Fanar Haddad is one of the pre-eminent scholars on sectarianism in Iraq. His 2011 book Sectarianism in Iraq, Antagonistic Visions of Unity was a ground breaking work on the topic. Recently Haddad wrote “The Hashd: Redrawing the Military and Political Map of Iraq” for the Middle East institute. That spurred this interview about what impact the Hashd al-Shaabi, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) might have on the future of Iraqi politics. Haddad can be followed on Twitter at
1. The Hashd al-Shaabi were created after the fall of Mosul when Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on Iraqis to defend their nation against the insurgency. They have become widely popular since then with dozens of Facebook pages and Twitter posts dedicated to them along with each groups own public relations campaign. How did the Hashd gain such a position in Iraqi society?
Well firstly let’s be clear that the massive popularity of the Hashd is a mostly Shi’i phenomenon. As I have argued and as I think is patently evident to any visitor to Baghdad today, the Hashd has spurred a reinvigorated Iraqi nationalism and jingoism unseen since the early 1980’s and the Iran-Iraq war. However, and again this is patently self-evident, this Iraqi nationalism is of a distinctly Shi’i flavor. Despite what a certain ilk of Iraqi patriot would have you believe, there have always been divergent, sect-centric readings of Iraqi nationalism. These sat alongside other nationalistic imaginations and this is perfectly natural as no people are in total agreement as to the content and meaning of their national affinity. Since 2003, sect-centric forms of Iraqi nationalism have been empowered and have taken centre stage in Iraqi politics and society. These have proven divergent and antagonistic enough to the point of tearing Iraq apart. What I mean by sect-centric Iraqi nationalism is a reading of Iraq’s identity and its past, present and future in an overwhelmingly sect-centric manner. This affects one’s entire understanding of self and other and skews views towards practically everything related to Iraq. While I am not saying this is something that marks every Iraqi today, I think it is wishful thinking to deny that, broadly speaking, there has been a division amongst Iraqis – one that falls along sectarian lines – regarding views towards everything from regime change to the nature of the Ba’ath to Iran to anti-state violence, and today we see it with regards to the Hashd. As I’ve said elsewhere, one way to understand post-2003 Iraq is to view it as a struggle between Shi’a centric state building and Sunni rejection (both of which encompass spectrums of varying degrees but are for the most part concerned with the national ownership and national identity of Iraq – or I should say Arab Iraq – and the configuration of the power relations underpinning sectarian relations).
In accounting for the Hashd’s popularity we need to be mindful of the above. Regardless of whatever intentions initially underlined the Hashd’s emergence, it has turned into perhaps the most significant manifestation of Shi’a centric state building yet. Unlike say the army, the Hashd is a product of the post-2003 environment: it reflects the realities of post-2003 Iraq; it is organic and it is unencumbered by older frames of reference that – even if still recognized as an ideal – are increasingly difficult to turn into reality. This makes the Hashd phenomenon capable of fostering a feeling of empowerment and mobilization that the army, as an institution, has been incapable of doing since 2003. Beyond that, for its supporters, the Hashd’s popularity is grounded in a sense of legitimacy that has rarely been paralleled by any actor or institution in post-2003 Iraq and that has certainly not been paralleled by post-2003 Iraq’s political classes. This is just one way in which the Hashd has fulfilled a pressing need for a significant Iraqi demographic, namely the need for legitimate and inspirational figures, leaders or institutions. Of course the Hashd’s legitimacy is derived from the legitimacy granted by the same demographic to the marji’iya and to Ayatollah Sistani – you could say that, for many Shi’as, Sistani’s call to mass mobilization grants the Hashd the ultimate ISO standard!
In addition to legitimacy and Shi’a empowerment, the Hashd’s popularity is further extended by the results that they have achieved. Supporters of the Hashd will say that the Hashd took the fight to ISIS and has achieved significant results in Diyala, Babil and Salah al Din. More broadly, the narrative of the Hashd sustains its popular appeal: while detractors will focus on the seasoned and Iranian-linked armed groups that compose vital parts of the Hashd phenomenon, supporters focus on a different aspect: the selfless impoverished youths of Baghdad and southern Iraq who selflessly answered the call to defend (and crucially to avenge) Iraq. These people, supporters will stress, stand in stark contrast to the scheming, corrupt, ineffective and self-interested political classes. More divisively, many supporters will also argue that this ideal-type of Hashd volunteer stands in stark contrast to the majority of Sunnis who they will accuse of, at best a callous complacency and at worst murderous complicity with ISIS. Finally, central to the narrative of the Hashd (and again in contrast to all others according to its supporters) the Hashd is fighting for Iraq. It is the savior without which Baghdad and all of Iraq would have fallen to ISIS. It is the pinnacle of national sacrifice (the contentious issues surrounding what constitutes ‘national’ are of course overlooked) and it is composed of ‘our boys’, salt-of-the-earth sorts – or wild il khaybah in Iraqi parlance – defending sacred national soil. Needless to say this is a far cry from how the Hashd is generally viewed by Iraqi Sunnis despite some notable exceptions.
2. The Hashd began as a Shiite paramilitary force. Now some Sunnis, Christians and Turkmen have joined in as well. Do you think that will change the image of the Hashd or will they be known as a Shiite sectarian one?
