In early July 2019, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abd al-Mahdi issued a series of decrees regarding the country's Hashd Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces). What were these decrees? Why were they issued? And what will be their likely impact?
The Hashd most commonly refers to the dozens of factions registered with the Hashd Shaabi Commission, which is affiliated with the prime minister's office. Some of the most important factions in the commission, such as Badr and Kataib Hezbollah, are closely aligned with Iran. But the Hashd is by no means an ideological monolith. For example, some factions come from the more independent Sadrist trend, while others are affiliated with shrines in Najaf and Karbala.
There has already been some confusion about the decrees. Contrary to some portrayals, the decrees do not amount to a dissolution of the Hashd. Nor do they stipulate the merger of the Hashd groups into the regular army and police forces. Instead, they reaffirm stipulations that the Hashd be considered a part of the country's armed forces, managed by the Hashd Shaabi Commission.
Thus, the decrees should be seen as part of an attempt to exert state control over the Hashd: a policy that also existed under al-Mahdi's predecessor Haider al-Abadi. The point of continuity in policy also becomes apparent when one notices that the decrees affirm that the names of various factions are to be definitively abandoned and replaced by military names of divisions, brigades and regiments. These factions are also supposed to cut any political ties.
For context, it should be noted that the larger factions registered with the Hashd Shaabi Commission already have brigade numbers. Indeed, some of these factions have pages on social media that use their brigade number as titles. Further, when media reports about security operations involving these factions are issued, the participating factions are often identified by brigade number. From the prime minister's perspective, the use of brigade numbers is intended to be part of a depoliticization process of the Hashd forces. In a similar vein, smaller Hashd groups, primarily Sunni 'tribal Hashd' groups, are identified by regiment numbers.
In general, however, it is exceptional for a larger Hashd group to be identified solely by its brigade number. One such exception is the Hashd 90th brigade, which is based in South Ninawa province and is led by Aziz Sinjar. As a rule, for a given Hashd group, its faction name and brigade number become interchangeable on social media and on the ground. This has even been the case with Hashd groups such as the al-Abbas Combat Division (tied to the al-Abbas shrine in Karbala and the Hashd 26th brigade) and Muqtada al-Sadr's Saraya al-Salam (Hashd 313th brigade and 314th brigade), which are seen as closer to the state and the prime minister's position, in contrast to Hashd groups that are ideologically aligned with Iran.
Alongside the aim of exerting greater state control over the Hashd, the prime minister's decrees reflect a desire to crack down on lawlessness associated with the Hashd brand and phenomenon. On the general level, the decrees ban the 'existence of any armed faction operating secretly or openly outside these instructions'. The Hashd Shaabi Commission's security directorate has stepped up efforts in recent times to crack down on the problem of 'fake Hashd': that is, groups that operate under the name of the Hashd but are not affiliated with the commission, and 'fake bases' that might falsely claim affiliation with the commission or one of the factions registered with the commission. In some instances, criminal gangs operate under the name of the Hashd. The key point here is not being on commission's registers.
In May 2019, the security directorate claimed that it had closed more than 320 'fake bases'. There have been some concerns that the crackdown took on a political dimension when, in February 2019, Hashd security forces raided the base of the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces in Baghdad and arrested the group's leader Aws al-Khafaji, who had often appeared in Iraqi media as a purported Hashd representative and had relations with key figures in the Hashd Shaabi Commission. The Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces were not registered with the commission with a brigade number, but many tied the crackdown on the group to al-Khafaji's criticisms of Iran's role in Iraq, as the crackdown occurred just days after he made his comments. Al-Khafaji faced a number of accusations while in custody, such as unauthorized possession of weapons, but was cleared of all of them and released. He has held a number of meetings recently, but his own faction appears to have suspended activity inside Iraq. Instead, the group maintains a symbolic presence in Syria in the figure of Salam al-Safir, who is also the spokesman for the Syria-based, Iraq-led group Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar.
Beyond the issue of unauthorized factions, the decrees stipulate a ban on Hashd groups having any 'economic interests, checkpoints, presences or interests' outside the new framework reaffirming the Hashd to be a part of the armed forces. Indeed, there have been long-standing complaints about illicit economic activities on the part of Hashd groups or groups operating under the Hashd name. These complaints have included allegations of extortion at checkpoints and looting. The most notable example of the latter was the case of the Baiji oil refinery in the northern Salah al-Din province, with many valuable pieces of infrastructure looted and then sold for profit by members of the Iranian-backed Hashd groups Kataib Hezbollah (Hashd 45th, 46th and 47th brigades) and Asaib Ahl al-Haq (Hashd 41st, 42nd and 43rd brigades).
In sum, it can be seen that the prime minister is attempting to reaffirm state control over the Hashd in a number of ways. The decrees' concluding remarks make clear that there is a 31 July deadline for arrangements to be put in place to complete the process of operating in accordance with the decrees. The prime minister is also supposed to issue a new organizational framework for the Hashd Shaabi Commission and its formations.
However, implementation of these decrees will be challenging in a number of respects. In particular, it is extremely difficult to disentangle most of the main Hashd factions from their political origins and connections. This reflects the fact that Iraq still remains a weak state. As the Middle East analyst Kirk Sowell notes, the state's weakness can also be seen in problems such as its inability to control tribal disputes in the south.
In short, Iraq's political landscape will continue to be influenced by Hashd factions for the foreseeable future.