Iraq's challenge to rein in militias risks prime minister's position

Baghdad will likely have a parallel military similar to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Tehran, experts say

Fighters of Hashed Al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization units) flash the victory gesture as they advance through a street in the town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, after the Iraqi government announced the launch of the operation to retake it from Islamic State (IS) group control, on August 26, 2017. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)
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Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s gamble to rein in armed militias risks ending his career and sidelining the very position he holds as head of government.

The Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), also known as Hashd Al Shaabi, which, with Iranian training and advice, played a key role in the fight against ISIS independently of the US-led coalition, is made up of disparate armed groups that also include some Sunni and Christian tribal units.

The militias became a formal part of the Iraqi armed forces in 2016 supposedly reporting to the head of government, but have so far failed to obey Mr Abdul Mahdi’s orders of integration into the army as well as cutting ties with political groups.

"The Iraqi state cannot control tribal conflicts, so it can't control militias. It is barely doing anything on reconstruction and may as well face a fiscal crisis next year as well," Kirk Sowell, an Iraq expert with Utica Risk Services, told The National.

The Hashd is now a living, breathing institution with a budget of $3-4 billion and 160,000 personnel, Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said.

"This kind of agency now has a life-force of its own and will not be demobilised in the near-term," he told The National, adding that Iraq will likely have a parallel military similar to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran.

They are seen as local security in some towns and cities across the country, especially territory formerly occupied by ISIS. Their allies meanwhile, occupy parliamentary seats, that has deepened their influence on the government.

Alleged Israeli strikes on group's military bases

Tensions between Baghdad’s two strongest allies Washington and Tehran further complicate Mr Abdul Mahdi’s plan to exert influence over the militias.

The situation has pushed the embedded factions within the Hashd to align Iraq more closely with Iran as a result of the US’ “maximum pressure” policy on Tehran, which undermines Baghdad’s efforts to maintain domestic consensuses, Maria Fantappie, International Crisis Group's senior Iraq adviser, said.

An alleged Israeli strike hit the Hashd’s weapons depots and bases in western and central Iraq last week. The militias accused Washington of assisting Tel Aviv, threatening to attack US military bases as a result.

"Israel's attacks against Iraq have placed Adel Abdul Al Mahdi's government in jeopardy and have made Iraq's obligatory balancing act between its relations with the US and Iran more difficult than ever," Fanar Haddad, an Iraq expert at the National University of Singapore told The National.

Through certain PMF factions, Iran has the capacity to strike at US interests in Iraq and in neighbouring countries, he said.

“America’s tacit support of the Israeli attacks undermines its allies in Iraq while pushing Iran-leaning elements closer to Tehran,” Mr Haddad added.

“This would further strain the inner contradictions within the Hashd between those groups that view the Hashd as an Iraqi organisation concerned with internal matters and those who view it as an extension of ‘the axis of resistance’,” Mr Haddad said.

Disputes within PMF leadership

A leading Hashd figure, Faleh Al Fayyad, who also serves as the government’s national security adviser, refuted claims made by the Hashd's deputy commander Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, whose anti-American principles as a militia leader earned him a US terror blacklisting, of holding Washington responsible for the strikes.

"We announce that the first and last entity responsible for what happened are American forces, and we will hold them responsible for whatever happens from today onwards," Mr Al Muhandis said.

He said the attacks were carried out by "agents or in special operations with modern airplanes," without providing further details.

Mr Al Muhandis warned Washington on Thursday that "if war occurs between US and Iran, all Americans in Iraq will be the hostages of the Islamic Resistance."

But Mr Fayyadh said his deputy's statement "does not represent the Hashd's official position.”

He said investigators had yet to determine who was behind the past month's blasts at four training camps and arms depots used by the Hashd.

The conflicting statements from the militia’s top commanders could reflect a wider rift within the alliance, experts say.

Maintaining the facade that the "Hashd is just a part of the state, as Mr Fayyad was supposed to have already have implemented the prime minister's orders of separating Hashd units from the political leaders" is the real problem, Mr Sowell said.

Mr Al Muhandis' statement seeks to exert pressure on Iraqi leaders. He is known to be a "de facto leader on the ground" that doesn't interfere with Baghdad's formal politics, Renad Mansour, senior research fellow at London's Chatham House, told The National.

“If the formal leadership is unable to deter the American or Israeli attacks or whoever they are accusing of committing these airstrikes then Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis is expected to find alternative arrangements,” Mr Mansour said.

The statements are the result of American and other states' antagonism towards the Hashd and Iran, Mr Mansour said.

However, although the internal contradictions and competition within the Hashd have long been noted, the latest developments not signal the end of their alliance, Mr Haddad said.

“There are too many vested interests tied to the PMU framework. Hence, even though fragmented, the various groups that make up the PMU will likely want to maintain their ties to the Hashd Commission both for funding purposes and for legitimacy,” he said.