Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said that leaders of the paramilitaries that make up the Shiite-majority Hashd al-Shaabi will not be allowed participate in the May elections unless they disband, indicating that he intends to exert complete state control over them in the near future. It's unclear at present, however, if he can do so.
"There must be a clear separation between political and armed groups," Abadi insisted this month.
The paramilitaries were officially created to fight off the ISIS threat in 2014, when the Iraqi Army failed to prevent the capture of Mosul and large swathes of northern Iraq that summer. Since that time the Iraqi government has sought to either integrate these different groups, which altogether are approximately 100,000-strong, into the regular army or disband them. Around this time last year the Iraqi Parliament passed a law which made them "a permanent stand-alone component of the Iraqi armed forces, under the Ministry of Defence."
With ISIS' tyrannical caliphate in Iraq essentially destroyed, the conditions under which the Hashd's existence was necessitated, and justified, no longer exist. Abadi clearly recognizes this and is consequently working to ensure no armed faction from Hashd can operate independently outside the control of the military.
"Abadi's statements need to be seen in the larger context of his battle to control the Hashd factions, who are loyal to Iran and want to turn their success on the battlefield to wins at the ballot box," Iraq analyst Joel Wing told Rudaw English.
"There is a constant back and forth between them, with Abadi attempting to place them under state control and their desire to follow their own agendas," he elaborated. "The upcoming vote will be one of those major events where these two sides face off."
Wing explains that disbanding the Hashd may prove difficult given their popularity in Iraq. However, the fact that the Hashd is an umbrella of different paramilitaries, with different allegiances and interests, may actually make it easier to dismantle.
"Since all the Hashd factions have such high standing with the Iraqi public for their sacrifices during the war they could be a potent political force," he said. "At the same time I don't see any sign that they will run together, which means they will be competing for votes amongst the same constituency."
It's also likely that a significant number of Hashd, especially those who are not loyal first and foremost to Iran and its goals and interests in Iraq, will willingly disband their armed wings in return for competing for power in the political process.
The spokesman of Muqtada al-Sadr's Saraya al-Salam militia, Safa al-Tamimi, has already expressed the willingness of the movement to become fully integrated with Iraq's regular armed forces. Sadr has been for Hashd's disbandment longer than Abadi, who previously rejected the cleric's calls in August to disband the group and place its weapons "in the hands of the state."
"There's also the fact that the major Shiite parties already have differing levels of Iranian influence so the Hashd running in 2018 will be a change, but also more of the same when it comes to Tehran's role," Wing estimates.
Failure on Abadi's part to demonstrate leadership in this area could result in his government appearing very weak in the face of these popular paramilitaries at a critical juncture for the country. This could jeopardize any effort to gain the trust of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, who are fearful of many of these forces. It could also make future counterinsurgency campaigns against ISIS remnants in Diyala, Saladin, and Nineveh much more difficult in the coming months.
Michael Knights, an Iraq expert and Lafer Fellow at The Washington Institute, points out that the problem of "membership in the Hashd" is the organization's "nebulous" nature.
"Almost every Hashd member is on a 90-day contract," Knights told Rudaw English. "When that contract ends, they are not in the Hashd. The day after they are back on contract, they are in the Hashd, so they would be required to drop off between here and May, or maybe even beyond."
"But realistically, everyone knows they still informally run the units so I think implementation is not about any law – it is easy to get around the rules."
"Abadi has to defeat the bad Hashd politically, through coalition building and taking votes away from them," Knights concluded.
With this being the case Abadi may prove unable to fully implement his condition. Any retreat from this precondition in the coming months will be illustrative of the limits of his power as prime minister.
"I am radically skeptical that Prime Minister Abadi is able to disarm the Hashd militias ahead of the elections," Kyle Orton, a Middle East researcher at the UK's Henry Jackson Society, told Rudaw English.
"The leading elements of the Hashd operate on Iran's revolutionary model, which includes not just political engagement but the use and threat of violence to get their way," he added.
Orton anticipates that Abadi will face "physical obstacles" if he tries to exert his control over these groups.
"The militias are the ones with the guns," he concluded. "And politically there are enough people in parliament under Iran's sway, financially and ideologically, to block any serious effort to disband them."
May will therefore prove an important month in Iraqi political history since it will conclusively determine if Abadi is capable of enforcing the Iraqi state's sovereignty and keeping Iranian influence and power in his country in check, as many in Washington are counting on, and supporting, him to do.
Abadi is likely to face opposition from his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki. The Americans favoured Abadi over Maliki since the latter was seen as too divisive a leader to support against ISIS. Even when the militants were at their zenith – following the takeover of Mosul in June 2014 and just before their attack on the Kurdistan Region – and moving towards Baghdad, the US refused to provide serious military support to Iraq until Maliki stepped down in favour of Abadi, which he did that September.
Maliki has sought to undermine Abadi since that time. Even during the height of the war against ISIS last year he was believed to have orchestrated the votes of no confidence which removed the defense and finance ministers in Abadi's government from their posts at critical points in time. While these efforts failed to bring down the government they were illustrative of how tenuous Abadi's hold on power can be and how formidable a foe Maliki has proven he can be.
The future status of the Hashd is an issue Maliki may shore up opposition to Abadi on in the months leading up to the election. Described as the "godfather" of the paramilitaries, Maliki will likely seek to prevent Abadi from disbanding the Hashd forces he has influence over in order to protect and consolidate his own power-base which could potentially challenge the state.
Both Abadi and Muqtada Sadr, while far from political allies, now seek the disbandment of such forces and are therefore essentially on a collision course with Maliki and his allies that is likely to have serious implications closer to the election.
While likely to put up a staunch fight to retain the Hashd groups he favours, Maliki may not be able to meaningfully challenge Abadi in that election.
"Maliki aligned with Iran at the end of his government and as a result has backed the pro-Iran Hashd since then," Wing explained. "He is likely hoping that some of them will run with him in 2018, but so far he has not provided any more unity. Hadi Amiri, for example, just announced that his Badr Organization will not be part of Maliki and Abadi's State of Law list, and will campaign on its own."