As the dust of the Iraqi elections settles and negotiations over key ministerial portfolios continued, Iran-affiliated Hashd groups were cementing their role as important shapers of Iraq’s political economy. During this monitoring period, at least three important trends can be observed that continue developments noted in our last paper:
Between August and December 2018, Kataib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis skillfully exploited the protracted negotiations about the composition of Iraq’s new government to centralise the administrative structure of the Hashd. Technically a deputy to Falih al-Fayyadh, Al-Muhandis is the real behind-the-scenes PMF powerbroker. It was he – not Al-Fayyadh – who ordered the withdrawal of Hashd military forces from the major Sunni- and Kurdish-populated cities in August 2018. It was also primarily Al-Muhandis who ordered key administrative changes, including: the creation of a smartcard salary payment system linking individual Hashd fighters directly to the PMF Commission (instead of payments flowing to individual fighters via armed groups); the redeployment of Hashd offices and camps from cities to more rural areas; the deregistration of a number of Hashd groups and fighters; and the establishment of regular training camps for Hashd fighters. In the process, he tightened his grip on the institution. This became clear in the form of a campaign in which dozens of ‘fake Hashd groups’ were closed down and a number of individual leaders, such as Aws al-Khafaji (a longtime Hashd leader who also fought in Syria), were temporarily arrested on charges of corruption and extortion. Another example of a push towards greater centralisation is the decree issued by Al-Muhandis on 18 August 2018 ordering the disengagement of all Hashd factions from political parties, including religious shrine foundations. This elicited a strongly negative response from Maitham al-Zaidi, head of the ACD that is linked to the Karbala shrine, who saw it as an attempt to weaken his group financially since religious shrine foundations are non-partisan entities, not political parties.
Al-Muhandis could take these measures unopposed in part because of the administrative stasis that resulted from the protracted negotiations over the new government. But they were also possible because there is unrelenting and strong support among the Iraqi political establishment for the Hashd. Prime Minister Adel Abd al-Mahdi described the Hashd in December 2018 as: ‘an historic achievement, whose preservation is one of our most important duties. […]. There are those who are trying to say that Hashd al Sha’bi is temporary, but I emphasise that such a force is a necessity.’ Iraqi President Barham Saleh similarly said in an interview during his visit to Kuwait in November 2018 that ‘all [armed] factions are under the command of the state and work alongside the ISF in maintaining security and fighting terrorism.’ During the 2019 Suliforum, a security analyst went as far as saying that a number of senior Iraqi politicians prefer the Hashd to the Counter Terrorism Services (CTS) because the latter is US-linked and -trained.
These administrative changes and their enforcement are important for the long-term position of the Hashd in Iraqi society as they oriented the institution away from cities (leaving the resolution of difficult day-to-day law and order problems to the police) while maintaining its economic presence and community influence. This protects the popular legitimacy of the Hashd while at the same time centralising control.
The centralisation of the PMF Commission and the political consolidation of Iran-affiliated Hashd groups goes together with their expansion – both licit and illicit – into Iraq’s economy. Although the scope of this expansion is hard to asses due to much economic data being either unavailable or of poor quality, useful indicators are available. To start with, there are several instances of illicit economic activity creating significant revenue. Taxation and smuggling at the Syrian/Iraqi border (Al-Qaim/Albu Kamal) and at the Iranian/Iraqi border is a lucrative business for Hashd groups with a stake in running border control posts, such as Badr, Asaib ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah. A spokesperson for a number of Arab tribes in the west and northwest of Iraq expressed himself in a circumspect manner when he said that: ‘the objectives of the leader of Asaib ahl al-Haq are known to us,’ explaining that there are agreements between the Syrian militias and their Iraqi Hashd counterparts to run joint customs checkpoints. A similar story can be told for the Safra border crossing between Arab and Kurdish Iraq, where Badr reportedly earns millions of dollars per month on custom tariffs and taxes on goods. Smaller anecdotical examples of illicit activity abound. Asaib ahl al-Haq allegedly runs gambling halls in Baghdad and is said to have looted the Baiji oil refinery. It is also reputed to engage in robberies and looting, as well as arresting civilians for ransom payments. Saraya al-Salam, in turn, is said to have extorted a Chinese oil company.