It is not impossible for perceptions of the Hashd to evolve into something like a national (albeit inevitably Shia dominated) institution. The extreme ends of the spectrums of both Shia centric state building and Sunni rejection will always insist on viewing the Hashd as a Shi’a centric force. But I think that for many – one hopes the majority – of Iraqis, perceptions regarding the Hashd will be dictated more by the actions of the Hashd and less by pre-existing bias and prejudice. A rare and very fragile silver lining to Iraq’s ongoing war is that we have seen some instances of previously unthinkable cooperation between the Hashd/Shi’a militias and local Sunni forces. If such cooperation is carefully managed and supported it can be repeated elsewhere ultimately extending the ‘Hashd franchise’ to Sunni Iraq. In theory this could turn the Hashd into a cross-sectarian successor of the Awakening or into a decentralized parallel Iraqi army. However, there is much militating against this optimistic scenario: from the extremist elements on all sides to the immeasurable mistrust that exists in Iraq today to the fact that such a scenario would inescapably entail Sunni Hashd formations being answerable to Shia militias.
I think three factors will be crucial to the question of the Hashd’s future and particularly to the question of Sunni buy-in: behavior, progress and empowerment. If excesses are kept to a minimum and the Hashd makes progress on the field and, crucially, if cooperating Sunni forces are rewarded (something easily done: after all someone has to administer recaptured territory) then there is no reason to doubt further Sunni buy-in. Conversely, excesses will feed into Sunni fears and into Sunni militant messaging and inadequate rewards will act as a disincentive for potential Sunni partners. Success is also crucial: if the Hashd gains momentum (and provided excesses and rewards are adequately managed) then buy-in could come from those simply betting on the winning horse. Furthermore, every defeat the Hashd suffers hardens sectarian entrenchment on all sides and within the Hashd itself. I would imagine that the more success and the more territory recaptured, the more the Hashd and their supporters would be inclined to see themselves as saving Iraq. Conversely, the more defeats and setbacks the more they would be inclined to retreat into a Shi’a-garrison mentality. This has certainly been noticeable amongst Hashd supporters on social media and elsewhere: vacillating between ‘liberate Iraq’ to ‘to hell with Iraq’ depending on the ebb and flow of war! Finally, of course, battlefield success strengthens the Prime Minister’s hand and consequently his vision to integrate the Hashd into the institutions of the state – something that may help polish perceptions regarding the Hashd and extend its membership further beyond Iraqi Shi’as.
3. Some of the larger Hashd groups were established militias or came from political parties such as the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr’s Peace Brigades, and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. Some Iraqi organizations that were fighting in Syria returned after the fall of Mosul such as the Khorasani Brigade, and there are also plenty of newer ones as well like Firqat al-Imam Ali. Almost all of the older groups were involved in politics. What do you see as the fate of these new groups after the war with the Islamic State is over? Will some of them just go home? Will some become in elections?
This will be something to watch out for in the presumably distant future when the ISIS threat is sufficiently reduced. I think it’s unlikely that the newer groups you refer to will not expect a political dividend from the war with ISIS. The Hashd’s popularity is something no realistic Iraqi politician can ignore today and we are already seeing it impacting on Shi’a political dynamics. Two years ago the limit of Hadi al Ameri’s [of the Badr Organization] political ambition would have been to play second fiddle to Maliki, today – and as a direct result of his role in the Hashd – he may well be one of the most popular Iraqi politicians. I think that the Hashd phenomenon will continue to alter political dynamics amongst Iraq’s Shi’a elites. We will also likely see competition between the various groups that constitute the Hashd over political position particularly after the ISIS threat is diminished – a competition over who can ‘out-Hashd’ the other. As for the newer groups you mentioned, they may be subsumed under stronger or more established political forces some of which are also active in the Hashd. In that sense we may see ‘Hashd’ turn into a political brand with various political formations emerging each trying to claim the political capital of the Hashd – we briefly saw something similar with the ‘Intifadha’ brand where several formations laid claim to what was perceived to be the political capital accruing from association with the rebellions of 1991. Another possibility is that newer groups would clash with more established ones for influence and political position. This would mirror what we have already seen in previous years such as with the clashes between the Sadrists and Badr and then later between AAH and the Sadrists. A similar dynamic could emerge in ‘post-ISIS’ Iraq.
4. Former prime minister and current Vice President Nouri al-Maliki has attempted to align with some of the established Hashd groups such as Asaib Ahl Al-Haq in what many consider a move to return to power. What do you think of Maliki’s attempts and does it have any chance of being successful?
The success of Maliki and others who are trying to undermine the government with a pro-Hashd stance will largely depend on how ISF and the Hashd fare on the field. The more ISF are seen to be failing the more those trying to use the Hashd as a vehicle with which to undermine the PM will be strengthened. Recently there was the rather suspicious controversy over the ‘Tharthar massacre’ and how some political figures associated with the Hashd and Maliki tried to capitalize on it. That attempt failed – if anything it highlighted the limits of Maliki’s political support. However, this can change and military developments will shape political options and room for maneuver – as highlighted by the recent loss of Ramadi and Abadi’s adoption of a more Hashd-reliant policy than he would have liked.
Using the Hashd to undermine the PM is not the most effective tactic; after-all Abadi is not anti-Hashd and he is no doubt mindful of the need to claim as much credit as possible for whatever success the Hashd achieves. In trying to do so he will be well placed to position himself as the PM leading the war effort but he will also have to contend with rivals more directly connected to the Hashd.
5. Finally, some of the political parties such as the Sadrists and the Supreme Council have become increasingly critical of the Hashd. Sadr for example, has made several statements condemning what he calls “brazen militias” who attack civilians and are undermining the government. What is the nature of the dispute between these groups, and will we see more arguments in the future?
I think this falls into the category of newer forces clashing against older ones. On the one hand Sadr has been fairly consistent in defending the national framework and the institutions of state which would explain his comments regarding the ‘brazen militias’. On the other hand however, this is likely a response to the rising popularity of rival groups who compete (perhaps outcompete) with the Sadrists for the same demographic.