Who’s Afraid of Iraq’s Hashd?
Iraq’s successful military campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State between 2014 and 2017 was made possible in part by people’s mobilization, known as al-Hashd al-Sha’abi or Popular Mobilization Forces. This entity was made up of largely Shi’a but also Sunni, Christian, and Yazidi armed groups. But as these forces rolled back the Islamic State, they also sought to become more influential in the political and economic sphere, challenging the authority of the Iraqi government, particularly those Hashd groups tied to Iran. After much debate, earlier this summer, Faleh al-Fayyadh — the head of the Popular Mobilization Forces — reported to Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi that all Hashd economic offices throughout Iraq had been closed. It was a direct response to the prime minister’s decree that ordered full integration of the Hashd into the state’s security apparatus. The decree was nudged along by Friday sermons of representatives of Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani — who views the growing influence of a number of Hashd groups on Iraqi governance as problematic — as well as by American diplomatic pressure to restrain Hashd groups tied to Iran as tensions with Iran itself escalate.
Nevertheless, the Hashd remains a long way from being meaningfully integrated into Iraq’s security architecture. Our detailed studies of seven Hashd groups show that the organization has become increasingly dominated by its Shi’a core that is tied to Iran, especially the Badr Corps, Asaib ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hizballah. The strength of the link with Iran varies by group and is based on personal, political, religious, and/or material motives. However, as Douglas Ollivant and Erica Gaston discussed in these pages earlier this year, it is critical to remember that these groups also retain a measure of autonomy. Since its inception in 2014, the Hashd has also gained more and more agency as an institution.
This “new” Hashd has turned into another network of power that influences the Iraqi state from within and runs its own affairs. It exists alongside similar networks like those of Moqtada al-Sadr and Masoud Barzani. These networks have in common that their power extends across multiple strategic domains such as politics, business, and security, using capabilities in one domain to influence others. These networks purposefully maintain hybrid relationships with the government by being part of it without being accountable to it while using their coercive capabilities to safeguard their interests. For example, Hashd groups tied to Iran used territorial gains in the fight against Islamic State to expand their business interests, which generate resources that help maintain the organizational strength that underpins their political influence. While a consolidated Hashd centered on groups tied to Iran also poses a challenge to the United States in its confrontation with Iran, the real problem is that it risks making Iraqi governance even more contested, clientelist, and fragmented. But the scope and nature of the situation should be kept in perspective.
First, the largest Hashd groups tied to Iran — the Badr Corps and Asaib ahl al-Haq — are no longer as solidly pro-Iranian as they once were. They have opted for a degree of “domestication” by trading some of their autonomy, loyalty to Iran, and sectarian focus for their present level of political influence. For example, Qais Khazali of Asaib stated in January 2019 that “velayat-e faqih is not possible in Iraq in the same manner as in Iran because of the existence of the marja’iyya.” Smaller groups tied to Iran like Kataib Hizballah and Kataib al-Imam Ali are more akin to proxies of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Second, the Iran-linked core of the Hashd is not as dominant as it may seem. It remains diverse in its composition and faces strong, more nationalistic Shi’a competitors such as Moqtada al-Sadr and Ammar al-Hakim, as well as having a poor reputation in Najaf. The inability of the Hashd-based Fatah coalition, which gained 48 parliamentary seats in the 2018 elections, to force through its preferred nominations during the protracted government formation process speaks volumes (September 2018 to June 2019). Efforts to establish political cover for the Hashd culminated in the (failed) nomination of Falih al-Fayyahd as Minister of the Interior. Third, and perhaps most importantly, our recent analysis suggests that the power base of the Badr Corps, Asaib ahl al-Haq, and Kataib Hizballah had not grown much in the period 2017-2018, although the composition of their power base underwent significant change. This is despite their successful fight against the Islamic State, economic diversification, and political gains.
What is truly remarkable is how rapidly this network of power – centered on Hashd groups tied to Iran – established itself. Specifically, these Hashd groups accomplished three major strategic shifts in 2017-2019 that made their influence on Iraqi politics salient and durable.
Where it Started
The basis was laid in 2014-2015 when the original mobilization of resistance, pride, and defiance to fight the Islamic State in response to Grand Ayatalloh Ali al-Sistani’s fatwa created 30-50 different armed groups with their own affiliations and loyalties: the Hashd. Conceived in times of war and based on mobilization of the people, most Hashd forces initially operated on tight budgets, improvised organization, and inadequate command structures. Many volunteers paid the ultimate price of martyrdom. For example, the Sunni Tribal Mobilization Forces long fielded thousands of fighters without much by way of warfighting skills or advanced weaponry.
