A Hashd al-Shaabi fighter peers at a distant strike in northern Iraq. Photo: Iraqi PMU
The Iraqi Shiite-majority Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries, also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces or Units (PMF/PMUs) have taken their fight against Islamic State (ISIS) into the Shingal region. The paramilitaries declare they “will control the remaining areas still held by ISIS” and blithely dismissed the calls of the Kurdistan Region's leadership to stay out of that region.
Dr. Beriwan Khailany, an MP in the Iraqi parliament and member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), is worried about the general post-ISIS situation in the region and the presence of these paramilitaries on the Kurdistan Region's de-facto frontiers.
“They are backing up the Iraqi military right now,” Khailany said. “But after Daesh [ISIS] it's not clear what will happen [to] them: Will they become a full part of the Iraqi military or remain a separate force?”
Khailany contends that the situation would be much less complicated and dangerous for the KRG if they were just dealing with the presence of regular Iraqi forces in that region.
“If you have only normal military forces just like any other country that would be far better, with all the weapons in the right hands, under the Ministry of Defense rather than in the hands of militias,” she said.
While Iraqi legislation has been introduced to completely integrate the Hashd into the Iraqi military it's unclear if Baghdad can effectively exercise command and control over these large well-armed groups.
An October 2015 Reuters exclusive even went so far as to suggest these paramilitaries could outgun the Iraqi state. Also analysts previously told Rudaw English that they fear that groups within the Hashd could soon resemble the Iraqi version of Hezbollah in Lebanon or the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Iran – hence paramilitaries with as much power, if not more, than the regular armed forces.
Incidentally Khailany isn't the only Kurdish official worried about a possible Hashd threat to Kurdistan. In February, Peshmerga commander Colonel Sirwan Muhammad pointed out that the Hashd are building up their forces south of Kirkuk.
“We believe that they have come here to fight the Peshmerga when ISIS is gone,” Muhammad told Rudaw
Last summer Mahmoud Sangawi, a senior Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) official, even went so far as to declare
that the Hashd “are now making plans on how to attack us after [ISIS's defeat].”
If Hashd remains, despite recent legislation in the Iraqi parliament, a largely independent force then it could become a problem for the Kurdistan Region. Groups in the Hashd backed by Iran oppose Kurdish independence or the prospect of Kirkuk and other so-called disputed territories between Baghdad and the KRG becoming part of the latter.
This is why Khailany is worried about the situation after ISIS, as the Kurdistan Region once again aims to hold a referendum on its independence which will need to include these regions in order to determine the precise borderlines of a potential Kurdish nation state.
Under the Iraqi constitution's Article 140 the status of Shingal – and other areas, most notably Kirkuk – is supposed to be resolved through referendum of these regions' inhabitants. This raises the prospect that after ISIS's removal, the Hashd could continue to maintain a presence, establish facts on the ground and challenge the Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) authority there in disregard of whether or not Article 140 is ever implemented, as most of the local population is expected to vote for full integration into the Kurdistan Region.
Khailany says Baghdad is currently “ignoring Article 140” while “other politicians are thinking about amending the constitution, hence changing 140.”
“We want this article to be implemented. [Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-] Abadi doesn't mind but he says now is not the time for it because of the ongoing war. That's why we're thinking about after Daesh,” she said, using another term for ISIS.
While the Peshmerga are in parts of Nineveh, which they liberated from ISIS control, there is still no public agreement with Baghdad over the status of these territories.
“After Daesh they [Baghdad] have to think about implementing Article 140 to keep any problems away,” Khailany contends. “If we don't implement this article we're in big trouble.”
Now that the Hashd has established presence on the ground in Shingal the situation there has gotten much more complicated and volatile. Already local Yezidis were concerned by tensions between the KRG and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) there – especially after clashes between the KRG-trained Syrian Kurdish Rojava Peshmerga and the PKK-trained Sinjar Protection Units (YBS) group early last March. The Hashd may even side with the PKK in the region to undermine the KDP, a move which will risk making the Shingal situation much more combustible, destabilizing and destructive.
If Baghdad continues to postpone the implementation of Article 140 then such unsavoury outcomes are more likely. Consequently the implementation of Article 140 should be among its priorities following ISIS's impending defeat in Iraq and all sides should respect its ultimate, and long overdue, result.