The Evolution of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation into a Political Unit

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On December 11th, 2017, Iraqi militia founder and spiritual leader, Muqtada al-Sadr made a groundbreaking announcement. In a move regarded as unprecedented by all but the most astute Iraqi analysts, al-Sadr revealed to the public that his militia organisation, Saraya al-Salaam, would be disarming itself and standing down.1.Saraya al-Salaam Media Command of the militia would be handed over to military officials in Baghdad, who would provide for arms, equipment, and food while simultaneously absorbing the militia into the Iraqi military. al-Sadr called on other militias within the Iraqi Hash’d al-Shaabi, or “Popular Mobilisation”, to not only follow suit with disarmament, but to avoid political engagement and not partake in upcoming Iraqi parliamentary elections.2.Saraya al-Salaam Media Sadr called on the Iraqi government to “not allow the Hash’d al-Shaabi, under any circumstances, to participate in the elections”, and warned them against providing opportunities for military leaders to acquire any kind of political office.3.“Sadr calls for Hash’d al-Shaabi to disarm and not stand in elections” : Middle East Eye

Sadr’s announcement was only the beginning of what promises to be a new stage for the Popular Mobilisation forces of Iraq. Some prominent Iraqi figures, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Sheikh Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalai, have more or less agreed with Sadr. However, some other figures, including Hash’d leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iranian-backed Hadi al-Amiri, have taken a very different path. It is not yet clear how these elections will play out, but what is clear is that Iraq’s Hash’d are struggling to find their place in an Iraqi state that is now bereft of open war.

The Popular Mobilisation Forces were formed by the Iraqi government at the behest of Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani in the late summer of 2014, after the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State (IS) or The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) as they were then called.4.“The Popular Mobilisation Forces and Iraq’s Future” : The Carnegie Center As Iraqi Security Forces units throughout the western portions of the country collapsed under thousands of IS fighters, the Hash’d rushed forward with tens of thousands of volunteers to plug the gaps in the Iraqi frontlines. The Popular Mobilisation fought in numerous battles in late 2014 and into 2015, proving crucial to the victories in Tikrit, Jazirat Samarra, and Fallujah.5.“The battle for Iraq is reaching its climax” : 1001 Iraqi Thoughts Though their role in the campaign to retake Mosul was limited both in magnitude as well as in geographic scope, the Hash’d forces proved yet again essential for driving IS out of their weakened defensive positions along the Syrian border. After three years of battle and thousands of casualties, the Hash’d al-Shaabi have now emerged from war experienced in combat, versed in politics, well-armed and equipped, and not at all eager to fade into the shadows.

With the war winding down to a close, there appear to be two distinct factions with differing opinions on how the Popular Mobilisation Forces should proceed, and what should be done with their arms and equipment. On the one hand, Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani and popular political leader Muqtada al-Sadr make it quite clear that they are in favor of either disarming the Hash’d entirely, or handing them over to the government in Baghdad. Sadr has made it public that he wishes for his own Saraya al-Salaam to be disarmed and have its command turned over to the Iraqi military, and has expressed no interest in having his military forces participate in upcoming Iraqi elections.6.“Sadr calls for Hash’d al-Shaabi to disarm and not stand in elections” : Middle East Eye Though Sistani himself has said little about the upcoming elections, his official spokesman Sheikh Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalai spoke about the issue during a Friday prayer in the Shrine of Imam Hussein this past December.

Addressing a crowd of worshippers, a number of them likely having served in the Hash’d for some time, Sheikh al-Karbalai celebrated the victory attained against the Islamic State, but stated that “the Iraqi security system is still in dire need of many of the heroic men who supported the federal army and police forces.”7.Friday Prayer Translation, 12/15/17 : Bayan Center Sheikh al-Karbalai continued by insisting that “it is necessary to make continued use of their important energy within the constitutional and legal frameworks that restrict arms to the state”, and that the Popular Mobilisation leadership must “combat financial and administrative corruption firmly, by activating legal frameworks and practical and realistic plans away from superficial procedures.”8.Friday Prayer Translation, 12/15/17 : Bayan Center In short, Sheikh al-Karbalai has expressed his support and respect for the Hash’d forces, while simultaneously asserting that they must no longer function as a semi-autonomous military force. As Sheikh al-Karbalai has spoken on Sistani’s positions several times before, it can be inferred that he represents Sistani’s wishes for the future of the Popular Mobilisation Forces.9.Najaf Pulse

