Iraq’s prime minister is attempting to bring powerful Iran-backed militias in the country under the control of the Iraqi armed forces, as he tries to placate the US amid soaring tensions with Tehran.
Adel Abdul-Mahdi issued a decree ordering the militias, which fall under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), to come to heel by July 31 or be deemed “illegitimate”.
Mr Abdul-Mahdi has come under pressure from Washington to curb Iran’s influence in Iraq, particularly after several recent unclaimed attacks against US interests in the country.
The PMF, a collection of mostly Shia groups who fought Islamic State alongside the Iraqi army and number more than 140,000 fighters, technically fall under Mr Abdul-Mahdi’s authority but PMF’s top brass are politically aligned with Iran.
The militias rose to prominence after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, when they fought American occupation, but have since gained outsized influence in politics and the economy, which some see as a threat to Iraq’s security and sovereignty.
Iraq has found itself in the middle of Iranian and American allies as both sides threaten war.
Iraq hosts more than 5,000 US troops, and it is also home to the PMF, some of whom want the US forces to leave.
Qais al-Khizali, the leader of one of the most powerful Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq, tweeted that the move to integrate the PMF in the armed forces is a step in the right direction.
Muqtada al-Sadr, a populist Shia cleric, also welcomed the decree, saying his faction known as the Peace Brigades would implement it. In a tweet, he described the decision as an important "first step" toward building a state, but he also expressed concern that the decision would not be implemented properly.
It is not clear how Mr Abdul-Mahdi will enforce the order, where predecessor Haider al-Abadi failed.
"At this time I think Abdul Mahdi was incentivised because of American pressure to put them all in one box in order to protect them, but will they comply?" said Hashim al-Hashimi, a Baghdad-based security expert who advises the government.
"Their compliance hinges on Iran’s receptiveness to these orders, if Iran is not receptive to these orders they will be like the ones Abadi issued."
Kirk Sowell, an Iraq expert at Utica Risk Services, a Middle East-focused political risk firm, told the Telegraph he did not expect the move to have much impact.
"Mahdi is doing it as an assertion of his authority as commander-in-chief, since there are so many open doubts about it," he said. "Abadi issued a very similar order back in 2016 and it really did not change anything other than forcing militia political leaders to give lip-service to the division between politics and martial activity."
The crisis gripping the Middle East stems from President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers last year, and then imposing crippling new sanctions on Tehran.
Last month, the US ordered the evacuation of nonessential diplomatic staff from Iraq amid unspecified threats from Iran. Since then, there have been a string of attacks on US interests in Iraq, including military bases where American trainers are based and a rocket attack near the US Embassy in Baghdad.