Iraq: powerful Shiite party faces splinter group

Badr defectors accuse party leadership of failing the Iraqi people

Hadi al-Ameri, head of the Badr organisation and leader of the mostly Shiite Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary units, speaks during a campaign gathering in the city of Basra on April 21, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI
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A breakaway faction of Iraq's powerful Badr organisation has accused the group's leader, Hadi Al Ameri, of not having Iraq's interests at heart.

The new Patriotic Badr Movement announced its defection from Badr last week, stating that the “current leadership is failing to maintain people’s hopes and those of its own members”.

But splinter groups within Badr should not come as a surprise, said Jack Watling, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

"It's not surprising that we've seen groups like this break away. There have been arrests and infighting inside the Badr organisation over the past few months," Mr Watling told The National.

While it is not yet clear how many members have defected from Badr, the new group has been vocal in expressing its frustrations with its former leader.

“The new movement seeks a democratic transformation that aims to reform the deteriorating organisation and its political reality,” the Patriotic Badr Movement said.

It said members would seek to hold those in power accountable for what they said was the killing and terrorising of Iraqis.

But internal fractures in Iraqi politics are not new phenomenona.

Fanar Haddad, a senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute, said this latest development was part of a broader and older process of Iraqi political groups splintering.

"This has been accelerated in recent years as the prism of identity politics loses appeal and Iraqi politicians struggle to formulate meaningful policy programmes," Mr Haddad told The National.

"This also highlights the limits of Ameri's power and the extent to which power is diffused and contested in Iraq. Neither Ameri nor Badr nor any other single actor are able to impose their will on the political landscape."

Yet Mr Al Ameri's influence in Iraqi politics is undeniably deeply rooted.

The Badr organisation has been around since the early 1980s, when it was founded as a military force.

It turned to politics in 2003 after the US invasion of Iraq and the fall of former dictator Saddam Hussein.

The group still has active militias but most are backed by Iran and fought against the American troops after 2003.

In 2018 Mr Al Ameri also led the Fatih Alliance, an electoral bloc that came second in last May's inconclusive national elections.

Fatih was comprised of powerful groups linked to the Iran-backed militias who helped to dislodge ISIS from Iraq.

Before the elections, Mr Al Ameri's Badr Organisation also controlled the country's Ministry of Interior. But power and control has not kept the group from coming apart at the seams.

There are ideological divisions and members who want to go their separate ways, Mr Watling said.

Another source of contention will be the delicate task of disarming the Badr militias, some of which proved effective in the fight against ISIS and are often bolder in their defiance of Baghdad, with the support of Tehran.

They also have the blessing of Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani.

"The Badr organisation is going to have to work out what it wants to be and the Iraqi state needs to work out what it’s going to do with these units," Mr Watling said.

In January reports circulated that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had asked Baghdad to confiscate weapons held by the 67 militia groups, including Badr, Asab Ahl Al Haq and Saraya Al Salam.

But newly appointed Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi denied that he was urged by the US to disarm the paramilitaries.

"Are they going to be a reserve that can be called on by the army or are they going to be a separate permanent part of the security forces?" Mr Abdul Mahdi asked.

"Are they going to be a local militia or are they going to be disbanded?"