by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College and a reporter for War Is Boring. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.
Many analysts have portrayed the People’s Mobilization (Hashd), an Iraqi umbrella organization of Shia paramilitaries, as a sectarian militia. Whatever it may represent in fact, however, the Hashd remains part of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and offers a complex example of Iraqi society’s official militarization as an irregular military starts to overshadow the regular army.
I discussed the Hashd with Mustafa at-Taib, one of its spokesmen, this September for War Is Boring. “Because the Iraqi Army does not have weapons and America neglected its promise to arm Iraq, the Hashd is necessary,” he told me then, explaining that this umbrella organization has never opposed working with America, Russia, and Arab countries to fight the Islamic State (IS). When I contacted at-Taib this month, he added: “The Hashd is an institution belonging to the Iraqi government and taking orders from the Prime Minister. The Iraqi government arms its members and pays their salaries.” According to him, the Hashd acts to extend the authority of the Iraqi government and the power of the Iraqi military. “The mission of the Hashd given by the Iraqi government is to support the army,” at-Taib said over Facebook. “The relationship between them is one of cooperation and support. Each has independent leadership and financing, but the two institutions follow the central state.” The international war against IS has provided the Hashd more legitimacy as an example of modern counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. Whatever the international community suspects of Iraqi Shias descending into militarism and maybe sectarianism, the Hashd has managed to lock itself into the Iranian-, Russian-, and Western-supported Iraqi state, developing its capacity beyond a militia’s.
The Hashd has often outpaced the Iraqi Army on the battlefield. The website Niqash reported that the irregulars have better weapons than soldiers and receive the same salary — six hundred dollars a month. Compared to the Iraqi Army’s limited ammunition, the Hashd can use as much as it wants. Irregulars receive ten days’ leave after ten days of fighting. Soldiers get only seven days’ leave after twenty days of fighting. This disparity between the military and the paramilitary in Iraq has grieved the Iraqi government’s supporters, who debate whether a regular army outdone by an irregular military deserves all that the Western world has given it. “Though Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has welcomed American assistance and is calling for more, the militias’ strength threatens to undermine his authority and turn Iraq into a version of Lebanon, where a weak government is hostage to the whims of the powerful Hezbollah movement,” claimed The Washington Post this February. Some Western observers expect that the Hashd might defy or ignore the Iraqi government as Hezbollah has the Lebanese government in supporting Syria, where some of the Shia paramilitaries have fought.
Comparing the Hashd to Iranian-backed paramilitaries such as Hezbollah seems specious. Where Hezbollah acts outside the Lebanese government and Hamas has created its own Palestinian government, the Hashd works through or with the Iraqi government. Prime Minister of Iraq Haider al-Abadi ordered that the paramilitaries withdraw from Tikrit after hearing of war crimes there, then assumed command and control of the Hashd. This order increased the Hashd’s legitimacy as part of the ISF and the Iraqi government’s authority over it. At-Taib mentioned that the paramilitaries have responded by trying to better represent their countries denominations and ethnicities, recruiting Christians, Sunnis, and Turkmens. Rudaw noted that even Yazidis, from a minority whose members IS has enslaved and executed, are joining the Hashd. The paramilitaries may now possess a diversity that many of the Iraqi government’s allies, in particular America, have tried to create in its military.
Though the Hashd partakes in the Iraqi government, some observers have argued that this relationship may endanger the state. “The recognition of the Popular Mobilization Units’ role in the protection of Iraq must be met with the recognition of the need to protect them, determine their role in the face of IS and prevent them from being involved in political or economic conflicts,” Mustafa al-Khadhimi asserted in Al-Monitor. “This can only be achieved by containing these groups within the state, under the National Guard bill, in order for the state to be able to dissociate them from their political roots.” The paramilitaries enjoy ambiguous histories and relationships with one another and their supporters, preventing the unity required for them to form what resembles a national guard. An analyst for Al-Monitor juxtaposed the Hashd with the Organization for the Mobilization of the Oppressed (Basij), an Iranian select militia whose members have become notorious for enforcing often-arbitrary ideas of sharia on civilians. As has happened with the Hashd, the Basij has expanded through decentralization. It worries many that the Hashd relies on Iranian advisors, officers, and trainers, strengthening the connection with the Basij. As America and Iran compete to control and influence Iraq, Iran may use the Hashd to counterbalance the Western-friendly Iraqi government. Observers of the this civil war should nevertheless refrain from overstating the comparison between the Basij and the Hashd.
The Hashd has developed alongside a competition for a sphere of influence within Iraq. The paramilitaries could act as a danger to or a supporter of the state, and containing them could mean the Iraqi government (rather than Iran) establishing more control over them. Either way, the Hashd is a rare opportunity to create a national interreligious, multiethnic coalition against IS.
Dr. Hauke Feickert, “Iraqis argue over war strategy“, offiziere.ch, 04.08.2015