But on the other hand, a number of other prominent figures, including many commanders of Hash’d battalions, disagree with the position that Sadr and al-Karbalai have publicly adopted. The overall commander of the Popular Mobilisation Committee, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, has disregarded calls for the outfits under his command to disarm, and has expressed no interest in handing control of his affiliated militias over to Baghdad.10.Ohlers, Alexander, “The Uncertain Future of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Units”, The Jamestown Foundation In an interview with members of the Associated Press, al-Muhandis declared that “The future of the Hash’d is to defend Iraq”, adding that “the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi police say they cannot operate without the support of the Hash’d.”11.“Iraqi militia commander brushes off US call to disband” : Rudaw He has recently described the Popular Mobilisation forces as a “parallel military”, whose presence in the sparsely populated western reaches of the country helps maintain order and prevents government forces from straining their resources.12.“Iraqi militia commander brushes off US call to disband” : Rudaw

Though al-Muhandis has been criticised both in the West and in Iraq for his previous ties to the Badr Organization, and has been designated as a terrorist by the US State Department and Treasury Department for his personal ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), he remains a prominent and popular personality in Iraq.13.US Treasury Department briefing al-Muhandis is seen by many as a heroic figure: having led the fight against the Islamic State, being a prominent presence on the front lines, and having popular support from many Shiite communities within Iraq. Until recently, al-Muhandis and other fellow leaders also had support from the ex-Iraqi Minister of Defence, Khaled al-Obeidi. al-Obeidi had previously supported the attempt by al-Muhandis and other Hash’d leaders to run for seats in Parliament, but as of December has split off and ended his support for their campaign.14.“عاجل.. ائتلاف “الفتح” ينسحب من تحالف العبادي ويكشف السبب” : al-Shafaaq News

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, on the left, speaks with Hash’d-affiliated reporter Murtada al-Musawi on the frontlines of the battle for Jazirat Samarra.

Not content with maintaining a dedicated armed militia, al-Muhandis and other Hash’d military commanders have set their sights on gaining seats in the Iraqi Parliament in the upcoming May elections. Several prominent members of the Popular Mobilisation Committee, including al-Muhandis himself as well as Hadi al-Amiri (leader of the Badr Organization) and Qais al-Khazali (founder of Asaib ahl al-Haq), have formed what they have termed “Aytalaf al-Fateh”, or the “Conquest Alliance”.15.Asaib ahl al-Haq official website, ahlualhaq.com The Conquest Alliance has been built specifically to preserve the power of the Hash’d, and is designed to include as many outfits as possible so that the Popular Mobilisation Committee has a potential to gain significant representative powers in Parliament. Given the prominent status of the Hash’d and their leadership in many Shia communities within Iraq, it is likely that the Conquest Alliance will gain at least some seats in the upcoming election. In particular, the Conquest Alliance campaign will likely rely on cities such as Dhi Qar, al-Basrah, Karbala, and an-Najaf, where a large percentage of the recruits for the Popular Mobilisation forces have originated from.

Until January, the Conquest Alliance was aligning itself with the “Aytalaf al-Nasr”, or the “Victory Alliance”, which is a large political bloc led by Iraq’s current Prime Minister, Haidar al-Abadi.16.https://www.victory.iq/ However, a wide rift has opened between the two coalitions, sparked by Abadi’s attempt to draw other coalitions into his own. Throughout January, Abadi and other prominent members of the Victory Alliance reached out to other political coalitions seeking Parliamentary seats, including “Aytalaf al-Hikmah”, or the “Wisdom Alliance”, Khaled al-Obeidi’s Sunni coalition, and Muqtada al-Sadr’s bloc.17.مصادر: تحالف “الفتح” يهدد بالانسحاب من ائتلاف العبادي” : NRT Iraq As Abadi sought allies among other coalitions, the leadership of the Conquest Alliance began to complain, and threatened to sever ties with the Victory Alliance if the situation was not remedied.

Though an official affiliated with the Conquest Alliance stated that “an expansion of the election lists of the Victory Alliance” was the reason for their complaints because it “complicated things”, the real reason is likely murkier.18.“عاجل.. ائتلاف “الفتح” ينسحب من تحالف العبادي ويكشف السبب” : al-Shafaaq News The fact that Abadi’s Victory Alliance has attempted to court Muqtada al-Sadr’s bloc, with some success, is almost certainly a thorny issue for the Conquest Alliance. Sadr, as previously stated, has taken a far different path with the militias under his command, and has publicly spoken out against any militia commanders participating in the election. His words have almost certainly earned him the ire of the membership of the Conquest Alliance, who certainly have no interest in disarmament.

The parliamentary elections will be held on May 12th, 2018, barring any natural or political disaster that delays the event. In the weeks leading up to the elections, it is likely that the power plays we have seen so far will continue in earnest, as each coalition spars with one another to gain as much power as possible. Once again, Iraq is at a turning point; for better or for worse, the events of May 12th will significantly impact the entire nation for years to come.

Trent Schoenborn

Trent is an analyst and contributor who has worked with the IR since its inception. He specializes in Iraqi politics and the civil war in Syria, and has been studying the latter conflict since it began. He has previously worked on Syrian Civil War Map as well as some academic research projects related to the region. He can be contacted directly at tschoenborn.00@gmail.com.

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