The arrest and release of prominent Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) member, Qasim Muslih, during the past weeks have revealed cracks within the armed Shiite factions in Iraq.
The factions used the arrest to create political momentum in their favor, up their rhetoric against Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and his government and increase attacks against American forces in the country.
However, the arrest also revealed “alarming” cracks within the factions and “confusion” among Iranian leaderships in reining them in.
Earlier this month, head of the Fatah bloc, Hadi al-Ameri hinted in statements to the media at differences within the PMF when he accused certain sides of attempting to exploit Muslih’s arrest for their own gain.
“There are devils on both sides,” he said in reference to the government and factions.
Sources on the ground told Asharq Al-Awsat that at least three Shiite factions now control political and field decision-making in Iraq.
“Influential political blocs in parliament are now facing serious difficulties in reining in these groups,” they added.
The differences came to a head over objections to strategic decisions, such as the storming of the Green Zone in wake of Muslih’s arrest, they explained, revealing that some factions favor direct confrontation without resorting to political forces.
Moreover, the sources spoke of “Iranian confusion” in dealing with their allied factions in Iraq.
They noted Quds Force commander Esmail Qaani’s recent visit to Iraq in wake of Muslih’s arrest. They remarked that he acted as a messenger on behalf of supreme leader Ali Khamenei.
Qaani’s slain predecessor Qassem Soleimani had adopted a more hands-on approach. Whereby Qaani appears to be a mere messenger, Soleimani used to manage the factions and hold them on a tight Iranian leash.
The factions appear to be slipping from Qaani and Iran’s grasp, added the sources.
Furthermore, Iran long used to send different weapons to different small armed groups in an attempt to keep them distracted and to keep outmaneuvering them, continued the sources.
This approach is starting to backfire against Tehran.
Soleimani used to be better at applying these maneuvers and this discrimination between the groups, keeping the factions in check. This ended when the US killed him in a drone strike near Baghdad airport in January 2020.
The discrimination between the groups is now becoming a source of disputes, explained the sources.
“The factions that under Soleimani were tasked with major missions, have now become a source of danger and are out of control,” they warned.
Informed sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that Qaani did not hold deep discussions with Iraqi factions during his Baghdad trip, rather he only delivered messages and had nothing else to offer.
As Iran loses its grip, certain factions are expanding at an unprecedented rate in Iraq in an attempt to weaken Kadhimi’s government.
A PMF field commander warned that Iran will not be able to control rebellious armed factions that also wield influence in the Iraqi business, financial and investment sectors.
The situation has ultimately led to the emergence of three major Shiite movements. The first is extremist and includes the Kataib Hezbollah, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and their affiliates.
The second group broke up from the PMF and now receives orders from Iraq’s top Shiite Authority Ali al-Sistani. The brigades of this group had officially joined the military.
The third movement is represented by the Saraya al-Salam, led by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Sadr has sought to keep this movement at an equal distance from the two others, refusing to take sides and maintaining a delicate balance with the government and Iran.