Hashd’s engagement in licit activities includes Asaib ahl al-Haq’s expansion into pharmaceuticals and the oil business. Such examples echo previous instances of expansion into Iraq’s licit economy, such as Hashd groups taking over a waste company in Basra and a taxi business in Kerbala, as noted in our last paper. In several governorates, Hashd groups remain pivotal in the reconstruction process. They have, for example, cornered the scrap metal market near Mosul, which impedes local reconstruction efforts while earning the militias millions of dollars. The ACD is also active in the provision of humanitarian aid. For instance, it helped deliver water to Basra during the crisis and dealt with the R Zero water project in the province. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross discussed coordination of humanitarian efforts with the group in a conference.
On a final note, due to the high incidence of corruption throughout the Iraqi political system, there is a significant risk that the positive electoral outcomes for the Fatah alliance and Sadr’s bloc will enable a number of Hashd groups to penetrate the country’s state institutions more deeply. This is likely to open new doors to corruption and favouritism, as political power is used to reap economic benefits. The Al-Bayan Center has for example shown that Iraq’s state-owned enterprises are black holes in the country’s public budget and susceptible to financial abuse.
The two largest Hashd groups – the Badr Corps and Saraya al-Salam – are part of a broader constellation of affiliated parties and charities that together have significant political leverage. They are also senior coalition partners in the current government. In contrast, the political role and influence of Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib ahl al-Haq – ‘tier 2’ of influential Hashd groups – is less clear. Despite recent exhortations by Kataib Hezbollah that the Fatah coalition and Sadr’s political bloc should overcome their political differences and complete the process of forming a government, it ultimately remains a more militarised group with transnational loyalty to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
More interesting is the case of Asaib ahl al-Haq as it moves closer to mainstream Iraqi nationalism and acceptance of the Iraqi state as the dominant framework for political contestation. While maintaining links with Iran, Asaib's leader Qais Khazali also advocated for ‘cutting political ties from the Hashd’, stating that ‘[we must] strengthen the disengagement of the PMF from politics, and at the same time continue to be vigilant and ready in case our country needs [us] to defend it again.’ In reference to the state, Khazali stressed ‘the need for a government of services and not a government of privileges which should be ready to provide all support to achieve real reforms that our dear [Iraqi] people deserves.’ In speeches in January 2019, he even distanced Asaib from Iran, saying: ‘velayat-e faqih is not possible in Iraq in the same manner as in Iran because of the existence of the marja’iyya.’ Moreover, Khazali opined that ‘the Shi’a in Iraq cannot behave in the same way as the Shi’a in Lebanon because we are the majority in Iraq, whereas they are the minority in Lebanon.’ Here, he added: ‘We are a state!’
On one level, these statements merely affirm facts about the political, religious and social realities of Iraq. On another level, they are undoubtedly political slogans intended for popular consumption. On yet another level, however, they break with symbolic aspirations of convergence with Iran’s political-religious system, at least rhetorically. They also clarify that the Hashd has aquired sufficient domestic prominence to influence national politics from within without needing to reference the ideological system of another state that is not necessarily popular in Iraq.
Whatever the case may be, Asaib ahl al-Haq has persisted with its own efforts to expand, Gramsci-style, into Iraq’s socio-cultural sphere by securing the Ministry of Culture, setting up its own soccer teams and martial arts clubs (reminiscent of the mix between sports and militancy also found in the Balkans and Russia) and continuing to broadcast its actions through its own TV channel, Al-Ahad. Qais Khazali also meets regularly with Iraqi artists and stresses the importance of literacy in Iraqi society.