A top Hashd al-Shaabi commander has threatened retaliation against the US, but leaders of armed factions tell MEE they are in a state of chaos after assassinations.
The Iranian-backed Iraqi armed factions are lost, distracted and unable to effectively strike American forces in Iraq after the loss of two key leaders last week, Shia leaders have told Middle East Eye.
On Friday, the United States assassinated top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy head of the Hashd al-Shaabi Iraqi paramilitary grouping, when a drone fired three guided missiles at their convoy. Six other men were also killed.
‘What happened was a surprise and a nightmare. To lose both men at the same time was a shock to all of us’
– Iraqi commander close to Soleimani and Muhandis
The bold killing ignited anger among Iraq’s armed factions, which considered the operation “a violation of the internationally recognised rules of engagement and an outright challenge to them in their own homes,” some Shia commanders and leaders said in a private session
Most of the Iraqi armed factions, including those without links to Iran, have vowed to avenge the killings by targeting the US forces deployed in Iraq.
On Wednesday, following on the heels of a retaliatory Iranian missile strike on Iraqi military bases hosting US troops, a top Hashd al-Shaabi commander said it was time for an “Iraqi response”.
“That response will be no less than the size of the Iranian response,” Qais al-Khazali tweeted.
MEE also understands that as Iran was conducting its attack on Wednesday night, leaders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and affiliated Arab groups were in a four-hour meeting to consider next steps contingent on the US response.
But commanders of Iranian-backed armed factions in Iraq tell MEE that with the loss of the two leaders, they are now almost paralysed and would be unable to strike the Americans with real consequence. All spoke to MEE on condition of anonymity.
“What happened was a surprise and a nightmare. To lose both men at the same time was a shock to all of us,” a commander who was close to Soleimani and Muhandis told MEE.
“The way they were killed, place and timing – all were shocking and painful and terrifying.”
Soleimani, who led Iran’s elite Quds Force, was also the field commander for all the armed factions fighting on Tehran’s behalf in the Middle East and the “inspiring hero” for their fighters, while Muhandis was seen as the godfather of the Iraqi fighters and the founder of most of their armed factions.
The men acted as compasses, guiding the missions and strategies of the Iranian-backed factions in Iraq, and with their loss, the factions have lost their confidence and ability to work together, say multiple sources.
“The Iranian-backed armed factions are groups that implement orders without having an opinion, nor do they have a special project,” a prominent Shia politician told MEE.
‘These factions lost their balance and the compass that determined their destination’
– Prominent Shia politician
“The doctrinal project that they claim to adopt is an imaginary and unrealistic one that lacks geographical borders and timetables, and the borders of this project had always been outlined by al-Muhandas and Suleimani.
“So these factions were centred on two axes: Abu Mahdi and Soliemani, as they were representing the Wali al-Faqih (Ali Khamaniei). Both men used to give the factions self-confidence and set goals and targets for them.
“The problem now is that the relationship with both men was personal and direct,” he said. “In the absence of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, these factions lost their balance and the compass that determined their destination,” he said.
‘The rhythm officer’
Muhandis, who since the 1980s has been one of America’s most wanted men over his involvement in the bombing of the US and French embassies in Kuwait, was seen by most Iraqis as Iran’s most influential man in the country.
He was known publicly as the deputy head of the Hashd al-Shaabi. But in reality, he had not held an official government position since September when Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi restructured the paramilitary group and cut the deputy head position.
Abdul Mahdi then offered Muhandis the position of Hashd al-Shaabi chief of staff, but the paramilitary leader rejected the offer, and refused to follow the prime minister’s orders, continuing in his role as if nothing had happened until he was killed.
Although formally stripped of his financial and administrative powers, Muhandis continued to enjoy great influence over most of the Hashd al-Shaabi’s armed factions, with the government unable to regain control over the paramilitary umbrella group or force Muhandis to implement orders for fear of retaliation.
Over the past four months, the government, represented by Hashd al-Shaabi head Falih al-Fayyad, was really only able to issue statements from time to time, denying positions Muhandis had taken publicly that embarrassed it with local or international allies.
While he frustrated the government, it was Muhandis’ strong personality, and his blatant challenge to it and the rest of his opponents, that so attracted the leaders and fighters of the armed factions and kept them revolving around him like moths to a flame, following wherever he went.
To maintain this influence, commanders say Muhandis refused to share power and was keen to remove anyone who might compete with him or oppose him within the Hashd al-Shaabi. One commander described him as a dictator.
“Muhandis was the rhythm officer for the armed factions. He knew how to deal with them, direct them to the destination he wanted and forced them to do what he wanted,” a prominent Hashd commander told MEE.
