Explaining the legitimacy of pro-Iran militias in Iraq
Should current tensions between the U.S. and Iran lead to an actual confrontation, it is highly likely that this will play out on Iraqi territory. This would be catastrophic for the already war-torn country.
Since a U.S. drone killed Qassim Soleimani on 3 January 2020, tensions between the U.S. and Iran have risen sharply. As Soleimani was the General Commander of Iran’s Quds Force, the foreign operations team of the Islamist Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), his killing was felt by Iranian leadership as a direct provocation, potentially leading to war. The impact of this goes further than conflict: the social dynamics on which reconstruction in Iraq is taking place would be torn down yet again.
On what would have been Soleimani’s 63rd birthday, eighteen rockets hit Taji military camp, north of Baghdad. Two American troops and one British soldier were killed in the attack. Although no official statements have been issued, evidence points towards Kata’ib Hezbollah, one of the pro-Iran militia groups active in Iraq. Militias like Kata’ib Hezbollah have been central to the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). When ISIS managed to overtake large swaths of Iraq within a matter of weeks back in 2014, resistance from the official Iraqi security forces was minimal. They simply lacked the strategic knowhow and military capacity to provide any meaningful defence. After a devastating attack on Camp Speicher in June 2014, where over 500 Iraqi soldiers, mostly Shia Muslims, were executed on the spot, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, the highest Shia religious leader in Iraq, issued a fatwa calling upon all able bodied men to unite against this enemy.
The reaction to this call was enormous: over fifty majority Shi’ite militias (re)emerged consisting of over 100,000 fighters. They became known as al-Hashed al-Shaabi, or the Hashd for short. In western media outlets, the Hashd is mostly referred to as Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs). Kata’ib Hezbollah is one of the more powerful pro-Iran militias within Hashd. Along with the Badr Organization and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, they have pledged allegiance to Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei. Kata’ib Hezbollah were led by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was also the Deputy Commander overseeing all Hashd al-Shaabi forces, until he was killed with Soleimani in January 2020.
Hashd forces gradually pushed Islamic State fighters out of the country, collaborating with the Kurdish Peshmerga and indirectly with the U.S.-led Global Coalition Against Da’esh. This success led to these militia groups being legalised in 2016, meaning they could receive government money to support their causes. However, in a 2017 report, Amnesty pointed to evidence of serious human rights violations and showed how Coalition weapons ended up with these pro-Iran militias. The Hashd have also been accused of pushing out local mayors and disregarding the return of displaced minority communities in order to establish a strong Shia presence in areas where Sunni or minority groups hold a demographic majority.
While numerous attempts have been made at pushing back on the Hashd’s rising power, their credibility and legitimacy shouldn’t be neglected. Several elements are important in understanding the Hashd’s legitimacy.
First, some Hashd forces have a long history of resistance and have exploited a recurring lack of trust in government. The Badr Organization as well as the Mahdi Army (now known as Saraya al Salam or from 2014 onwards as the Peace Brigades), have been active since the 1980s and stood against Saddam Hussein as well as the U.S. invasion of 2003. Like much of the country, Shia communities suffered severely under Hussein, who tended to favour Sunni tribes. Following the U.S. invasion, the Maliki government represented less of a national union than promised, even targeting its own people in an attempt to bring the civil war to a halt. Strong militias, who are seen as protectors of Iraqi Shia communities and appear capable of what the security forces lack, gain legitimacy from this contrast.
Second, the Hashd enjoy both religious and cross-community support. As the militias (re)emerged upon the fatwa of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, they are seen as righteous and truthful by a lot of Shia communities, following the religious morals and rules imposed on them. They have also garnered support outside their religious base. In several areas where minority groups live, Hashd has helped establish ‘minority forces’, representing Christian, Yazidi, Turkmen and Shabak communities. While this looks like proof of inclusivity, most of these minority forces fall directly under the command of the three pro-Iran forces mentioned earlier. Nevertheless, for some minority communities, this is the first – and only – opportunity to access weapons and provide some form of protection to their own people.
Third, the Hashd has gradually transformed from a purely military actor to an actor increasingly involved in governance. With the legalisation of 2016, the absence of the official security forces to take over the Hashd’s role, and the legitimacy the Hashd holds, the road to deep societal acceptance has been paved. The Hashd actively guards roadside checkpoints, deciding who is allowed in and out of certain areas, thereby essentially controlling service provision. Hashd representatives have also become important political figures. Currently, the Hashd is assisting the Iraqi government in implementing the corona lockdown, emphasising the normalized role that these militias have gained.
These developments have intertwined Hashd forces deeply in Iraqi society. While the U.S. may have legitimate reasons to target (some of) the Hashd militias due to their links with Iran, it also needs an honest understanding of their role within Iraq to avoid mistakes similar to those made in 2003. They should not be regarded simply as terrorists. Any attempt to eradicate the Hashd will likely disrupt Iraq’s fragile social landscape. They form inherent part of Iraq’s history, gained legitimacy through fighting ISIS (which no other actor was capable or willing to do) and have established deeply entrenched networks through which they can, and will, exert their power.
The developments presented above are distilled from a larger study into legitimacy of Hashd forces, based on interviews and field work done in the area. You can read more here: https://dspace.library.uu.nl/handle/1874/384142