AP Explains: Who are Iraq's Iran-backed militias?

Iran emerged as a major power broker in Iraq after the American invasion in 2003, supporting Shiite Islamist parties and militias that have dominated the country ever since.

Worries are increasing that the militias could drag Iraq into the growing proxy war between the U.S. and Iran in the Middle East. The United States and its ally, Israel, are targeting pro-Iranian militias across Lebanon, Syria and Iraq with economic sanctions and airstrikes hitting their bases and other infrastructure.

Iran also supports many of the militias that mobilized in 2014 to battle the Islamic State group, gaining outsized influence as militiamen joined security forces and U.S. troops to defeat the extremists. Those state-sanctioned, mainly Shiite militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, have grown into a powerful political faction estimated to have the most seats in the Iraqi parliament.

29 PHOTOS
Outraged Iraqi protesters storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad
See Gallery
Outraged Iraqi protesters storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad
Iraq protesters demonstrate in front of US embassy over strikes
Iraq protesters to government: Listen to us (not to Iran)
U.S. soldiers fire tear gas towards protesters who broke into the U.S. embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Protesters burn property and wave militia flags in front of the U.S. embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Protesters burn property in front of the U.S. embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Protesters burn property in front of the U.S. embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Protesters damage property inside the U.S. embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec 31, 2019. Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Protesters burn property in front of the U.S. embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Protesters burn property in front of the U.S. embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Protesters burn property in front of the U.S. embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Protesters smash a window inside the U.S. embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
U.S. soldiers fire tear gas to stop protesters inside U.S. embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
U.S. soldiers fire tear gas to stop protesters inside U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Protesters burn property inside the U.S. embassy compund, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Iraqi protesters try to disable the camera on the outer wall of the US embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone during an angry demonstration on December 31, 2019 to denounce weekend US air strikes that killed Iran-backed fighters in Iraq. - It was the first time in years protesters have been able to reach the US embassy in the Iraqi capital, which is sheltered behind a series of checkpoints in the high-security Green Zone. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images)
Iraqi protesters throw stones at the US embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone during an angry demonstration on December 31, 2019 to denounce weekend US air strikes that killed Iran-backed fighters in Iraq. - It was the first time in years protesters have been able to reach the US embassy in the Iraqi capital, which is sheltered behind a series of checkpoints in the high-security Green Zone. (Photo by SABAH ARAR / AFP) (Photo by SABAH ARAR/AFP via Getty Images)
Iraqi protesters throw stones at the US embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone during an angry demonstration on December 31, 2019 to denounce weekend US air strikes that killed Iran-backed fighters in Iraq. - It was the first time in years protesters have been able to reach the US embassy in the Iraqi capital, which is sheltered behind a series of checkpoints in the high-security Green Zone. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images)
A member of the Iraqi security forces stands guard in front of the outer wall of the US embassy in the capital Baghdad during a protest on December 31, 2019, to denounce the weekend's air strikes by US planes on several bases belonging to the Hezbollah brigades near Al-Qaim, an Iraqi district bordering Syria - It was the first time in years protesters have been able to reach the US embassy in the Iraqi capital, which is sheltered behind a series of checkpoints in the high-security Green Zone. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP) / The erroneous mention[s] appearing in the metadata of this photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE has been modified in AFP systems in the following manner: [A member of the Iraqi security forces] instead of [An armed member of [An armed member of Iraq's pro-Iranian Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary group] Please immediately remove the erroneous mention[s] from all your online services and delete it (them) from your servers. If you have been authorized by AFP to distribute it (them) to third parties, please ensure that the same actions are carried out by them. Failure to promptly comply with these instructions will entail liability on your part for any continued or post notification usage. Therefore we thank you very much for all your attention and prompt action. We are sorry for the inconvenience this notification may cause and remain at your disposal for any further information you may require. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - DECEMBER 31: Outraged Iraqi protesters hold flags and placards as they storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, protesting Washington's attacks on armed battalions belong to Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi forces on December 31, 2019. At least 25 people were killed in weekend U.S. airstrikes on positions of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia group, in Iraq and Syria. Hundreds of Iraqi protesters gathered early Tuesday near the embassy to show their anger at the U.S. move. (Photo by Haydar Karaalp/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Irak'ta ii milis gücü Hadi abi yanls protestocular, ABD'nin Badat Büyükelçilii binasn basarak içeri girdi. ABD yönetiminin Hadi abieya bal Hizbullah Tugaylar'na düzenledii saldry protesto etmek için bakent Badat'taki ABD Büyükelçilii önünde toplanan protestocular, Hizbullah bayraklar ve dövizler tad. (Photo by Haydar Karaalp/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - DECEMBER 31: Outraged Iraqi protesters hold flags and placards as they storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, protesting Washington's attacks on armed battalions belong to Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi forces on December 31, 2019. At least 25 people were killed in weekend U.S. airstrikes on positions of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia group, in Iraq and Syria. Hundreds of Iraqi protesters gathered early Tuesday