Several Hashd groups – notably those affiliated with Iran and Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam – capitalised on the reputation, networks and territorial control they had established during their fight against IS to increase their political and economic powerbase without really disbanding, disarming or integrating into the ISF. As lesser Hashd groups faded into the background, the Iran-affiliated Hashd groups increasingly asserted control over the PMF Commission, including key ‘administrative’ functions like fighter registration, salary payments and deployment planning. While one may be forgiven for thinking that efforts to create a more homogeneous Hashd resemble the trajectory that Hezbollah has followed in Lebanon, Iraq’s diversity presents a critical challenge:

Although powerful Hashd groups are both Shi’a and Iran-affiliated, Iraq’s Shi’a community has several political centres that are reasonably balanced, like the parties, charity networks and armed groups of Al-Sadr, Al-Hakim and Al-Ameri/Al-Muhandis.

Within the Iran-affiliated Hashd groups – mostly Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Badr, and Kataib Hezbollah – substantial differences of interests, outlooks, loyalties and egos exist that make it difficult to fully homogenise command structures and align group interests.

Popular discontent in Shi’a provinces with Iraq’s Shi’a political elites – increasingly including Hashd leaders – puts the longer-term support of Iran-affiliated Hashd groups at risk.

Kurdish, Sunni and Christian parties, formations, constituencies and armed groups are sources of resistance – and support – against expansion.

Perhaps most importantly, Iraq’s Shi’a religious establishment does not favour an Iranian-style governance model with theocratic elements and parallel state structures. As it remains highly influential and more prestigious than its Iranian counterpart, its views matter.

Factors such as these help explain why Iran-affiliated Hashd groups in Iraq operate in part on the basis of a transnational concept of Shi’a militancy, but do little to explicitly promote the associated notion of ‘resistance’ [against aggressors, oppressive and unjust authority] in rhetoric or action in Iraq. Nationalism as well as other ethnic, tribal, social and religious identities remain powerful competing forces.

The protracted nature of Iraq’s government formation after the May 2018 elections and the August 2018 recount testifies both to the political influence of Iran-affiliated Hashd groups via their Fatah alliance as well as to their constraints: they can veto, but not determine.[57] It took a full 10 months (September 2018 – June 2019) to agree on the top nominations for the ministries of Defence, Interior and Justice.[58] At the same time, the strategy of making the Hashd more homogeneous also carries risks. For instance, marginalisation of smaller, yet heavily armed, Hashd groups can come to pose a threat of confrontation between larger and smaller, Iran-affiliated and non-Iran affiliated armed groups, as sociopolitical tensions within Iraq mount. Moreover, intra-Hashd politicking detracts from mobilising an effective response to renewed IS attacks.

The key to mitigating these risks is a stronger Iraqi state that is better able to channel the energies and strengths of key Hashd groups. In other words, less focus should be put on efforts to reduce the role of Iran-affiliated Hashd groups in political-economic affairs and more on improving the performance of the Iraqi state on issues that matter to its citizens. Many Hashd groups would probably be quite capable of and willing to support a stronger state as long as their own position remains secure. But it appears that a stronger state is needed to set boundaries preventing major Hashd groups from becoming individual states. With this in mind, policy makers in Baghdad and Western capitals can consider several initiatives to channel existing capabilities and energies towards peacebuilding:

Strengthen the role of the Iraqi Federal Police and Army at the local level, specifically their ability to ensure security in urban centres. This includes the need to: withdraw Hashd forces from all urban centres (not only cities in Sunni areas and the disputed territories); carefully define the role of the Hashd in supporting Iraq’s special forces in the fight against IS; and ensure better vetting of senior police and military ranks to prevent unwarranted infiltration by ‘Hashd secondees’. It also requires a more clearly defined set of rules and responsibilities for Hashd forces across the country, tighter operational command centred on the Prime Minister’s office, and greater accountability throughout the Iraqi security sector.

Improve the capacity of local governments to provide services and support their communities. Local governments with enhanced capacities to undertake their functions can offer a viable, less partisan, alternative to the services that Hashd groups may provide. Improvements in the performance of local governments are one element of increasing their legitimacy among local constituencies. At the moment, effective and transparent local governance is absent in appreciable parts of the country, which creates space for others – such as Iran-affiliated Hashd groups – to fill. The international community could strengthen governance-focused Community-Driven Reconstruction (CDR) programmes that can subsequently be scaled up.

Consider creating local charters in which local government and Hashd groups agree on social and economic performance objectives. If adequately regulated and monitored, such charters can harness Hashd capabilities and legitimacy in ways that recognise their interests but also ensure that their efforts benefit all Iraqis instead of particular subgroups. These charters can be funded from local or provincial block grant allocations. They should simultaneously restrict Hashd economic/business activity falling outside of their scope and could benefit from a popular monitoring/feedback mechanism on a religious, tribal or civil society basis.

As the recent update to the UN Security Council by the UN’s Special Representative also indicated: link (accessed 16 May 2019); for good background on the 2018 government formation process: Mansour, R., Iraq’s 2018 government formation: Unpacking the friction between reform and the status quo, London: LSE/IRIS, 2019.