Zarif’s Baghdad visit won’t address PMF-Iraq gov’t power dynamic

Zarif’s first visit to Baghdad since assassination of General Qassem Soleimani aims to mend strained relations.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) meets with his Iraqi counterpart Fuad Hussein (R) in Baghdad, Iraq on July 19, 2020. (Photo by Murtadha Al-Sudani/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, left, meets with his Iraqi counterpart Fuad Hussein in Baghdad [Murtadha al-Sudani/Anadolu via Getty Images]

Iran’s foreign minister arrived in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad on Sunday to discuss several issues related to political, commercial and security matters, in an attempt to patch up relations with the government.

Ties between Baghdad and Tehran have been strained since the United States assassinated Iranian General Qassem Soleimani – the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard – and deputy commander of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January.

Speaking at a joint news conference with his Iraqi counterpart Fuad Hussein, Mohammad Javad Zarif stressed his country’s belief in “maintaining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq” and that a “stable and powerful” Iraq was in the interest of both countries.

“That is why we look forward to continued constructive bilateral negotiations. The stability, security and peace in Iraq is the stability of the entire region,” he said.

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For his part, Fuad Hussein said his country looked forward to continuing its “balanced relations” with all the countries in the region “based on first our national interest, then on mutual interest with our neighbours without any interfering in our domestic affairs”.

Iraqi security analyst Ahmad al-Abyad told Al Jazeera that Zarif’s visit, which comes a day before Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi travels to Saudi Arabia, is no coincidence.

“Zarif’s visit carried two messages,” he said. “One is a cushioned warning to al-Kadhimi not to go forward with attempts to shore up economic links with the Gulf states, and the other is a message of mediation to its regional rival Saudi Arabia.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif makes a speech as he holds a joint press conference with the attendance of Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein (not seen) following their meeting in Baghd
Zarif speaks at a news conference in Baghdad [Murtadha al-Sudani/Anadolu via Getty Images]

Another Baghdad-based security analyst, who wished to remain anonymous, told Al Jazeera one of the main topics of discussion will be about the al-Munthiriya border crossing with Iran, which has long been used as a smuggling route to Lebanon and Syria in terms of weaponry and fighters.

“The PMF used to be in control of the border, but after a no-fly zone was imposed it has gotten harder to smuggle weapons across,” the analyst said, adding the crossing is now under Iraq’s security forces and Counter Terrorism Service (CTS).

The other topic of interest will be about preparations for the religious pilgrimage season known as the Arbaeen, which takes places in the Iraqi holy city of Karbala in two months’ time following the end of the 40-day mourning period for Ashura.

Yet regarding efforts to curb the PMF’s influence on the political and security front, the analyst said Zarif was not the right person to act as a buffer between the umbrella group and Iraq’s government.

“The PMF file is in the hands of the Revolutionary Guards, not Iran’s foreign office,” he said.

Sarmad al-Bayati, an Iraqi political analyst, said Zarif’s visit will focus more on bilateral relations between the two countries.

“The Iranian foreign minister did not come to Baghdad to discuss the PMF,” he said. “It is more likely that he will talk about the killing of Soleimani and al-Muhandis instead.”

PMF’s sphere of influence

Prime Minister al-Kadhimi has been a strong advocate of Iraq’s sovereignty and has upset armed groups within Iraq that are affiliated with Iran, such as Kataib Hezbollah. At the end of last June, al-Khadimi ordered a raid on Kataib Hezbollah’s offices in Baghdad, which led to the arrest of 14 fighters.

Kataib Hezbollah in turn and other armed groups within the PMF have accused al-Kadhimi of assisting the US in its assassination of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, which has created a rift within the prime minister’s government.

The PMF, which is made up of dozens of mostly Shia militias that are dominated by powerful factions who take their orders from Iran, enjoys political influence as it dominates dozens of seats in parliament through the Fatah Alliance and State of Law coalitions.

Incorporated within the Iraqi government in 2016 following the defeat of the armed group ISIL (ISIS), the sphere of influence of the PMF has only continued to grow.

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Critics point out the PMF, backed by Iran, has expanded its authority on the political, economic and security front. In 2019, it received $2.16bn from the defence budget, yet it is independent of any control or oversight by the Iraqi defence ministry.

“Security-wise it controls the liberated areas that were previously under ISIS, which includes many border areas and land ports,” al-Abyad told Al Jazeera.

“Its control has spread inside and outside the cities and has its own security and intelligence services. It has become a force that exceeds the ability of the government, and it runs parallel to the Revolutionary Guards project in Iran.”

The Baghdad-based anonymous security expert said the PMF and its proxy armed groups also “wield influence on the streets of Baghdad”.

“Whoever stands against them – politically, legally, ideologically – find themselves killed, imprisoned, or persecuted,” he said. “My good friend and colleague Hisham al-Hashemi was neither the first nor the last to be killed.”

Al-Hashemi, a well-known and top security analyst, was shot dead by unknown gunmen outside his home in the capital earlier this month.

Following the government raid on Kataib Hezbollah’s offices last month, al-Hashemi provided his social media followers with insights over allegations the group was behind rocket attacks on US and other diplomatic interests in Iraq.

The group quickly issued a statement on its Telegram channel denying responsibility for his killing.

“Activists and members of rights groups fear for their lives because they do not trust nor can count on the Iraqi government to hold accountable the armed groups behind targeted killings,” the security expert said.

Source: Al Jazeera