near the embassy to show their anger at the U.S. move. (Photo by Haydar Karaalp/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - DECEMBER 31: Outraged Iraqi protesters hold flags and placards as they storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, protesting Washington's attacks on armed battalions belong to Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi forces on December 31, 2019. At least 25 people were killed in weekend U.S. airstrikes on positions of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia group, in Iraq and Syria. Hundreds of Iraqi protesters gathered early Tuesday near the embassy to show their anger at the U.S. move. (Photo by Haydar Karaalp/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - DECEMBER 31: Outraged Iraqi protesters set fire to the wall as they storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, protesting Washington's attacks on armed battalions belong to Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi forces on December 31, 2019. At least 25 people were killed in weekend U.S. airstrikes on positions of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia group, in Iraq and Syria. Hundreds of Iraqi protesters gathered early Tuesday near the embassy to show their anger at the U.S. move. (Photo by Haydar Karaalp/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - DECEMBER 31: Outraged Iraqi protesters set fire to the wall as they storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, protesting Washington's attacks on armed battalions belong to Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi forces on December 31, 2019. At least 25 people were killed in weekend U.S. airstrikes on positions of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia group, in Iraq and Syria. Hundreds of Iraqi protesters gathered early Tuesday near the embassy to show their anger at the U.S. move. (Photo by Haydar Karaalp/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - DECEMBER 31: Outraged Iraqi protesters set fire to the wall as they storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, protesting Washington's attacks on armed battalions belong to Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi forces on December 31, 2019. At least 25 people were killed in weekend U.S. airstrikes on positions of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia group, in Iraq and Syria. Hundreds of Iraqi protesters gathered early Tuesday near the embassy to show their anger at the U.S. move. (Photo by Haydar Karaalp/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - DECEMBER 31: Outraged Iraqi protesters set fire to the wall as they storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, protesting Washington's attacks on armed battalions belong to Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi forces on December 31, 2019. At least 25 people were killed in weekend U.S. airstrikes on positions of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia group, in Iraq and Syria. Hundreds of Iraqi protesters gathered early Tuesday near the embassy to show their anger at the U.S. move. (Photo by Haydar Karaalp/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - DECEMBER 31: Outraged Iraqi protesters storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, protesting Washington's attacks on armed battalions belong to Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi forces on December 31, 2019. At least 25 people were killed in weekend U.S. airstrikes on positions of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia group, in Iraq and Syria. Hundreds of Iraqi protesters gathered early Tuesday near the embassy to show their anger at the U.S. move. (Photo by Murtadha Sudani/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - DECEMBER 31: Outraged Iraqi protesters storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, protesting Washington's attacks on armed battalions belong to Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi forces on December 31, 2019. At least 25 people were killed in weekend U.S. airstrikes on positions of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia group, in Iraq and Syria. Hundreds of Iraqi protesters gathered early Tuesday near the embassy to show their anger at the U.S. move. (Photo by Murtadha Sudani/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
An Iraqi protester holds up a sign that he took off from outside the US embassy in Baghdad after breaching the outer wall of the diplomatic mission during an angry demonstration on December 31, 2019 to denounce weekend US air strikes that killed Iran-backed fighters in Iraq. - It was the first time in years protesters have been able to reach the US embassy in the Iraqi capital, which is sheltered behind a series of checkpoints in the high-security Green Zone. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Iraq has long struggled to balance its ties with the U.S. and Iran, both allies of the Iraqi government but regional archenemies. The Iraqi government angrily condemned the U.S. airstrikes this week against an Iran-backed militia, Kataeb Hezbollah, which is part of the Popular Mobilization Forces. The U.S. blames Kataeb for a string of unclaimed attacks targeting U.S. bases in Iraq, including one that killed an American contractor this week. The apparent decision by Iraqi security forces not to prevent supporters of the militia from breaking into the U.S. Embassy compound in retaliation signaled a sharp deterioration of U.S.-Iraq relations.

The Popular Mobilization Forces is an umbrella group for a number of Iran-backed militias that include the Imam Ali Brigades and Sayed al-Shuhada. The PMF is practically run by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a military commander who has been designated a terrorist by Washington.

The Badr Organization is one of the largest groups within the PMF. Its chief, Hadi al-Amiri, also leads the the powerful Fatah bloc in parliament. The other main parliamentary bloc is led by populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has aimed to realign himself with recent anti-government protests opposing Iranian influence in Iraq.

Qais al-Khizali, who is on a U.S. terror list, heads the Iranian-backed Shiite militia, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous. He rose to prominence as a leader in the Shiite insurgency after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. He has called for U.S. troops to leave Iraq now that the Islamic State group has been largely defeated.

Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which owns its own TV station, made significant gains in last year’s elections, and al-Khazali is now represented by a 15-member bloc in parliament. Al-Khazali's forces fought in Syria alongside President Bashar Assad’s troops.

The Iran-backed groups have also become the target of popular anger in Iraq. Anti-government protests that began in October have swept the country's largely Shiite south, with demonstrators demanding an end to Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs.

Read Full Story