By Diane Maye
Special Contributor to In Homeland Security
After the fall of Mosul in June 2014 to the Islamic State, the Iraqi government formalized a program under the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) to quickly integrate militias into Iraq’s security apparatus. The militias have enabled thousands of young volunteers from across the country, creating Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs). Three after the Islamic State declared victory in Mosul, jihadists overran Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit and butchered 1700 young Shi’ia cadets from the neighboring Tikrit Air Academy. The mass mobilization and ultimate widespread support the PMU’s, locally known as the Hash’d al Shaabi, was, in part, motivated by this atrocity.
In a symbolic gesture, Tikrit was the first major battle in 2015 in the Iraqi government’s quest to take back territory held by the Islamic State. The Hash’d al Shaabi played a key part of the battle, and generated nationwide pride in pushing back the Islamic State.
Who are the Hash’d al Shaabi?
In order to understand who the Hash’d al Shaabi are, and how they are organized, it is important to understand the history of Shi’ia militant groups in Iraq. Iraq’s Shi’ia militant groups are often portrayed as militias that keep the peace, and in many instances, it is an accurate characterization. Nearly all the Shi’ia militias are all tied to formal political parties, many of which have existed for decades.
Most Prominent Groups
Three of the more prominent militias are: Badr Brigades, which are linked to the Badr Organization and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), led by Hadi al Ameri (who was chosen by Prime Minister Abadi to lead the Ministry of the Interior), Asaib Ahl Al Haqq (AAH) which as ties to the Dawa party led by Qais al-Khazali; and Jaysh al Mahdi which was restructured into Peace Brigades, but is linked with the populist Shi’ia cleric Moqtada al Sadr and the Sadrist Trend. Because of their longevity and ties to political groups, the Shi’ia militias are oftentimes better funded and equipped than the Iraqi Army and police forces.
Today, the Hash’d al Shaabi is funded by the Iraqi government and acts as an umbrella organization for the dozens of Shi’ia paramilitary groups operating in the country: the most prominent being: AAH, the Badr Organization, and Saraya al-Salam, formed in 2014 by Moqtada al Sadr. These three branches of the Hash’d al Shaabi closely parallel the three most prominent political movements within Iraq’s Shi’ia population: Badr and ISCI; Dawa, and the populist Sadrist Trend. The leaders of the Hash’d al Shaabi also maintain close relations with Iran’s elite Quds Force, the paramilitary wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps led by Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.
The biggest challenge for the Iraqi government will be keeping the momentum that the Hash’d al Shaabi has generated, without alienating the Sunni minority. In addition, the Iraqi Army will be challenged with integrating the PMU’s into the security apparatus in a formal way, and ensuring that the groups are professional and uphold military standards. Likewise, the Hash’d al Shaabi present a direct challenge to the government’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force. There may be a point in time when Hash’d al Shaabi’s leaders come into open conflict with Iraq’s political body or challenge Baghdad’s authority. There is also resentment amongst Sunni and Shi’ia factions that Iranian advisors have too much of a presence on the battlefield. Finally, many Sunnis in outlying provinces, especially in Anbar, Salahuddin and Diyala, have voiced concerns over the professionalism of the Hash’d al Shaabi and do not want them involved in the liberation of more Sunni towns and villages. This concern has created a cleavage in the Sunni population: a cleavage that can easily be exploited by the Islamic State.
About the Author
Diane Maye is a former U.S. Air Force officer and defense industry professional. She is currently an adjunct faculty member at American Military University. Diane is also an associate member of the Military Writers Guild, an organization committed to the development of the profession of arms through the written medium. Twitter: @DianeLeighMaye.