Iraq’s political-security environment has changed significantly since the previous two monitoring periods. Most importantly, there has been a marked decrease in the intensity and frequency of organised violence. Remaining low-intensity conflict with the remnants of IS is concentrated in the rural areas of Nineveh, Anbar, Saleh el-Din and parts of the disputed territories. Hashd military forces were ordered to withdraw from Iraq’s Sunni-majority urban areas following the reduction in fighting and because of local resistance against the presence of Shi’a Hashd forces as well as political coalition building between Shi’a Hashd groups-cum-political-parties and Sunni political parties. The political violence of the summer of 2018 – in the form of a series of explosions and fires at warehouses storing arms and ballot papers, largely ascribed to intra-Hashd tensions – abated after the final election results were announced. Generally speaking, Iraqi politics are in a stable state, although tensions persist between the classic deal-making-based rule of Shi’a-Kurdish party-political elites and popular demands for better government performance, as manifested in recurrent demonstrations throughout the country. In this context, Figure 1 below illustrates the current powerbases, intergroup relations and attitudes of seven selected Hashd groups towards the Iraqi central government (exemplified by the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi Federal Police).
Figure 1 offers a few notable insights for the period August–December 2018 in comparison with our previous illustration of Hashd power, relations and attitudes for the period February–May 2018.
Insight #1: The overall powerbase of most Hashd groups has not increased. On the one hand, the decreasing intensity of fighting against IS reduced the coercive power the Hashd enjoyed in both previous monitoring periods, including the legitimacy associated with fighting IS and the material benefits of controlling territory. On the other hand, several Hashd groups expanded their political, economic and social activities to offset their loss of coercive power. As part of this stratagem, key Hashd groups – such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Badr and Saraya al-Salam – made notable gains in the May 2018 parliamentary elections. However, the political compromise between these groups, which could have further amplified their power, proved elusive as both the short-lived coalition between Al-Ameri (Badr) and Al-Sadr (Saraya al-Salam) and the protracted nature of the formation of Iraq’s new government demonstrated.
Insight #2: Relations between different Hashd groups, the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi Federal Police have further improved compared with the previous monitoring period. Several factors contributed to this development. First, the end of major battles with IS eliminated a source of tension between the many Hashd groups and the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) about the conduct of the war. Second, the Iraqi Federal Police (IFP) has come to count many Hashd sympathisers and members among its ranks, which increases the web of informal relations between these organisations. Whether this is positive or negative remains a moot point at present. In the longer term, dual loyalties risk reducing institutional integrity and performance. Third, a clearer division of labour has been established between the various forces. The disputed territories offer an interesting example. In February 2019, a joint operations room was created in Kirkuk, which brings all relevant forces in the area together to analyse security threats, formulate a response and task a participating security organisation with carrying it out. It is also in the disputed territories that a clear(er) division of labour has emerged, in which the IFP takes care of internal borders and checkpoints, local police forces assure urban security and are based in cities, the army provides border security, and its special forces lead the remaining fight against IS based outside of cities. The Hashd serve as an auxiliary force that ensures rural security and acts in hotspots outside of urban centres. In consequence, the Iraqi Army and IFP occupy a more central space in the web of relations depicted in Figure 1.
Insight #3: Relations between Hashd groups not affiliated with Iran have become weaker compared with the previous monitoring period. Figure 1 also illustrates that relationships between Hashd groups such as Saraya al-Salam (SAS), the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), Tribal Mobilization Forces (TMF) and ACD have weakened. Relations between these groups and the ISF have remained equally weak (except ACD). Several factors play a role. First, these developments are a logical consequence of the general demise of the ‘original’ Hashd. The rationale of working with other Hashd groups has simply decreased with the lower intensity of the fight against IS. Second, the PMF was always dominated by Iran-affiliated groups and their grip has recently strengthened (see below). This harms the ability of non-Iran affiliated groups to relate to one another. Third, the TMF and Sinjar Resistance Units now mostly operate locally, fading out from the national security scene.
Insight #4: Relations remain strong between Iran-affiliated Hashd groups compared with the previous monitoring period. Despite electoral competition and some post-election disagreements, relations have remained strong between Iran-affiliated Hashd groups. While they are different in character – Badr is an institutionalised part of the Iraqi political party landscape, Asaib ahl al-Haq is an emergent political force, and Kataib Hezbollah remains largely an armed faction – they are united by their shared ties with Iran and benefit both from their now formalised legitimacy and the partisan distribution of Hashd funding via the PMF Commission.
On balance, the ‘original’ Hashd is fragmenting to the point of disappearance. Relations between individual Hashd groups have faded and quite a few groups have become more closely linked with the ISF. This could indicate a trajectory away from a state of fairly autonomously operating paramilitary units, were it not for the fact that the Iran-affiliated Hashd groups emerge from this period with a steady powerbase, strong relations between themselves and appreciable influence on – and in – the ISF. It is probably a better reflection of reality to say that the diversity of the Hashd is being reduced to its Iran-affiliated core without, however, this core becoming much stronger than it was in previous monitoring periods.