On Thursday Iranian proxy militias hit the U.S. Embassy in Iraq with three Katyusha rockets. Although the attack caused no casualties and minimal damage it is significant as it exposed the rifts in the Iranian camp.

Soleimani’s Death Left an Unfilled Power Vaccum

The Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militias, responsible for Thursday’s attack, are funded and led by the Iranian Quds Force. Their members were trained and indoctrinated in Iran initially to fight ISIS.

Upon returning to Iraq to face the Islamic State, the militias were accused of indiscriminately waging a sectarian war and killing large numbers of innocent Sunni civilians. This was done on the orders of General Qassem Soleimani the former commander of the Quds Force.

Solemani and the senior Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed in a U.S. drone strike following attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Iraq in January 2020. Yet, Solemani’s death still causes rippled in the Quds Force.

Is Esmail Ghaani Losing Control Over Iran's Proxy Militias?
Esmail Ghaani Soleimani’s replacement as commander of the Quds Force doesn’t garner the respect his predecessor did.

Esmail Ghaani, an Unexceptional Successor

The Iranians rapidly appointed Esmail Ghaani as Soleimani’s successor, despite misgivings within the Iranian government. Former President Hassan Rouhani argued with military commanders, stating that it was time to step back and negotiate with the United States. On the other hand, the Iranian military wanted to strike back quickly against the U.S., according to Al-Arabiya News

Many experts had argued that Ghaani does not have the personal charisma of Soleimani who was greatly respected by the militias. And this seems to be the case as he doesn’t command the militia’s respect.

The AP reported that Esmail Ghaani held a meeting with senior PMF militia members asking them to rein in the attacks on U.S. interests until after the nuclear talks of reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are completed. Nevertheless, the militias disregarded this.

A resumption of the nuclear deal would remove the sanctions against Iran’s battered economy. Although the crippling economic sanctions have caused Iranian funding to the militias to decrease the militias appear unperturbed. 

The Iranian proxy militias have always made it quite clear that they don’t take orders nor respect the current Iraqi government. They even threatened to remove Iraqi Prime Minister al-Kadhimi after he sent Iraqi Security Forces to raid a militia compound last year

Now, they have gone a step farther as they are ignoring and even openly sneering at the Iranian orders. This would be unheard of under Soleimani. The AP confirmed this by speaking with three Shiite political officials and two senior militia officials.

Shifting Allegiances

Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, the militia that conducted the slaughter of innocent civilians in the Sunni farming community of Jurf al-Sakhar in 2014, held a press conference where he openly sneered at the nuclear talks. 

He said that the militia will continue to target the U.S. “occupier” and that the nuclear talks will not be a consideration.

“And that decision is an Iraqi one,” he pointedly added, implying that Iran will not have a say in how the militias conduct operations. 

PMF militia Kata’ib Hezbollah from 2020. (Al Jazeera)

The militias increasingly follow the lead of Hezbollah’s leader Hasan Nasrallah. He is a fiery figure whom the militia leaders respect. Yet, even Kata’ib Hezbollah called on the militias to stop attacking the U.S. Embassy. 

Abu Ali al-Askary, spokesman for Kata’ib Hezbollah said, “Targeting diplomatic missions is rejected by the Iraqi resistance, and its decision is to not even strike the evil American embassy military camp.”

Both Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq are designated as terrorist organizations by the United States. Yet they both freely continue to wield influence in Iraq where the U.S. pours billions of dollars in aid.

Now, the increased autonomy of the militias from Iran threatens to make the situation in the Middle East even more volatile.