Showdown looming in Iraq
Baghdad seems to be bracing itself for an almighty bout of arm-wrestling, with its dysfunctional government on the one side and the Shia militias on the other, writes Salah Nasrawi
On 20 October, one of the commanders of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF), Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, posted a letter to Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi on the Internet chastising the latter’s government for failing to support the Shia para-military force in the war against the Islamic State (IS) terror group.
In the unprecedented letter, Al-Muhandis demanded that Al-Abadi reconsider the budget allotted to the PMF and provide it with more weapons, equipment and facilities, which he said the PMF needed in the war against IS.
“With each battle we go to plead and beg,” wrote Al-Muhandis in the letter, raging with bitterness at what he perceived as Al-Abadi’s passivity towards the force known in Arabic as Al-Hashed Al-Shaabi.
“Even if your intention is to dissolve Al-Hashed in the near or distant future, the least you should do now is to provide the means it needs to sustain the current battle,” he wrote.
He specifically asked Al-Abadi to supply Al-Hashed with armoured personnel carriers and bomb detectors. “Why are these volunteers, as you call them, left to face explosives, missiles and the enemy’s weapons with their bare bodies,” he asked.
Among other demands, Al-Muhandis made in his letter was putting Al-Hashed, largely composed of Shia militias, on a par with the army and security forces and creating a joint command system that would coordinate between Iraq’s three forces.
Whatever the implicit message, Al-Muhandis’s open letter to the Shia leader contains an element of symbolism that invokes the expression of a titanic power struggle in Iraq.
Al-Muhandis, whose real name is Jamal Jaafar Mohamed, is the leader of Kataib Hizbullah, an Iranian-sponsored Shia militia which has been active in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003. In addition to acting as the leader of the militia, Al-Muhandis also serves as deputy commander of Al-Hashed.
Al-Muhandis is orchestrating along with two other powerful leaders, Hadi Al-Amiri, commander of the Badr Organisation and Qais Al-Khazali, founder of the Asaib Ahl Al-Haq network, or the “League of the Righteous”, most of the activities of the PMF.
Al-Hashed was formed from Shia militias following the fall of Mosul in June 2014 to IS militants and their lightning advances into cities and towns in central Iraq. Backed by Iranian weapons and advisers, Al-Hashed led the Iraqi government’s counter-offensive to regain control of most of the land lost to IS.
According to many analysts, the militias are now eclipsing Iraq’s security forces in the fight against IS. Last week they recaptured Baiji, a strategic city north of Baghdad, from IS after several botched offensives by the Iraqi army.
Al-Hashed now commands some 120,000 fighters. In addition to the some $1 billion it receives from the state budget, the PMF gets additional funding from other Iranian religious clerics and donations from Shia businessmen and political groups.
Though the government says the PMF comes under the control of the prime minister’s office, most of the militias which compose the force, and in particular the main ones, function without any government supervision or control.
Since they rose to prominence following last year’s IS onslaught, the militias have expanded their hold on towns and neighbourhoods in Iraq. International human right groups have accused the militias of using the weak rule of law in Iraq to commit abuses.
In September, a militia group claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of 18 Turkish construction workers in Baghdad and listed demands for their release that included Turkey to stop its interference in Iraq and to lift a siege on several Shia towns and villages in Syria. The workers were released four weeks later after an undisclosed deal with the government.
The militias are becoming a growing risk for governance and stability in Iraq as they are increasingly functioning within the state apparatus and in particular in the security forces where sometimes they operate as replacement forces where the state is absent.
The link between the Shia militias and the government security forces dates back to the period following the US-led invasion in 2003, when thousands of Shia militias who were fighting against the regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein were integrated into Iraq’s post-Saddam army and security forces.
After Al-Abadi was nominated as prime minister in July last year, he designated Mohamed Ghabban, a senior official in the Badr Organisation, as the new interior minister despite the Sunni rejection of Al-Amiri, the head of the group, to assume the post.
Since he assumed office, Ghabban has purged hundreds of officers and replaced them with others who are now loyal to Shia militias, in particular the Badr Organisation.
Three days after the publication of his letter, Al-Muhandis posted another note protesting against a raid by US special forces on IS targets in northern Iraq in cooperation with the Kurdish Peshmergas. It was the first time that American troops have been reportedly deployed in the fight against IS since the US started its airstrikes against the terror group in August last year.
The Pentagon said the raid was aimed at rescuing Kurdish fighters who were being held by IS. A Facebook page operated by Al-Hashed, however, disputed the US claim that the raid was a rescue mission and accused the US troops of “evicting” besieged IS commanders from the area.
“We are aware of your plans and who the politicians are who are collaborating with you. We fought them for ten years when our hands were empty. Now our hands are full, and we can reach you and unveil your plans and expose you if you do not stop,” it wrote.
Leaders of Al-Hashed have long denounced the US air support in the fight against IS and some have even threatened that they will “eject” US ground troops if they are sent to Iraq, a prospect the Obama administration has ruled out.
The US operation in Al-Hawija comes amid controversy on whether Al-Abadi should request Russian help in the war against IS. Since Russia started its airstrikes against opposition groups in Syria, Al-Hashed leaders have increased their pressure on Al-Abadi to seek Russian military support in the war against IS.
Such a request would put Al-Abadi in a delicate position with the United States, which has made it clear that it opposes Russian military intervention in Iraq.
Though Al-Abadi has agreed to set up a liaison group to coordinate intelligence and security cooperation with Russia, Iran and Syria to counter the threat from IS, he has been reluctant so far to ask Moscow to intervene.
Head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford said on a trip to Baghdad last week that the United States had won assurances from Iraq that it would not seek Russian airstrikes.
Another dispute that has worsened the mood among the increasingly disgruntled militia leaders has been the prime minister’s decision to appoint a controversial Iraqi-American who worked closely with the Pentagon during the early days of the US occupation of Iraq as his new chief of staff.
Last week, Al-Abadi named Emad Dhia (Al-Kharsan), who headed a group set up by the US occupation authority to assist the Bush administration in running Iraq after the invasion in 2003, as secretary-general of the Council of Ministers, a post which will put him in charge of running day-to-day government affairs.
The secretary-general of the council is a key post in Iraq, and since it was created under former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki its holders have been considered to be the “power behind the throne.”
In his post Dhia will probably oversee some of the actions of the military and security forces and Al-Hashed whose commanders are answerable to Al-Abadi in his capacity as the commander-in-chief of Iraq’s armed forces.
Al-Abadi’s mysterious decision to give the post to Dhia, who has never served in the Iraqi government and has lived most of his life in the United States and has worked closely with the Pentagon, is expected to worsen his relations with Al-Hashed’s leaders who fear that Dhia serves an American agenda.
Whatever the reasons behind Al-Hashed’s mounting discontent, relations between Al-Abadi and the Shia militias have reached a crossroads. Many analysts have expected that the rise of Al-Hashed will shift more power from the government to the militia leaders, eventually leading to a power struggle within the Shia alliance.
That seems to be happening sooner than it expected, and Al-Muhandis’s rage against Al-Abadi is just the opening act to more dramatic developments to come in the on-going struggle over who controls Iraq.
If the recent history of Iran can serve as an example, the Revolutionary Guard, on whose model Al-Hashed in Iraq is being built, has ultimately displaced the clerical elite who were behind the Islamic Revolution and become the country’s centre of power.
This article appeared first in Al-Ahram Weekly on Oct 29, 2015