Supporters of the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force attend the funeral procession of Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani, and eight others in Baghdad, Iraq, on January 4, 2020.
Ahmad Al-Rubaye Ι AFP via Getty Images
While much of the world is fearing a potential escalation in tensions between the U.S. and Iran, a former American ambassador has warned that violence within Iraq could also become a major source of instability in the Middle East.
That comment by Douglas Silliman, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2016 to 2019, came after a American airstrike last week killed top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani. Silliman pointed out that along with Soleimani, the strike also took out a powerful Iraqi militia leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis — a detail that escaped much media coverage.
“What worries me the most is that much of the world press and much of the world, as they’re looking at an American-Iranian potential conflict, the impact on Iraq could be huge,” the ambassador told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Monday.
“I think that the loss of Soleimani and Muhandis could be very dangerous inside Iraq,” he added.
Soleimani led the Iranian Quds Force — the foreign operations wing of the elite paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, while al-Muhandis oversaw Iran-backed Iraqi militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces.
Al-Muhandis was at Baghdad’s international airport on Friday to receive Soleimani who had just arrived by plane when the U.S. airstrike occurred, the Associated Press reported.
The two men had “alternately acted as an accelerator for violent actions against American forces, against their rivals and into Syria,” said Silliman, who’s now president of Washington-based think tank The Arab Gulf States Institute.
On the other hand, they also prevented escalation in violence when they felt the moves were not in the interest of Iran or Shia militias, the ambassador added.
Al-Muhandis had “consolidated control over the bulk of pro-Iranian Shia militias inside Iraq” and his death has left a leadership vacuum that could set loose those militias, explained Silliman. That’s especially so because the various Shia militia groups are unlike Iran’s Quds Force, which is a “very structured and disciplined military organization,” he added.
“What you have taken out of this equation in Iraq is the command and control structure that had unified the numerous Shia militias inside Iraq, who may now feel free to think they can go off and do things on their own,” the ambassador said.
“So, what you might see is less experienced, less well-trained militias who are angry, feeling they can take it upon themselves to make these decisions to use violence and that could be dangerous for Iraq,” he concluded.