It has become clear since Iraq’s May 2018 elections that many of the armed groups that make up the country’s Al-Hashd al-Sha’abi (aka Popular Mobilization Forces) intend to fully integrate into the Iraqi Security Forces and/or disband at some point now that the fight against the Islamic State (IS) has reached a much lower level of intensity. Several groups are less likely to do so, however, including those linked with Iran. Although all 50+ Hashd groups have been brought under the legal purview of the Iraqi state, in practice a number continue to operate autonomously. The fragmented nature of both the Iraqi state’s coercive capabilities and the country’s political landscape will make it difficult, in the short term, to compel reluctant groups to integrate into state security forces or disband. Pushing for enforcement of such compliance risks violence and is best avoided.
At the same time, using a broad set of indicators to monitor Hashd-related events and incidents based on open, online sources, this policy brief provides substantial evidence that some Hashd groups are using their autonomy to strengthen their power base in ways that will complicate achieving greater integration in the future. Our research suggests that policy makers in Baghdad and Western capitals should support four initiatives that can help limit this risk without triggering large-scale violence:
- Gradually establish a direct, incentive-based relationship between Hashd fighters and the state to shift the loyalties of fighters over time.
- Tighten local command, control and coordination mechanisms of all state security actors to compartmentalise the way in which Hashd groups operate, especially locally.
- Ensure that (international) reconstruction funds have strong in-built safeguards and standards that reduce corruption and do not contribute to the growing penetration of the Iraqi economy by armed actors, e.g. by contracting them.
- Address the root causes of the emergence of IS to remove the rationale for some Hashd groups to retain arms (and to make Iraq safer).