Al-Hashd al-Sha’abi Are a Direct Threat to Saudi Arabia and the GCC
The Popular Mobilization Forces or al-Hashd al-Shaabi is an Iraqi state-sponsored umbrella organization created on the 15th of June 2014. It is composed of around 50 battalions that were deployed to fight ISIS in Iraq. The battalions have carried out operatives in major cities and provinces in the country from Baghdad to Mosul, ISIS’ stronghold in Iraq. The higher commander of the organization is the Iraqi prime minister Haider al Abadi, and its head is none other than his National Security Advisor Faleh Fayyad. Fayyad’s deputy is military commander Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis. Other high ranking officers in the organization are military spokesmen Karim Nouri and Ahmad al-Asadi, and Chief of Staff Sadeq al-Saadawi.
Their arsenal is comprised of weaponry provided by the Iraqi Government and includes small arms, artillery, artillery rockets, tanks, armoured vehicles, armoured personnel carriers, and other light trucks. They also get air support and other forms of armed support from the Iraqi military and internal security forces.
Al-Hashd is a huge organization estimated to have around 140,000 fighters who receive monthly salaries of around 600 USD along with pocket money allowances.
Even though the organization’s battalions have Christian and Sunni fighters, it is predominantly composed of Shia militia men who make up the majority of the fighting and administrative personnel. Its most prominent battalions include “Asaeb Ahl al-Haq”, “Al Nujabaa” Movement, “Saraya al-Khurasani”, “Hezbollah”, “Badr” Organization – military wing, “Saraya al-Salam” and “Saraya Ashouraa”.
As ISIS’ strength on the ground has been diminishing, their demise in Iraq has become a near reality. However, this poses many question marks on the new role al-Hashd will assume after their goal is met. Will the organisation live on? And who will be the next target?
ISIS AFTER MOSUL
“There are numerous internal political problems these groups pose within Iraq,” says Phillip Smyth, an expert on Shi’ite militias at the University of Maryland. “These groups are all jockeying for more power, including positions in government, both on the local and national level,” he elaborates. Smyth, also a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, reveals to Majalla the ideological cleavages within al-Hashd; “Khomeinist groups backed by Iran have serious differences with Muqtada al-Sadr, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, and other clerics and their militia apparatuses. However, the issues are not just intra-Shi’ite; many Iraqi Shia Islamist militias, especially those backed by Iran, have had increasing tensions with certain Kurdish groups (namely the Kurdish Democratic Party and at times, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan). Issues involving Iran’s utilization of Iraqi Shi’ite as foreign fighters in Syria may also impact Iraqi internal issues and their relations with regional and overseas states.”
Relevant to his statement is a report released by Human Rights Watch on June 4th revealing that dozens of bodies were found handcuffed and executed in and around Mosul. The report stated that “at least 26 bodies of blindfolded and handcuffed men have been found in government held areas in and around Mosul since the operation to retake the city began in October 2016. In 15 of the cases, local armed forces told a foreign journalist that the men were extrajudicially killed by government security forces who had them in custody under suspicion of ISIS affiliation.”
In the remaining cases, reported by local and international sources, the sites of the apparent executions – all in government held territory – raise concerns about government responsibility for the killings. A foreign journalist also said that a government official told them that a Popular Mobilization Forces unit, which is part of the government forces working to retake Mosul, was responsible for the extrajudicial killing of 25 men in their custody and dumping the bodies in the Tigris River, the report noted.
Human Rights Watch has accordingly flagged concerns about detainees’ treatment, including possible executions; a breach of universal human rights and a distinct war crime.
IRAN.. AL-HASHD’S LIFELINE
A report released by Amnesty on the January 5th concluded that supplying armed militias with arsenal and logistical support has resulted in great damage to the countries they operate in, and in this equation civilians are the biggest losers. The report further relates this key observation to the support provided to al-Hashd al- Shaabi in Iraq.
Human rights group Amnesty International noted that Shi’ite militias are committing war crimes using weapons provided by the Iraqi government in the fight against ISIS.
The report further revealed that it has evidence that al-Hashd al-Shaabi, have been given everything from tanks and combat vehicles to grenade launchers and a large number of small arms. “International arms suppliers, including Russia and Iran, must wake up to the fact that all arms transfers to Iraq carry a real risk of ending up in the hands of militia groups with long histories of human rights violations,” said Patrick Wilcken, an Amnesty researcher.
Iran is indeed the lifeline of al-Hashd. On this topic Smyth notes that “many of the most powerful militia elements within al-Hashd al-Sha’abi trace their histories back to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iran has directly supplied its militia proxies with small arms, artillery rockets, drones, training, and advisors. Lebanese Hezbollah forces have also been sent to Iraq in order to act as armed combat advisors.” However, according to the expert, Iran’s connections extends beyond the mere supply of weaponry; “take the Badr Organization, which began as the Badr Brigades, the armed-section for the group formerly known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI),” he explains. “Badr has and continues to essentially function as an Iraqi section of the IRGC and is ideologically linked (as with many Shia militia groups).”
A THREAT TO THE WIDER REGION
In an unsettling statement on the June 4th, deputy chief of al-Hashd, Mahdi Al Mohandes, said that the paramilitary troops fighting ISIS could fight the extremist group beyond Iraqi borders “if the country’s national security is at stake.”
His remarks revived a controversy around the legitimacy of such a move if it happens, and the sovereignty of countries in the region which will stand in the face of al-Hashd’s attempt at hegemony which hides under the cause of fighting extremism.
“The organization is an Iraqi umbrella group recognized by Baghdad. However, the groups that make up parts of it are expanding and have already spread outside of Iraq,” Smyth believes. “Some of the most powerful elements have branches or have sent fighters to Syria, work hand-in-hand with Lebanese Hezbollah, have offered their support for Ansar Allah (the Houthi rebels) in Yemen, or have assisted with the creation of Bahraini Shia extremist groups,” he reveals.
Symth notes that the phenomenon isn’t specifically al-Hashd al-Sha’abi per say, but the issue of a wide variety of Iranian-backed and controlled groups gaining further political and military power within these types of apparatuses and using them as cover to execute Iran’s, not the host country’s (in this case, Iraq) policies abroad.
So how will this affect the security of the region? And does al-Hashd pose any threat to Gulf Cooperation Council states? “Elements within al-Hashd al-Sha’abi certainly do”, Smyth answers without hesitation. “Kata’ib Hezbollah has directly threatened Saudi Arabia on multiple occasions. Other front groups that are within the al-Hashd umbrella, like Jaysh al-Mukhtar, have launched mortar and rocket attacks against Kuwait and Saudi Arabia,” he argues. “Iraqi Shi’ite extremist fighters within a-Hashd have also been involved in training and aiding Shi’ite militants from the Gulf,” he further explains.
Concerns surrounding the organization’s long-term intentions in Iraq are compounded by recent statements by its leaders hinting towards extending operations beyond the country. With Iran’s continued support, the rapid widening of al-Hashd’s umbrella, and the exacerbation of sectarian cleavages, the future, if the present is not scrutinized and revised, will be bleak.