Iraqi militias split around new Iran-backed leader, reflecting wider divisions
Divisions within Iraq Hashd al-Sha’abi (Popular Mobilization Forces or FMP) were exposed recently, after Iranian-backed brigades appointed Abu Fadak al-Muhammadawi vice-president – the de facto leader – of the Hashd al-Sha’abi Committee to replace Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed along with Qassem Soleimani in a US drone strike in January. The appointment at the end of February drew criticism from elements of the Hashd not aligned with Iran, demonstrating one of the fault lines within the movement as a whole – and alluding to a wider divide in Iraqi politics over the role and future of an increasingly functioning organization. more like a security force parallel to the conventional Iraqi army.
A new leader for PMF
Al-Muhandis was a skilled operator and may prove to be impossible to replace. As founder and commander of Kata’ib Hezbollah (Iran’s inescapable proxy in Iraq) al-Muhandis had the intelligence, political capacity and military experience to unite the various militias that make up the Iranian-backed element of the Hashd al-Sha’abi. He also had a strong working relationship with Soleimani, the commander of the Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. In 2016, the whole Hashd al-Sha’abi formation (made up of dozens of militias and disparate armed groups) was legalized and incorporated into the Iraqi security forces by an act of parliament. From that point on, the Iranian-backed militias (coordinated by al-Muhandis) were able to integrate into parts of the Iraqi government. Al-Muhandis became particularly influential through his role as the operational commander of the PMF.
His designated replacement has a lot to do. Al-Muhammadawi (real name Abdul Aziz al-Muhammadawi) worked for the Badr Organization from 1983. Badr is one of the oldest Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, having formed in the origin to fight Saddam Hussein. The organization has become part of the Hashd al-Sha’abi and continues to be one of the most powerful elements supported by Iran in the formation. Al-Muhammadawi continued to work with Soleimani through a number of resistance militias in the United States in the years following the 2003 invasion.
The selection committee formed to choose a successor to al-Muhandis demonstrated the extent to which the Hashd al-Sha’abi was captured by his Iranian-backed militias. Although the formation and its governing body are established by law and report to the prime minister and the Iraqi government, members of the selection committee represented some of the major groups linked to Iran. Besides al-Muhammadawi himself, other members included Abu Ali al-Basri (Badr Organization and assistant to the vice president of Hashd), Abu Muntazir al-Hussaini (Badr and former adviser to the prime minister for Hashd Business), Abu Iman al-Bahli (head of Hashd intelligence, and linked to Kata’ib Hezbollah), Abu Alaa al-Walai (secretary general of Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, or PMF 14 brigade), Laith al-Khazali (brother of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqqthe leader and founder of Qais al-Khazali), and Ahmed al-Asadi (the official spokesperson of the PMF, and Fatah party leader).
Kata’ib Hezbollah quickly announced his full support for al-Muhammadawi via a declaration on its website. The statement went on to praise the Hashd al-Sha’abi for his role in the fight against ISIS and the “Zionist-Saudi-American axis of evil”. Kata’ib Hezbollah also warned that it will be important to keep the Hashd al-Sha’abi independent from traditional Iraqi security forces, and stressed that Kata’ib Hezbollah will oppose those who seek to dismantle or weaken the Hashd.
In recent months there has been growing questions on the future role of Hashd al-Sha’abi. Although the militias are legally part of the Iraqi state, the government has limited control over the Iran-backed element. The issue has been raised frequently by anti-corruption protesters, who have faced violence from Iranians. Hashd al-Sha’abi elements.
Push back from inside the Hashd al-Sha’abi
After the announcement of Mohammadawi’s appointment by Iranian-backed PMF elements, a group of four Hashd al-Sha’abi brigades released their own statement criticizing the decision and the process. “We are not aware of any appointment to the post of vice-president of the Hashd al-Sha’abi Committee at this time. This requires a legal process that is not available to both governments, where one is doing business [as a caretaker government] while the other has not yet finished being appointed. The sanctuary militias have lodged their views with the chairman of the committee and are awaiting an official response. The statement referred to the current state of Iraqi politics, with outgoing Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi resigning due to anti-corruption protests, playing a guardian role as Prime Minister designate at the time. Muhammad Tawfiq al-Allawi tried to form a cabinet and get it through parliament. (Allawi was unsuccessfully and withdrew; President Barham Saleh must now choose a replacement prime minister.)
The groups that lodged the complaint are known as the “sanctuary militias”, formed to protect Shiite holy places and also part of the Hashd al-Sha’abi (Brigades 2, 11 and 44). Unlike most large militias, these brigades owe much of their allegiance to the influential Iraqi Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, based in Najaf and widely regarded as the spiritual leader of the Iraqi Shiites.
Sistani played a role in the creation of the Hashd al-Sha’abi – in a 2014 fatwa, he called on “citizens to defend the country, its people, the honor of its citizens and its sacred places” against the growing threat of ISIS, by “volunteers[ing] serve in the security forces for this sacred purpose. Sistani’s intention has always been for volunteers to serve with conventional security forces, and since 2014 he has never used the term “Hashd al-Sha’abi”, preferring “mutatawwa’eenOr “volunteers”. Indeed, the influence of the 89-year-old Ayatollah is generally regarded as a moderating force by both Hashd al-Sha’abi militias and in broader Iraqi politics.
While pro-Iranian brigades such as Kata’ib Hezbollah, Badr, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, and Harakat al-Nujaba have attracted considerable attention due to their considerable fighting power and role as Iranian proxies in a shadow war against the United States, it is also important to understand that the other factions exist under the Hashd al-Sha’abi umbrella. Some of these factions, including sanctuary militias like the al-Abbas Combat Division, Ansar al-Marja’iya brigade, and Ali al-Akbar Brigade, are wary of the growing Iranian capture by PMF and the Iraqi government as a whole.
Understand the differences between Hashd al-Sha’abi factions is vital as the organization gains increasing influence in government, including in the official Iraqi security sector. It can be easy to assume that all elements of the PMF operate as a monolithic entity, and at the behest of Iran. In fact, there are concerns within training and in society at large about the future of training. Hashd al-Sha’abi. The naked co-optation of the entire movement by Iran and Iranian-linked militias has been a concern for Sistani-linked units and Iraqi nationalist groups for some time. We are also concerned about the Hashd’s government capture attempts, even as militias frequently flout the rule of Iraqi law. The appointment of Muhammadawi to a government post created by Iraqi law by a cabal of senior Iranian proxies was clearly brazen enough that some militias voiced their concerns in public.
The United States should consider ways to strengthen the more constructive elements of this drama. The next Iraqi government should be encouraged to exercise its legal power over the Hashd al-Sha’abi appoint an “official” candidate for the post of vice-president. Ideally, the individual would be less openly loyal to Iran than people like al-Muhammadawi, but still possess significant popular stature and combat experience to be accepted by the formation at large, while still being able to withstand attacks. attempts at intimidation by elements supported by Iran.
US officials should also continue to stress the importance of keeping known perpetrators of human rights violations out of the Iraqi government. Continuing to nominate problematic militia leaders involved in corrupt acts and human rights violations against protesters under the Global Magnitsky Act and the Specially Designated Global Terrorist program strengthens existing national criticisms against these bad actors, by indicating to protesters (and Hashd al-Sha’abi units) that their concerns are shared by Iraq’s allies.
While any effective reform of Iraq’s security sectors will take a decade or more, this is a critical moment in establishing the conditions for future success. Iranian-backed groups like Kat’aib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq should not be allowed to continue to consolidate their control over the Iraqi state, especially since they disregard the rule of law or the human rights of their fellow Iraqis.