Members of the Hashd al-Shaabi advance on Tal Afar during the war against ISIS in August 2017. File photo: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – The Hashd al-Shaabi are the biggest threat to the United States in Iraq, the US intelligence chief told the Senate on Tuesday. His comments come as the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces are stepping up their demands for US forces to leave Iraq.
“In Iraq, Iran-supported Popular Mobilization Committee-affiliated Shia militias remain the primary threat to US personnel,” Daniel Coats, US director of national intelligence, said in a report to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
The Popular Mobilization Committee is an official entity in the Iraqi state. It is headed by Iraq’s national security advisor and works under the orders of the prime minister, who is commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
It is composed of the pre-dominantly Shiite militias, many of whom are backed by Iran and some of whom have a history of fighting US forces in Iraq.
Coats said the US will monitor the situation closely, watching for signs of Iran using these militias to attack US interests while Washington ramps up pressure on Tehran with its sanctions.
The intelligence chief noted the militias, commonly known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, have tried to force the US to leave Iraq and referred to attacks on US diplomatic facilities last year.
In September, the US shut its consulate in Basra for security reasons after reports of rockets fired in the area.
The Hashd gained ground politically, securing a bloc of seats in last year’s parliamentary election.
Earlier this week, in an interview
with Associated Press, Qais al-Khazali, head of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a prominent militia within the Hashd, said he expects the Iraqi parliament will soon hold a vote on requesting the US to leave the country. He also said they won’t hesitate to use force against if Washington insists on staying.
Coats linked the threat from the Shiite militias with the persistent threat from ISIS.
He noted that the “underlying political and economic factors” that led to the rise of ISIS still “persist” in Iraq. And ISIS might rise again, exploiting lingering Sunni grievances in light of institutional weaknesses and divisions in the Iraqi government.
In conjunction with that, the Shiite militias may try to further “entrench” their role in the Iraqi state, and compete with Iraqi security forces for resources using the power they have gained electorally, he argued.
After ISIS swept across Iraq and Syria in 2014 and the Iraqi army collapsed, by spiritual leader of Shiites Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a religious ruling (fatwa) that founded the Hashd al-Shaabi.
They participated in the war against ISIS, alongside official Iraqi security forces. As such, they gained much support among Shiites, though they were not given material support by the US-led global coalition against ISIS.
In Iraq’s 2018 elections, they secured 45 seats, polling second in their Fatih (conquest) alliance and made an entry into the political arena.
The militias have also been formally integrated into the state through official legislation. The Hashd al-Shaabi Commission is tasked with overseeing the militias.