In contrast, fighters tied to Iran benefitted from more training, secondments from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, additional funding, and better weaponry from Iran from the onset. This produced better war fighting capabilities that put groups tied to Iran in the forefront against the Islamic State. Battlefield successes also enabled groups tied to Iran to increase their popular legitimacy. Moreover, the resulting territorial control created profit-making opportunities (e.g., checkpoints) that would facilitate economic diversification. Most importantly, it allowed Hashd groups tied to Iran to take control of the newly established Popular Mobilization Forces Commission — a state administrative body to manage, pay, train, and equip the Hashd. The popular prestige of this commission was initially used to keep the government at arm’s length while its administrative powers were leveraged to benefit Iran-linked groups.
From Resisting ‘the State’ to Embracing It
The recapture of Mosul by the Iraqi security forces in the summer of 2017 signaled the beginning of the end of the fight against Islamic State. It also meant that the urgency of defending the country against Islamic State as rationale for maintaining autonomous Hashd coercive capabilities started to lose value. Calls for absorption of the Hashd into the Iraqi security forces would inevitably grow louder. In response, Hashd groups tied to Iran switched from keeping their distance from the state as a way to maintain their autonomy to integrating into it for the same purpose. Leveraging their popular credentials and control of the Popular Mobilization Forces Commission, Hashd groups tied to Iran managed to get Prime Minister Al-Abadi to initiate the 2016 “Hashd law” that turned it into an independent military institution reporting to the Prime Minister and to issue his March 2018 decree providing Hashd members with equal pay, rights, and duties as those of the military. They also got prime minister Abdul Mahdi to issue the July 2019 Hashd decree that calls for full military integration to maintain the impression that the Hashd is now fully “regularized.”
These measures brought Hashd groups tied to Iran formal recognition, allowing them to legitimately maintain coercive capabilities and granting them greater pay, which has helped to maintain their organizational strength. On paper, these measures also brought the groups under government supervision. In reality, however, these laws and decrees failed to “separate” the Popular Mobilization Forces Commission from the Hashd. Instead, the commission remains dominated by people with links to Iran, most prominently Falih al-Fayyahd (its head) and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis (its deputy head and the real powerbroker, as well as Kataib Hizballah). Al-Muhandis has used the commission’s administrative powers to deselect Hashd groups and fighters not tied to Iran, reduce payments to groups like the Abbas Combat Division (a shrine affiliated group), and deploy Hashd groups tied to Iran to lucrative areas (like border control points).
From the Battlefield to the Backroom and the Boardroom
It was also after the recapture of Mosul that the challenge of reconstruction loomed large. Swathes of the country had been gravely damaged or had suffered from long-term neglect. Moreover, Iraq’s political and military elites started to focus on the 2018 parliamentary elections as an occasion to translate warfighting credentials into greater political influence. Seizing both opportunities, Hashd groups tied to Iran rapidly diversified their power base by shifting focus from the battlefield to politics and business.
A key political strategy has been the formation of the Fatah electoral alliance that united, among others, the Badr Corps and Asaib ahl al-Haq. Leveraging their credentials from the fight against Islamic State proved an effective way to mobilize their Shiʿa base. Combined with opportunistic Sunni-Shi’a alliance building, this netted the Fatah alliance 48 parliamentary seats, a number of ministerial posts, and, indirectly, greater influence over Iraq’s civil service and public budget. For example, some of our interviewees indicated that Hashd sympathizers tied to Iran have recently proliferated in the judiciary and the prime minister’s office, in addition to benefitting from the longstanding influence of the Badr Corps in the Ministry of the Interior. A comparable story can be told for local councils.
At the same time, groups tied to Iran expanded their economic footprint, which now consists of a portfolio of licit and illicit public and private activities. Control over border checkpoints near Dohuk and Safra (both between Arab and Kurdish Iraq), Shalamche and Chazbeh (Iraq–Iran), and Al-Qaim (Iraq-Syria) offer good examples. It is estimated that the tariffs and taxes levied by the Badr Corps on goods at the Safra border crossing alone generate $12 to 15 million a month. Hashd groups tied to Iran also engage extensively in reconstruction and public service provision. In the Kirkuk area, our interviews indicate that they provide services such as road and water rehabilitation in collaboration with local communities. When asked, senior Hashd officials (mostly Badr) framed such efforts as part of a strategy to work for the Iraqi people where the state is absent. The Hashd civilian branch (Hashd al-Madani) was painted as “vanguard of the state.” Hashd groups tied to Iran have also been reported to take a cut of reconstruction projects. Furthermore, the engineering unit of the Hashd serves to channel Iranian funds into choice reconstruction projects. As to the private economy, Hashd groups tied to Iran have invested directly in businesses like a waste company in Basra, a taxi business in Karbala, and pharmaceutical and oil enterprises.
