FILE PHOTO: Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is pictured at the prime minister's office in Baghdad
FILE - Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is pictured at the prime minister's office in Baghdad, Iraq, in June 2020.

WASHINGTON - Defying state power, a group of 14 pro-Iran militiamen clothed in khaki military fatigues trampled over doctored portraits of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

The images, which have been widely circulated on Iraqi media since Monday, showed over a dozen young men holding small Iraqi flags in one hand and burning Kadhimi’s crossed-out posters, along with Israeli and U.S. flags, in the other.

The men were members of Kataib Hezbollah (KH), who were released Monday shortly after their arrest in a rare anti-terrorism raid ordered by Kadhimi last week. A judge with the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) released all 14 men, citing a “lack of evidence” for any wrongdoing.

KH is an Iran proxy militia designated as a terrorist group by the United States for its involvement in deadly attacks on U.S. military bases and diplomatic facilities in Iraq.

The swift release of the militants, experts say, highlights major challenges facing Iraq’s elected leaders as they attempt to restore one of the key functions of a modern nation-state: the right to enjoy, what scholars call, “the monopoly over the use of violence,” in a country where irregular militia groups continue to carry out violent attacks.

“It’s the government’s responsibility to impose the authority of the state,” Ahmad Mulla Talal, Kadhimi’s official spokesman, said Tuesday, responding to reporters’ questions on the raid.

Show of force

Shortly after the arrest last Thursday, the Iraqi government said in a statement it had acted on “credible intelligence” to prevent an imminent attack on the Green Zone, a large fortified area in the Iraqi capital where the U.S. Embassy and other diplomatic missions are located.

On Friday, more than a dozen heavily armed vehicles, which KH described as “loyalists,” reportedly showed up outside Kadhimi’s residence inside the Green Zone, ordering him to release the detained militiamen.

In a statement published Monday, KH spokesman Abu Ali al-Askari described his group’s brazen show of force as an attempt “to prevent the situation from spinning out of control.”

Iraq later appeared to have softened its stance and released the KH detainees into PMF custody for an internal disciplinary trial, rather than handing them over to an independent Iraqi criminal court. KH is a part of PMF.

Askari called Kadhimi a “monster" who was working for the Americans. He also reiterated KH’s long-standing accusation that Kadhimi had collaborated with the United States to assassinate Iran’s powerful military leader Qassem Soleimani, along with KH’s founder, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in a January drone strike. Kadhimi has denied the allegations.

'Overrun by militias'

Though the PMF is officially part of Iraq’s security apparatus, it behaves independently and does not always obey orders from the prime minister as the commander-in-chief, say experts.

“Armed militias don’t just exist in Iraq, but they are intertwined with the state and exercise political power in the name of the state, muddying the boundaries between state and militia,” said Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq analyst at the University of Chicago.

Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, warned that the ability of a KH-run military unit to penetrate the Green Zone presented a serious obstacle to Kadhimi’s ability to govern.

“Any government’s first duty is to protect its own capacity to make independent decisions,” Knights wrote. “But the Kadhimi government is struggling to find safe locations in which it can work without fear of being overrun by militias.”

In the follow-up interview with VOA, Knights described Kadhimi’s decision to go after KH in the Iraqi capital as “brave and may have prevented one or more attacks.”

US commitment

Mardini said a reason for Kadhimi’s inability to confront Iran-backed militia groups with vigor is the perception that he cannot rely on long-term U.S. support.

“The problem the U.S. has is that it wants Iraqi prime ministers to confront powerful elites they are politically dependent on without much ability to offer assurances,” he said, adding that “its footprint is decreasing, and therefore it becomes more difficult for its commitments to be believed.”

Earlier this month, Iraq and the U.S. held a “strategic dialogue” to redefine the future of their partnership beyond the fight against Islamic State.

In a joint statement published following the talks, Washington committed to reducing its military presence in the country and broadening its political, economic and cultural engagements with Baghdad. On the other hand, Iraq agreed to protect the remaining U.S. diplomats and military personnel.

The raid against KH, according to some observers, was the first practical step by Kadhimi to signal to the U.S. that his government is focused on meeting its obligation to protect U.S. assets in Iraq.

Reconciliation

At the same time, Kadhimi’s government is engaged in “political reconciliation” in Iraq, allowing exiled Iraqi Sunni leaders such as Rafi al-Issawi to return home.

Issawi, a former minister of finance, fled the country after former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki charged him with corruption. He has returned, and his arrest warrant is expected to be dropped, according to Iraqi officials.

Maliki also went after former Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who escaped to northern Iraqi Kurdistan and later to Turkey to avoid arrest for murder charges.

It is not yet clear if Hashimi intends to return to Iraq.

“Al-Kadhimi is the last hope for the political processes,” Abdul-Khalq al-Azawi, a Sunni lawmaker, told reporters Monday.

Some others are less hopeful. Mohammed A. Salih, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania who covered the aftermath of the Iraq war as a journalist, says the fact that Kadhimi has been elected by Parliament, where Iran has many allies, makes him “too weak to be able to take on the militias.”

“If he continues to push against the Shia militias, he will witness serious backlash from Shia militias and political blocs alike,” Salih said.