqi security forces, they are not under the command of either the Defense or Interior ministries.
Instead, they enjoy a special status, reporting to the prime minister.
Some of the groups are corrupt, behaving like mafias, and several have been accused of human rights abuses.
And while they report to the prime minister, it is not clear that anyone really can restrain them.
“If they have armed wings and are corrupt, no one can control them,” former Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi said in an interview this year.
125,000active-duty militia-men currently operative in Iraq
A major concern among some officials is that, much like Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, they will go into business, but with the unfair advantage of having armed men behind them and the implicit protection of senior figures in the Iraqi government.
“In Iraq if you don’t put controls on these groups, you will have these guys morph into networks that will range from semi-criminal entities to politically predatory forces that would act as a state within a state,” said Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
It is the four or five groups with the closest ties to Iran that are seen as exercising unauthorised power.
Some run kickback schemes on a local level, using coercion to force business people to give them a piece of the action or compel citizens to use their services.
Many of these groups have large numbers of representatives in the Iraqi Parliament, where the power to designate ministers is divided among the political blocs.
If a bloc or a party controls who becomes a minister, they have a chance to influence who gets valuable contracts or jobs.
These groups also can act as a lobby for Iranian interests within the Iraqi state.