Iraq's Hashd Militias: Ineluctable Politics on the Road to Mosul

Derek Verbakel
Research Intern, IPCS
On 26 July, the Iraqi government officially declared its intention to integrate the mostly-Shia militias known as al-Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Units) as an ''independent military formation'' part of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). The move, which somewhat reiterates an April 2015 cabinet order, was approved in February 2016 by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi through a decree called Office Order 91; and will nominally place the Hashd under his command. Abadi claims the Hashd – accused of widespread human rights abuses, but a crucial part of the Iraqi government's strategy against the Islamic State (IS) – will be subject to military law and barred from maintaining political party affiliations. Abadi will struggle to implement Order 91, and to what extent he does, this development is unlikely to improve. Contrarily, it has the potential to worsen, instability in Iraq.
Abadi's declaration to incorporate the Hashd into the ISF is inseparable from power struggles over Iraq. Broadly, Abadi and aligned nationally-oriented Shia groups have been set against a collection of Iran-backed militias and their political wings. Militias connected to both camps comprising the Hashd saw their power expanded following its formation as a government-approved umbrella organisation in June 2014. This took place after the Iraqi army's near-collapse in the north prompted a call by Shia cleric Ali al-Sistani for all Iraqis to join the fight against IS. Heretofore exercising little control over the militias, Abadi has attempted to change that perception while marginalising, and signalling strength to political rivals, including prominent militia leaders. Abadi, who is under pressure as corruption and dysfunction plagues his government, is trying to consolidate power in the run-up to an attempt to re-take Mosul from IS.
Contextualising Hashd
Office Order 91 states the Hashd will be detached from “all political, party, and social organisations, and political work shall be prohibited within its ranks.” However, severing the leading militias' political affiliations is unlikely, given the extent of ideological, material, and financial ties to Iran and the fact that many of the militias function as military appendages of longstanding Iraqi Shia political parties. For instance, nationalist Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Peace Companies, while loyal to the Iraqi state rather than Iran, is an outgrowth of his political movement and party; the Badr Brigade is the armed wing of the formidable Badr Organisation and is still rooted to its founding in Iran, and as with Asaib Ahl al-Haq, receiving Iranian support; the head of Kataib Hezbollah, who has acted as the official commander of the Hashd, works hand-in-hand with Iran's special operations Quds Force in Iraq; the leader of the Harakat al-Nujaba militia proclaimed in November 2015 that he would overthrow Iraq's secular government if ordered by Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei.
Integrating Hashd members into the ISF as a distinct formation would entail imposing a hierarchical military structure on horizontally organised factions. This would meet with resistance and prove difficult to sustain, as there is no reason to believe that militias will accept their own disempowerment. Nor will they cease following existing leaders or reverse efforts to pursue their own political ambitions, especially given the increasing illegitimacy of those currently leading the government. Given the fragmented dispensation of power in Iraq, it is unclear whether the integration of the Hashd into the ISF would represent the state taking over the militias or vice-versa.
Implications: Internal
As they become more powerful, the Hashd militias risk fuelling sectarian tensions and violence, and closer association with the state risks exacerbating national disunity. In enabling government efforts to reclaim population centres from IS control, Hashd militias have on numerous occasions perpetrated violence against Sunni civilians. For many inhabitants of predominantly Sunni areas, the expulsion of IS may be welcomed, but their replacement with Shia militiamen is viewed as hostile re-occupation. Participation of Iran-backed Shia militias in Iraqi government military operations in Sunni areas also fuels the IS's propaganda and recruitment by ostensibly validating IS narratives of the Iraqi government being an Iranian pawn. Such dynamics render Shia Hashd forces ill-suited to stabilise Sunni-majority Mosul and entice inhabitants to return.
Implications: External
A deepened integration of the Hashd could complicate the US assistance in Iraq, including Mosul. In the recent years, while insisting on restraint, particularly in Sunni areas, Washington has gradually softened its opposition to Baghdad’s instrumentalisation of Shia militias. Already siding awkwardly with forces variously supported by Iran, to be seen as more directly backing officially designated 'terrorist groups' such as Badr or Kataib Hezbollah would provoke thorny political disputes in Washington. These and other Hashd militias have in past years fought American forces in Iraq and more recently raised uncomfortable questions by threatening to target US advisors to the ISF, whose move closer to the battlefront since April has corresponded with IS losing ground.
And, despite Abadi’s politicking around the issue, allegiances to Iraqi political parties and Iran will preclude the transformation of the Hashd into a non-sectarian national force representing all Iraqis.
Even if it were feasible, the Hashd's incorporation into the ISF would scarcely allay concerns regarding what might unfold vis-a-vis Mosul, including in terms of US involvement and its far-reaching implications for future stability in Iraq.