On a baking early summer evening last month, Iran’s man in Iraq sat down in Baghdad with a group of militiamen to try to bring calm to the capital’s foreboding streets.
Assembled in a room were leaders of the most feared militias in the land, men who had days before taken over a checkpoint leading to the seat of power, and were planning a military parade of their own through the Iraqi capital. Among them sat Esmail Qaani, an Iranian commander of the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force – a clandestine group at the apex of the Iranian military’s foreign operations, which had been instrumental in Iraq’s affairs through war, insurrection and now relative peace.
His presence filled formidable boots – those of his predecessor, General Qassem Suleimani, who had ruled the landscape of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon for 15 years until he was killed by a US drone in January 2020. The June gathering was seen by those in the room and others watching from afar as Qaani’s baptism of fire, where he could try to assert his will, just as the man who the assembled guests had called ‘Hajj Qassem” had done at critical junctures like this. According to two of the participants and another briefed on the meeting, Qaani missed his moment.
Iranian general Qassem Suleimani’s assassination by the US in January 2020 has left a void in the power struggle between the militiamen and the state. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Qaani’s role had been to convince the militias that it was not in their interests to continue to fire rockets at the US embassy in the Green Zone, or at Erbil airport in northern Iraq, where US forces remain. The groups’ subversive ways had been on bold and increasing display over the first six months of the Biden administration, defying the national army and a government that had staked its mandate on reining them in. Despite the firm tone taken by Iraq’s prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, when he took office 18 months ago, state responses had remained largely rhetorical. The reluctance to take them on had been a testament to the power and influence the militias had accumulated through their bountiful caches of arms and penetration of state institutions. The meeting was a reckoning, which could bring the groups to heel.
“All eyes were on him at the start,” said one of the men in the room. “And they started to look away. By the end of the meeting, they thought they had his measure. And that isn’t good for Iraq. He is not the new Hajj Qassem, that’s for sure.”
In the 18 months since Qaani succeeded Suleimani, his interlocutors and foes have been patiently sizing him up and, at the same time, weighing whether Trump’s impulsive decision to assassinate the most powerful man in Iraq had made the country a more manageable place.
“I think the answer to the second question is a ‘no’,” said a senior Iraqi figure. “Iraq is not safer, and the Americans aren’t going to get better outcomes with Qaani, because his capacity to deliver is less. With Suleimani, you knew what you had. And he could control the militias if he wanted to.”
Qaani is said to lack a rapport with Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali al-Khamanei. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Qaani’s task has been formidable. A 12-year veteran of the Quds Force’s operations in Afghanistan, he had no experience in Iraq or Syria and does not speak Arabic. More importantly, according to multiple sources who have met the new commander and are familiar with his connections in Iran, he does not have a rapport with the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamanei, or his office. On paper, the role he plays is the same as Suleimani, a unique combination of Special Forces commander, intelligence chief and presidential envoy. However, those who have dealt with Qaani regularly say he clearly lacks the latter element – the most essential of the trilogy.
“When I sat with Hajj Qassem, I was talking with history,” said one senior Iraqi figure. “And he was good for his word. When he told you something he would deliver. The new guy is not the same. And I’m not sure he can be.”
“I’ve met him and he is not even in Suleimani’s shadow,” another senior Iraqi figure said. “He is sincere, but he is learning on the job.”
A third senior Iraqi said Suleimani’s death had left a structural void. “Khamanei does not give orders and doesn’t get involved at lower level decision making. When people say he could stop the militias if he wanted to, that’s not really true, because he doesn’t engage at that level. The way the model has been set up, that is very much the Quds Force leader’s role. The breakdown is the people here know that he’s not necessarily carrying the Supreme Leader’s word. So, they’re prepared to defy him, thinking they are in an equal contest for Khamenei’s attention.”
“We have two separate, intertwined things going on,” said Prof Toby Dodge from the London School of Economics. “First, the militias are acting in concert with Iran to help Tehran put pressure on the US to get a better and quicker deal over a new [nuclear deal]. Second, and of much greater consequence for the future of Iraq, the main militias are now deeply integrated into the system at the core of the state and benefit greatly from this.
“Their struggle with al-Kadhimi and their campaign of violence against democratic activists is about defending and expanding their own role at the centre of the system. They hope to secure their position through increasing their numbers in parliament after the next election. This is a Kalashnikov and ballot box strategy to dominate Iraqi state and society.”
With Qaani still establishing his authority, an Iraqi figure with long links to Iran has stepped from the shadows. Mohammed al-Hashimi, also known as Abu Jihad, has steadily emerged as a man who senior figures in Iraq and across the region believe can get things done. A senior aide to former prime minister Adil Abdul Mahdi, with strong ties to the Iranian-backed, former anti-Saddam opposition, al-Hashimi played a role in negotiating the militias to stand down in June.
His role has led some Iraqi and American observers to suggest that local figures assuming responsibility for local decisions is an advance on Suleimani, or another Iranian, calling the shots. But in the cauldron of postwar Iraq, disentangling the influence of Iran or any foreign power holding a stake in the country has remained elusive and, according to some analysts, sometimes counterproductive.
“The fact is that Iran has a significant presence in Iraqi affairs,” said an American official with close ties to the Biden administration. “If we continue to avoid this issue, we are never going to move forward and Iraq will unravel. It’s time for an accommodation. And it’s time to find the right person to help us do that. The militias can’t be allowed to run things.”
The murder of scholar and government adviser Hisham al-Hashimi by militiamen in July 2020 shocked the country. Photograph: Reuters
Earlier this week, al-Kadhimi, who is unlikely to run for a second term as prime minister after national elections scheduled for October, announced the arrest of a leading member of one militia, Kata’ib Hezbollah – a rare move that he had been promising for months. The alleged militiaman, Ahmed al-Kenani, was accused of being one of the gunmen who shot dead a scholar and government adviser on Islamic extremism, Hisham al-Hashimi, last July. The arrest was the first in the investigation of a slaying that has shocked the country, and came months after the alleged killer’s identity was known.
Analysts say a truer test of whether the balance of power has tipped in the government’s favour will be if the accused man is put on trial and convicted.
“If that happens, we will get somewhere,” said Rashid al-Saede, a resident of east Baghdad. “But right now, there are posters of Suleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis [a senior militia leader killed with Suleimani] all through the Green Zone. The airport road is named after them both and the car they were killed in has been mounted as a statue greeting new arrivals. Who’s more powerful now? All those things give you the answer.”