While it is difficult to accurately assess current developments, an in-depth look at the powerbase of our selected Hashd groups provides cues on possible futures. In the context of the Hashd in Iraq, we differentiate four dimensions of power: 1) coercive and security; 2) economic and financial; 3) political; 4) socio-religious.
Throughout the period August–December 2018, minor battles continued to occur between the Hashd and IS forces along the Iraqi-Syrian border, especially at Al-Qaim. Kataib Hezbollah led much of the fight, with support from other groups such as Badr, Asaib ahl al-Haq, the ACD and the TMF. Badr formations were also active on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border to secure it against potential IS infiltrations from Baghouz (Syria). As a result, Hashd groups continued to provide a security presence in areas recently liberated from IS, including border control checkpoints. For example, the Hashd constructed a camp around al-Qa’im on the orders of Al-Muhandis, that includes a heliport and hospital.
In addition to these minor battles at the border, IS also continued to carry out sporadic attacks throughout Sunni areas and in the disputed territories. Mostly these took the form of car bombings, sniper attacks and kidnappings. The TMF, which are in charge of providing urban security in many of these places, have proven to be an easy target for IS attacks and suffered appreciable losses. Complicating matters, the Sunni governorates of Nineveh and Saleh el-Din feature hundreds of kilometres of open land, with many abandoned villages that are attractive staging points for IS infiltration efforts and guerrilla-style attacks.
Finally, several arms storage depots and military centres associated with the ACD and Saraya al-Salam were attacked during the recount of the election results in the summer of 2018. A committee established by the ACD concluded that these attacks were not just isolated acts of violence but represented a pattern aimed at weakening the group. Such political violence abated once the election results were formalised.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s government implemented Al-Abadi’s promise of aligning the salaries of Hashd fighters with those of their peers in the Iraqi military. However, although the PMF budget increased accordingly, measures were not taken to ensure direct payment of salaries to individual fighters. As a result, Hashd finances are still controlled by the leadership of the PMF Commission, which is dominated by Iran-affiliated Hashd groups and plagued by persistent reports of corruption in the management and distribution of funds.
In addition to improving the Hashd’s official budgetary position, a number of Hashd groups also increased their informal and formal economic activities. In particular, the reconstruction business appears to be a growing and attractive line of business as the country recovers and funds pour in to help rebuild areas destroyed in the fighting against IS. The previous deputy speaker of Iraq’s Parliament, Humam Hamoudi, even tweeted that the Hashd represents: ‘Iraq’s pride of victory (and) its hope in construction and stability’. Our interviews in the disputed territories suggest that the Hashd forces stationed there, such as the 16th Turkmen Brigade, were actively expanding into socioeconomic activities through the Hashd civilian branch (Hashd al-Madani) and its local service offices. Hashd officials (mostly Badr) framed the role of the Hashd as being ‘the vanguard of the state’. In some places, it provides services such as rehabilitating roads and water pipes, in close collaboration with local communities. Several Hashd officials viewed such efforts as part of a strategy to serve the Iraqi people in line with the Hashd’s religiously inspired origins. The anomaly here is that the Hashd partially uses state funding to provide state-type services in places where the state is largely absent.
In addition to engaging in reconstruction and community service work, Hashd groups were also reported to be continuing their extensive smuggling activities, facilitated by their control over key border checkpoints. For example, millions of dollars are allegedly illegally collected at the Dohuk custom checkpoint. It is estimated that the tariffs and taxes levied by Badr on goods transported from Kurdish to Arab Iraq generate about US$12–15 million per month at the Safra border crossing alone. A similar situation is said to apply to tariffs and smuggling at the Shalamche (near Basra) and Chazabeh (near Amarah) border crossings between Iran and Iraq in the south of the country.
