A masked fighter from the Popular Mobilization Forces holds a position on the edge of the Anbar province, northwest of Baghdad, on June 1. Ahmad Al-Rubaye | AFP
Hashd al-Shaabi, Iraq’s Shiite-majority paramilitia, is reportedly drawing down
its presence in Nineveh. The move once again raises questions about the security situation in this war-torn province.
The Hashd, often referred to as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMUs), denied reports over the weekend that it had begun withdrawing its forces.
As a result of “the normalization of security in Nineveh,” command centers are to be replaced by the “Mosul Front Command,” which will incorporate these same fighters, the Hashd said. They “will always remain as a ready supporting force.”
Talk of a Hashd drawdown has caused some trepidation among Yezidis in Shingal. Although tensions have long simmered between the Yezidi Peshmerga and Hashd elements in Shingal, the Yezidis fear any vacuum left by a Hashd drawdown could result in an ISIS resurgence.
These fears come as the Yezidis mark the fourth anniversary of the ISIS genocide. The jihadists maintain a foothold – albeit shrinking – in some areas of eastern Syria, where the United States is helping the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) defeat these ISIS remnants in Operation Roundup.
“Yezidis have an understandable fear of any reduction in local security forces,” said Michael Knights, the Lafer Fellow at The Washington Institute and a noted Iraq expert, speaking to Rudaw English.
“However, the aim of this initiative appears to be the removal of outsider Hashd units from other parts of Iraq, while potentially leaving local Yezidi and Shammar Hashd in place, with similar arrangements in Mosul and the Nineveh Plains,” he added.
Joel Wing, author of the Musings on Iraq blog, also notes that the Hashd withdrawals “appear to be limited and do not include units made up of locals.”
“In Sinjar, for example, pro-Iran Hashd moved into the area after it was fully liberated in 2017, but there was a Yezidi militia there already,” he told Rudaw English. “It will continue to exist if Hashd units are withdrawn from that area.”
“Border police, police, and army units are supposed to replace the Hashd forces that are withdrawn.”
Knights says the “big question is whether outsider Hashd can – or should – be removed from the exact geography of the Syrian border itself.”
“They perform a useful military function there in the absence of border guards, but as and when border guards are ready to take over, the external Hashd should leave,” he concluded.
Neither Knights nor Wing foresee a return of the Peshmerga to the region to assist in its security anytime soon. The Kurdish force withdrew from the disputed areas during the events of October 16.
“There has been lots of talk of having the Peshmerga returning to some of these disputed areas,” Wing noted. “The US has also been pushing the matter.”
Nothing is going to happen until the formation of a new government in Baghdad, he said. “And then it will be based upon who will be the next premier, which is up in the air right now. That means there will be no movement on a Kurdish return in the short term at least,” he added.
The Peshmerga’s abrupt withdrawal from Kirkuk and Shingal, both constitutionally disputed Kurdistani territories, has led to a deterioration in both regions’ respective security situations. Kirkuk has been significantly worse.
A continued lack of coordination between the Peshmerga and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in Kirkuk and Makhmour has demonstrably benefited the remnants of ISIS in the region, which has exploited the security gaps created last October.
In Shingal it has left the Yezidis feeling even more vulnerable – eight months after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over ISIS. Yezidi activists marked the 2016 and 2017 anniversaries of the genocide in the ruins of Shingal city. They were unable to hold events in Shingal this year since Iraq seized the region.
On June 1 this year, the sight of armoured US military vehicles passing through Shingal briefly gave Yezidis hope that the Americans would station troops there to guarantee their safety. They were dismayed to find US forces were merely passing through to assist operations elsewhere in Syria.
While Hashd does have battalions made-up of minority groups – including Yezidis – the presence of a predominantly Shiite fighting force in Nineveh has always been contentious. This is a major reason why Baghdad opted to prevent Hashd from participating in the battle to reclaim the city of Mosul between October 2016 and July 2017.
The re-organization of Hashd forces in Nineveh is unlikely to lead to any serious security vacuum of the kind Yezidis fear. However, their fears demonstrate the continued volatility of Nineveh’s security situation and uncertainty about its future.
“Overall, Nineveh has been relatively quiet for months now,” Wing concluded. “There are still reports of Islamic State infiltration’s coming from Syria, but there appear to be few incidents.”