Next to their diversification into politics and the economy, there are also cautious signs of Hashd groups tied to Iran expanding into health care, universities, and the cultural realm. According to Naim al-Aboudi (Asaib), “We are building schools and universities as we see the importance of creating a religious culture and more awareness among people.” Consider, for example, the idea floated by Hadi al-Ameri (Badr) and Qais al-Khazali (Asaib) to establish a “martyr’s university” to exercise more influence on the national narrative of the past decade. Gramsci has clearly made it to Iraq.
From Organizational Diversity to Centralization
During the endgame of the fight against Islamic State, wartime exigencies gave way to greater focus on Hashd administration. There has been a natural process of professionalization, self-demobilization of smaller Hashd groups, and voluntary integration into the Iraqi security forces. For example, the Sinjar Resistance Units partially demobilized, partially integrated into the formal state security forces, and partially went local. The Abbas Combat Division substantially integrated into the Iraqi army. But Hashd groups tied to Iran also gradually transformed the Hashd from a diverse and fragmented set of “civic” armed groups into a more uniform and centralized organization through a mix of coercion and co-optation. As already noted, they made life difficult for other Hashd groups via their control over the Popular Mobilization Forces Commission and continue to do so. For instance, Hashd Sunni forces in Nineveh were only allowed to register in battalions of 100-300 fighters, which prevented the emergence of a strong and cohesive Sunni force. It is in a similar vein that Saraya al-Salam and the Abbas Combat Division have regularly been disadvantaged in terms of the positions and salaries allocated to their forces.
Hashd groups tied to Iran also recently started a campaign to purge fake groups, as well as disloyal and corrupt elements, resulting in the arrest of the likes of Aws al-Khafaji (a Hashd leader who also fought in Syria). Other centralizing administrative measures included the creation of a smartcard salary payment system linking individual Hashd fighters directly to the commission, redeploying Hashd offices and camps from cities to rural areas, and establishing regular training camps. The Hashd’s Central Security Directorate — in essence al-Muhandis’ enforcement squad — is widely feared.
Yet, this shift has not been purely Machiavellian. To ensure adequate popular acceptance for their growing control over the Hashd and increase political credibility, Iran-affiliated groups dropped much of their sectarian rhetoric, struck a more nationalistic tone, and demonstrated careful public compliance with formal orders. Their exclusive sectarian “resistance” narrative has been replaced by the more inclusive expression “I am Hashd,” which we heard repeatedly during our interviews. It expresses a commitment to serve the country in the spirit of popular mobilization. While this may not always be genuine, such public expressions by group leaders do create expectations and limitations.
The original Hashd is no longer. The “new” Hashd is dominated by groups tied to Iran that aim to expand their political-economic influence throughout Iraqi society. In interviews, senior Badr Corps commanders stated, “the power of the Hashd is undisputed and we will use it in the right way to govern.” This situation creates risks for Iraq’s national development since strong partisan influence across strategic domains facilitates abuse of power.
But it would be a mistake to challenge the Hashd directly. A protracted confrontation would ensue without net value, just as Iraq faces major national socio-economic and political challenges. It is also unnecessary, as the core of the Hashd that is tied to Iran commands lower budgets and less manpower than the Iraqi security forces, lacks an authentic source of religious legitimacy, and does not wield a veto in national politics.
An arguably wiser strategy is to enable the Iraqi state to improve the quality of its governance and service provision and to draw the major Hashd groups into Iraq’s governance as junior partners. Doing so responsibly requires the ability to regulate these groups effectively. Re-organizing control over the Popular Mobilization Forces Commission, professionalizing and reinforcing the Iraqi Federal Police and Army at the local level, and working with charters as “service level agreements” in which local government and Hashd groups agree on socio-economic performance objectives can help strike a better balance between inclusiveness and supervision. This way, evolution towards a Lebanese Hizballah-type situation, in which political vetos easily stifle national development and autonomous coercive capabilities crucially limit the reach of the state, may be avoided.
Ultimately, there are no shortcuts to addressing the risks of networks such as a Hashd tied to Iran. It requires the hard work of addressing corruption, diversifying the economy, increasing accountability, and stimulating issue-based political contestation.
Nancy Ezzeddine is a research assistant at Clingendael’s Conflict Research Unit. She contributes to its Levant research program in addition to her research on migration and local governance in Libya, closely tracking the powerbase, relations and attitudes of Iraq’s Al-Hashd al-Sha’abi and its influence on the development of the Iraqi state.
Erwin van Veen is a senior research fellow at Clingendael’s Conflict Research Unit. His research focuses on the political-economy of conflict in the Levant (Syria, Iraq, Palestine/Israel and Lebanon) in the context of Iranian, Turkish and Saudi foreign policy.
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