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haider al abadi
Haider al Abadi

Iraqi PM Haider al Abadi has recently signed a decree that grants the inclusion of the Iraqi paramilitary militias that fought against the Islamic State into the Armed Forces. Most of their members are Iraqi and non-Iraqi Shias, they were trained and supported by Iran and during the fight for the liberation of Tikrit and Mosul they were responsible for a series of abuses against the local Sunni population and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s fighters.

The Iraqi Prime Minister’s move is mainly political since these militias, widely known as Popular Mobilization Forces (“Al Hashd Al Sha’abi”), benefit from a wide Shia support and the upcoming election on May 12, 2018 induces the Iraqi government to seek consensus. After all, al Abadi is running with his own party (“Al Nasr”, “The Victory”) and is in direct competition with other Shia parties, mainly former PM Nouri al Maliki’s that won the ballots in 2014 and Al Fatih Al Mubin (“Manifest Victory”) that features a number of former Shia combatants with ties to Iran and is the most powerful and influential group within the Popular Mobilization Forces. The latter is a coalition headed by the chief of the al Badr militias, Hadi al Amiri.

nour al maliki
Nouri al Maliki

The political confrontation

The rivalry between al Abadi and al Maliki was crucial in the Iraqi PM’s decision. Al Maliki has always been a staunch supporter of Shia supremacy and of the marginalization of the Sunni minority, especially after they supported the rise of the Islamic State. However, the Popular Mobilization Forces were part of this divisive political approach.

Al Abadi instead seeks a greater integration with the Sunnis and social and religious pacification. He signed the decree mainly to mine his rival. The proposal puts the militias on the same level as the Armed Forces, both in terms of salaries and duties. In fact, they will now have to report to the Ministry of Defense and will become part of the regular army. By doing so, al Abadi has snatched from his political rivals a strong campaign theme and a source of consensus.

While the integration of the Shia militias into the Iraqi security apparatus legalizes their status, it also brings a series of armed factions that would have been tough to reign in and disarm under government control. At the same time, their inclusion provides a legal cover to the crimes they committed. While this doesn’t help social reconciliation between Sunnis and Shia, it puts a stop to their abuses. When they were formed in 2014, the Shia militias were under the control of the Ministry of Interior, meaning they were also deployed in the streets to guarantee public order. Now their activities shall be confined to the military.

How many are they

There are no official figures on the size of these paramilitary forces. The Popular Mobilization Forces are divided into some 40 groups and each of them is de facto independent from the others. While the majority of their members are Shia, there are also Yezidis, Turkmen, Christians and even Sunnis. The latter mainly belong to tribes that were persecuted because they did not declare their allegiance to the Islamic State. Their common denominator is thus revenge.

Estimates put their numbers at 60-70 thousand members who will now be absorbed into the Iraqi army. Last year, the Iraqi army, that already supported and equipped these forces, trained some militias as part of their special forces. More equipment and training was provided by the Iranian Pasdaran.

If we take into account the fact that the Iraqi army has around 280 thousand soldiers, the former militia members will have a significant impact on the Iraqi Armed Forces. The militias were formed in 2014 after Ayatollah Ali al Sistani asked for their creation. In 2016 the cleric also asked for their integration into the army. Al Abadi’s decision thus follows the requests of the Shia clergy.

International reactions

The incorporation of the militias will have an impact on Iraq’s international relations. Firstly, the move will strengthen the relationship with Iran, since most of these militias were trained and supported by Tehran. The Shia military-strategic axis is now stronger than ever.

Clearly, Saudi Arabia does not appreciate the move, given their attempt to get closer to Baghdad. After a turbulent period in bilateral relations during Nouri al Maliki’s tenure, in 2015 the Saudis decided to re-open their embassy in Iraq. Another positive development was the first visit in 27 years of a Saudi government official in Baghdad in February 2017. During those meetings a joint coordination organism was created.

The pretext for a rapprochement between the two countries was the International Conference for the Reconstruction of Iraq that was held in Kuwait City in February 2018. The Saudis and the other donors pledged 30 billion dollars in aid. What Ryad wants in return for their money is a diminution in Iranian influence. And they will definitely not appreciate a decision to incorporate Shia militias in a fashion similar to the Iranian Pasdaran.

Saudi Arabia knows that Haider al Abadi is the only Shia political partner they can talk to. The other players in the Shia political spectrum, like al Maliki and al Amiri, have stronger ties to Iran. The United States also does not like al Abadi’s move. During the battle against the Islamic State the US refused to collaborate with the Shia militias. In October 2017, former US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, asked for the militias to be disbanded.

The rise of the militias

Paramilitary forces are widespread in the Middle East. There are those who fight in Syria for Bashar al Assad – the well-known Shabiha and the Alawite Popular Committees – the Shia Lebanese Hezbollah and the Kurdish Peshmerga; these are all militias that have become independent armies of their own. What they have in common is that they are religious or ethnic aggregators. Just like the Syrian Shabiha, these groups usually carry out the dirty work during a conflict. Their use on the battlefield is directly proportional to the impunity they are granted.

The Iraqi Shia militias have helped the government in Baghdad defeat Sunni terrorism. And the fact that they operated in Sunni-majority areas spread resentment. Al Abadi’s decision will hence increase the sectarian violence that is plaguing Iraqi society.

An unsolved problem

There are other militias in Iraq. Moqtada al Sadr runs the “Saraya Salam”, “The Peace Brigade”, that was created after the Mahdi’s Army was dissolved in 2008. The predominantly Shia militia is run by its leader, who is against Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs.

“Asa’ib Ahl Al Haqq”, also known as the “Khazali Network” from the name of its founder Qais al Khazali, is another Shia militia that was founded in 2006 as a splinter group of the Mahdi’s Army. This group counts on 10 thousand men, is pro-Iranian and has fought in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon committing a series of crimes and violations.

niniveh guard
The Niniveh Guard

The Niniveh Guard

To water down the prevalence of Shia groups in the Popular Mobilization Forces, al Abadi has proposed the inclusion of a Sunni militia, the Niniveh Guard, previously known as the “National Mobilization Force” that was armed and trained by the Turks. Their inclusion pursues a double aim: decrease sectarianism and appease the Turkish who don’t want Iraq to be too close to Iran.

One of the leaders of this group, Atheel Al Nujaifi, fled to Iraqi Kurdistan after he was accused of colluding with a foreign power, i.e. Turkey. This militia includes a number of soldiers and officials from Saddam Hussein’s dissolved army. They are very professional and were prevented from fighting to liberate Mosul.

Future consequences

Unfortunately the civil war in Iraq, just like the one in neighboring Syria, has favored the proliferation of militias that, in some cases, have become lawless armed gangs. Authorities in Baghdad don’t have the force to dismantle them and their inclusion into the regular army to legalize and disarm them is a necessary step.

The Iraqi army that was formed after Saddam Hussein’s defeat was based on the exclusion of Sunni officials – who knew how to fight a war, see Iran – and replaced them with Shia ones – who had no clue on how to wage a war – who are mostly incompetent and, 15 years on, are still mediocre combatants and strategists. The inclusion of these well-trained militias could be a step forward for the Iraqi Armed Forces.

The downside is the negative impact on the pacification of Sunnis and Shia and an increase in sectarian violence. Since every militia or armed group is based on ethnic, tribal, religious and/or political goals, once they are integrated into the Armed Forces they will probably continue to pursue their original agenda. The outcome of this initiative and future peace in Iraq will largely depend on the outcome of May’s Parliamentary elections.

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