“He kept all the financial, administrative and military powers of the [Hashd al-Shaabi] in his hands to maintain his dominance over everyone around him.”
As a result, commanders say, it is now extremely difficult to replace him.
Carrots and sticks
The Hashd al-Shaabi is a governmental body established in the summer of 2014 to oversee the armed factions and volunteers fighting the Islamic State group alongside regular Iraqi forces after the army collapsed and one-third of the country fell into the militants’ hands.
The Iranian-backed armed factions, including the Badr Organisation, Kataeb Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, have been the backbone of the paramilitary umbrella group, which has more than 140,000 fighters and a $2bn annual budget.
Muhandis was in control of all of the Hashd factions, whether they were associated with Iran or not, and used the group’s resources to maintain his tight command.
As he won the loyalty of some factions by giving them contracts or government jobs and turned a blind eye when fighters’ salaries were stolen, he also deprived factions of pay, equipment and weapons when they challenged his orders, commanders told MEE.
But Muhandis’ carrot-and-stick policy had increasing drawbacks, which were surfacing even before his death, and has left a legacy of mistrust between faction leaders that one said will be “almost impossible” to overcome right now if they plan to work together.
This is especially the case because many of the factions with the most fighters, field missions and achievements, and which therefore hold the strongest weight within the Hashd, believe their members were excluded by Muhandis from key administration and military positions. Instead, they were filled by commanders who were considered loyal to Muhandis, faction leaders told MEE.
The competition to gain back these positions, the leader said, will keep the faction heads quarrelling between themselves and, in turn, further complicate the process to replace Muhandis.
‘If there will be no fighting, then there will be fierce conflict between the faction leaders’
– Iraqi armed faction commander
“For example, Muhandis had placed five [Hashd al-Shaabi] directorates under the administration of one of his sons-in-law, while a number of operations leaders and other directorates were handed over to those close to him, and these are all positions that will be the focus of the factions’ struggle,” a prominent commander told MEE.
The competition for control of these sites between Iranian-backed factions and those supported by Iraq’s top Shia cleric Ali Sistani in Najaf is “huge”, he said, and physical fighting breaking out between the factions is not out of the realm of possibility.
“So, if there will be no fighting, then there will be fierce conflict between the faction leaders and, of course, this will weaken everyone.”
Hard to replace
Attempts to maintain Iranian influence within the Hashd al-Shaabi and fill the void left by Muhandis began very early.
Less than 24 hours after he was killed, several Iranian-backed Shia commanders and political leaders met in Baghdad and agreed to nominate Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of Badr Organisation, to replace Muhandis – but as the head of the body, not the deputy, commanders attended the meeting told MEE.
“The armed factions need someone to be gathered around them, and currently there is no one but Amiri to do this job,” a commander with a pro-Iran armed faction who attended the meeting told MEE.
“Amiri’s personality is not as strong as Muhandis’, but we don’t have a replacement at this time, so we agreed to nominate him to take over as the [Hashd al Shaabi’s] chairman, as it’s not reasonable for Amiri to work under Fayyad’s supervision.”
Fayyad, the commander said, is considered to be weak. “He has to leave now and Abdul Mahdi will sign the decree in days,” he said.
It is not simply the loss of leadership that will challenge the Hashd’s factions in the wake of the assassinations.
The circumstances around their killings, including the accuracy of the attack and its reliance on intelligence, has left leaders of the Iraqi armed factions with a strong feeling that the US has penetrated their ranks and will now terminate them, one by one.
‘We need time to mourn, gather ourselves, unite our forces and then decide our next step’
– Commander of Iranian-backed armed faction
In an attempt to buy time, calm their fighters and save face, the leaders of the factions and Shia political blocs over the weekend called on the Iraqi parliament to vote on a resolution which would require foreign forces to leave Iraq.
Despite Abdul Mahdi’s warnings about the repercussions of removing foreign forces from Iraq, particularly the Americans, the parliament went ahead and voted on Sunday to support the resolution, a decision that calmed the factions and has allowed critical time for them to regroup, their leaders told MEE.
“The purpose of this resolution is to defuse the crisis before any of the factions get involved in something that cannot be dealt with later,” a commander of an Iran-backed armed faction told MEE.
“The anger was great and the shock was harsh for everyone and painful, and this dispersed us and we lost focus. Also, the current situation and the repeated threats from the US have paralysed the movement of most leaders.
“So we need time to mourn, gather ourselves, unite our forces and then decide our next step … The initiative is currently in our hands, we do not want to lose it in implementing emotional operations that are useless and limited in scale,” he said.