Hashd al-Shaabi members at Tal Afar airport late last year. Photo: Achilleas Zavallis/AFP file
Two of Iraq's most influential Shiite figures are in favour of disbanding the Shiite-majority Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries and placing them under the complete command and control of the regular Iraqi armed forces.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi recently rejected the powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's call to dissolve the Hashd, integrate it into the army and place its weapons “in the hands of the state too.”
“Sadr and [Ayatollah Ali al-] Sistani have taken a similar stance towards the future of the Hashd for slightly different reasons, and Sadr has been more out front on this matter,” Iraq analyst Joel Wing told Rudaw English. “Sadr has called for the Hashd to be integrated into the armed forces and the undisciplined ones to be disbanded.”
The “undisciplined ones” Sadr refers to, Wing explained, are the groups closely tied to Iran such as the Badr Organization, Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq. “Many of these organizations are political rivals of Sadr and contain many ex-Sadrists,” he added, pointing out that in recent memory Sadr’s forces and the Asaib Ahl Al-Haq “were having running gun battles in Baghdad.”
“Sadr is worried that these groups will directly challenge him for the Shiite street after the war is over. They are also aligned with Vice President Nouri al-Maliki, another rival of Sadr,” Wing elaborated.
Sadr is “more open” to groups like his own Saray al-Salam and the Al-Abbas Division, which is loyal to the Shiite establishment headed by Sistani in Najaf. The commander of the Al-Abbas Division, Maitham al-Zaidi, recently said he is under instructions not to meet any figures who aren't part of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), a clear indication that Sistani and Najaf oppose the continued existence of a Hashd fighting-force not under complete state command and control. Al-Abbas has also worked closely with the ISF.
“Sadr's position is rather ironic because he wants to be the rebellious one of the Shiite establishment, but now is threatened with being usurped and losing his base along with other parties to the pro-Iran groups,” Wing pointed out.
While Sistani has a similar position he is “less driven by the partisan machinations of Sadr.”
Wing concluded by pointing out that Sistani “does not want the pro-Iran Hashd to increase Tehran's influence within Iraq,” and recalled that from the beginning, with his 2014 fatwa, the ayatollah never endorsed the creation of such a paramilitary force.
When Islamic State (ISIS) captured Mosul in June 2014 Sistani, the leading Shiite religious authority in Iraq, released a fatwa calling on Iraqis to join the country's regular armed forces to defend Iraq against that threat, not to form paramilitaries in order to do so.
Nevertheless, the Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries were formed to fight ISIS while the regular army got back on its feet after its infamous retreat from Mosul. Many Shiite leaders defend the continued existence of the Hashd, especially those whose groups have close ties with Iran.
An Iraqi parliament vote in November passed a bill that was signed into law recognizing the paramilitaries as a legal and a “permanent stand-alone component of the Iraqi armed forces, under the Ministry of Defense.”
They haven't, however, been fully demobilized and integrated into the armed forces. As the defense journal Jane's 360 noted last year, the law “will not increase government oversight or influence” over the Hashd.
Kyle Orton, a Middle East analyst at the Henry Jackson Society think-tank, believes that the Sadr and Sistani “components of the Hashd are somewhat helpful in diluting Iran's power in the paramilitaries.”
“Unfortunately, Tehran is also able to use them to legitimize the Hashd by presenting the involvement of these professed nationalist factions as if they represent the overall aims of the organization,” Orton told Rudaw English.
In “an ideal world”, he added, forces loyal to Sistani and Sadr will integrate into the regular army. “But there doesn't seem to be a way to detach these elements of the Hashd now, and even if there were, the effect would be to strengthen Iran's hold over this paramilitary formation.”
Orton points to “an ideological distinction between Sistani and Sadr, who conceive of political order within an Iraqi framework, and the most powerful Hashd battalions that are loyal to Iran's Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“There is also the more prosaic aspect of the power-struggle: for both Sistani and Sadr, the Iranians and their proxies are the main competitors for influence,” he concluded.
For now, the Hashd is a very formidable force in Iraq with an estimated 110,000 fighters. When driving ISIS out of Mosul the Iraqis used their best soldiers, the elite Golden Division, as shock troops backed by US-led coalition airpower. The Hashd sat out of that battle as the United States feared their participation would inflame sectarian tensions. They suffered fewer casualties than the regular forces as a result, which has left it in a position of significant strength.
While the Hashd also continues to have powerful supporters like former Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and other Iranian-supported leaders in Iraq, it also has influential opponents in both Sadr and Sistani.