Iraqis carry the coffins of fallen members of the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) paramilitary forces, who support Iraqi forces in the battle against the Islamic State (IS) group, during a funeral on April 27, 2017, in the holy city of Najaf, after some were killed the day before in combat while fighting to retake the northern city of Mosul. Photo: AFP/Haidar Hamdani
As the war against Islamic State (ISIS) winds down in Iraq with the future of the Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries, also known as Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), is becoming increasingly relevant. While these paramilitaries certainly played an important role in preventing ISIS from expanding further south early in the war they consist of Iranian-backed groups – such as Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata'ib Hezbollah and the Badr Organization – which the United States, and many Iraq observers, are wary of. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is working to integrate them into the Iraqi Security Forces and place them firmly under Baghdad's command and control.
Iraq analyst Michael Knights wrote in an Al Jazeera editorial that the group deserves credit for its early successes holding the line against ISIS when the Iraqi Army was in disarray following its withdrawal from Mosul in 2014.
Knights calls for recognition of the group’s contribution to the war effort “as a legitimate part of Iraq's military history and a proud chapter for many Iraqis.”
“But it would be dangerous (and unnecessarily costly) if the PMF starts to build up a set of expensive parallel institutions more akin to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or Basij Forces, or Lebanon's Hezbollah,” he warned.
“If the PMF are allowed to grow out of control, it will be a sad corruption of their heroic stand in 2014 and could become yet another bitter memory for Iraqis. But if demobilisation occurs, the PMF will be proudly remembered as Iraq's “Dunkirk moment”,” he concluded, referring to the heroic rescue of the British Army from the beaches of France by civilian British sailors early in the Second World War.
Kyle Orton, a Middle East analyst at the Henry Jackson Society, believes some of these militias could outgun the Iraqi state in the near future and expressed doubt that Baghdad can control them.
“I don't think these demobilization efforts will succeed,” he told Rudaw English. “Those largest militias are loyal to a foreign power. It's not just money or weapons. It's ideological.”
“What I imagine it will look like over the long term is the model of Islamist revolution that we saw in Iran itself, in Lebanon, and that is well advanced in Syria, where this parallel structure operates alongside the state but also within it and eventually overpowers it, even if it remains formally separate,” he elaborated, echoing Knight's fear.
Hashd groups operating outside of Baghdad's control could pose a threat to the Kurdistan Region's security and stability. An outbreak of clashes between Kurds and Shiites in the ethnically-mixed town of Tuz Khurmato in Salahaddin province, 55 miles south of Kirkuk, in April 2016 saw Kurdish Peshmerga and Hashd reinforcements rush toward that volatile flashpoint. Mediation between the two sides averted a potentially violent confrontation. That incident nevertheless demonstrated how local skirmishes in such flashpoints – Khurmato is one of the so-called disputed territories between Kurdistan and Iraq – could quickly lead to a wider confrontation.
Future post-ISIS clashes may prove far more dangerous if Baghdad has little or no sway over some of these group's actions. The powerful aforementioned Iranian-backed groups in particular oppose any Kurdish referendum on independence and could potentially challenge it forcibly, regardless of whether or not Baghdad accepts it.
As recently as February Peshmerga commander Colonel Sirwan Muhammad expressed his wariness of a Hashd build-up south of Kirkuk when he told Rudaw that: “We believe that they have come here to fight the Peshmerga when ISIS is gone.”
Joel Wing, an Iraq analyst who runs the Musings of Iraq blog, is also skeptical that Baghdad can reign in the militias.
“Just look at how the U.S. and Interior Ministry tried to deal with all the militias, namely Badr in commandos and Mahdi Army in regular police,” he told Rudaw English. “They had to break the militias' command over the individual police. Replaced most of the commanders and sent all the units for retraining. Seemed to work for a while but Badr eventually moved back into many units especially when it got back control of the Interior Ministry in recent years.”
“I don't see any political will to break the hold of the Hashd groups over their individual units and make them loyal to the state if they were to be integrated into the Iraqi forces,” he concluded.