In this monitoring period, a number of Hashd groups appreciably increased their political representation. Karim al-Nouri, a Fatah politician, honored his promise: ‘We are going to enter Parliament in civilian clothes, not uniforms.’ Although the participation of several Hashd groups in the 2018 parliamentary elections was not a novelty – Badr, Saraya al-Salam and Asaib ahl al-Haq all successfully fielded candidates in 2014 – the expectation was that the Hashd would capitalise on their fight against IS and score a robust victory in the 2018 elections. The election results confirmed by the Iraqi High Electoral Commission on 18 August 2018 indeed allocated Hashd groups a significant number of seats. Al-Sadr’s political bloc grew to 54 seats, while the Fatah alliance (composed of Badr, Asaib ahl al-Haq and a few others) obtained 48 seats. Voting patterns showed that using the fight against IS was a successful election strategy, in particular in Shi’a majority governorates. However, a landslide ‘Hashd victory’ it was not. Although the 30% of seats the Hashd obtained in the Iraqi Parliament is significant, it also hides deep rifts.
For example, Sadr’s Sairoun coalition immediately turned against the Iran-affiliated Hashd groups (united in the Fatah bloc) after the elections, while both Badr and Asaib ahl al-Haq struggled to turn their electoral gains into political influence when Parliament rejected some of their key nominees for cabinet. Another good illustration of division is how the Fatah alliance and Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition nominated Hadi al-Ameri for Prime Minister, only to be rejected by several factions, including Sadr’s Sairoun coalition. Similar rejections prevented the successful nomination of Falih al-Fayyadh for interior minister and Asma Al-Kildani for justice minister. Sadr was particularly outspoken about nominations for the ‘security ministries’, noting that: ‘The parties must be prevented from nominating any candidates for these positions because the security forces must be loyal to the country.’ Beyond the top ministerial level, however, Hashd influence over state institutions is difficult to restrict. For example, Badr personnel and supporters have long been known to control the Ministry of Interior, while Hashd-sympathisers are reported to have recently proliferated throughout the judiciary and IFP.
Throughout this monitoring period, several Hashd groups expanded their role in the public sphere. The civic department of the Hashd is extending its outreach in universities and hospitals among other places, with the aim of securing benefits for those Iraqis with an (in)formal affiliation with the Hashd. This is accomplished through various strategies, including the mobilisation of volunteers to serve in these institutions and by using Hashd connections to hire sympathisers to fill vacancies. In addition, Hashd groups themselves have set up their own providers and advertise their own medical and educational services. Hadi al-Ameri and Qais al-Khazali have even spoken of their desire to establish a ‘martyrs university’ to exercise greater intellectual influence on the future of Iraq. Certain senior Hashd commanders in the disputed territories used the phrase ‘I am Hashd’ as a badge of association that reflects a willingness to serve the country through the institution of the Hashd – civilian and military. It is no longer only a reference to fighting IS.
The wave of recent protests across southern Iraq targeted both government buildings and the offices of a number of Hashd groups. This suggests that, by becoming part of the establishment, Hashd groups are increasingly viewed as being responsible for inadequate governmental performance. This is an especially sensitive issue in the south of the country, where predominantly Shi’a provinces have long been marginalised while also providing most of the rank-and-file Hashd fighters against IS. There is a feeling that southern sacrifices have not been commensurately compensated by either Baghdad or the Hashd as an institution. It also indicates that the Hashd cannot take its core constituency for granted, although the reaction of many Hashd groups to these protests has been very limited.
In the Kirkuk area, we were struck by the unified and relatively low profile of Hashd armed forces, their apparently high level of coordination with the ISF and the extent to which they felt empowered to be a force for good in Iraq. Senior leaders clearly articulated a civilian and a military vision for the Hashd that was almost Gramscian in nature, focused on serving communities, maintaining popular legitimacy and enduring strength. A poetry recital in Kirkuk city featured banners such as ‘the Hashd will remain until the Mahdi returns’ and ‘the Hashd is for everyone’ in an ostensible bid to demonstrate that ‘being Hashd’ is an enduring value and state of mind. As our field research was limited to Hashd leaders in the Kirkuk-Tuzkhurmatu-Amerli area, we hypothesize that the heterogeneous make-up of the disputed territories may have forced the Hashd to present a more disciplined, unified and civilian-oriented front compared with what may be the case in Shi’a-majority areas. Greater triangulation of our conversations in the Kirkuk area is needed.
Source: Several interviews with senior Hashd commanders in the Kirkuk area (3–5 March 2019).