There are around fifty different Hashd al-Shaabi groups in Iraq. They have different backgrounds and histories. A major question is what will become of them when the war with the Islamic State is over. Some will be disbanded and their men will return to their homes. Some will be integrated into the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Some however want to become an independent military-political force in the country.
Many of the Iranian backed Hashd have made no secret that they wish to make their presence permanent in the country. A spokesman for the organization Ahmed al-Asadi told Al Mada that the Hashd had no political ambitions, but did want to become institutionalized as part of the security forces. One of the overall Hashd commanders Abu Muhandis has been pushing that issue as well. They want the Hashd to have a part of the budget, and become a permanent military force on par with the army and police.
Some of the Hashd that existed before the war also want to move into politics. The spokesman for Asaib Ahl Al-Haq told Al Masalah and a leader from Kataib Hezbollah was quoted in the Iraq News Network that the military success of the Hashd would help them win in the next elections. Many of the Hashd consider the current ruling elite as corrupt, and are positioning itself as the alternative. It already has a hallowed position amongst many of Iraq’s Shiites, which would be easy to turn into votes.
Finally, some have claimed they want to become a third force in Iraq with both military and political wings that would be a check on Baghdad. As the head of the Khorasani Brigade Hamed al-Jazaeery said the Hashd should become like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is a force in both Iran’s military and politics. A Badr commander took that a step further saying that the Hashd should become an alternative government. He meant groups that would keep a check on Baghdad. Many would like that position to be formalized after the war.
What is new is that these ambitions have grown with the Hashd victories. They see themselves as the saviors of the country having stepped in when the army and police collapsed in the summer of 2014. Why not turn those successes into political power? Some groups like Badr and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq are already part of the government having run in previous elections. All also take inspirations from their benefactors the IRGC and Lebanese Hezbollah, which mix their military power with a role in politics. This will be a huge challenge for Baghdad as the current ruling elite will not want to lose votes to the Hashd, while being afraid of the armaments of the groups. The Hashd could just end up being co-opted. On the other hand, the government could be intimidated and use the ISF to crack down on unruly Hashd leading to armed conflicts. There is a precedent for this as well as the Sadrists, the Supreme Council, the Kurdish parties and more all entered politics after 2003 with armed wings. The Shiite parties used their militias to not only fight the insurgency but to kill and assassinate each other and take over local governments and ISF units. Whatever way this plays out it will likely lead to more instability on the Iraqi political scene.
Hendawi, Hamza and Abdul-Zahra, Qassim, “Fears in Iraqi government, army over Shiite militias’ power,” Associated Press, 3/21/16
Iraq News Network, “Kataib Hezbollah: the leaders of the popular crowd are the future leaders of Iraq,” 6/25/15
Knights, Michael, “Time to Focus on the Wars Within the War Against the Islamic State,” War on the Rocks, 12/21/15
Al Mada, “The Popular Crowd will turn to the Commander in Chief,” 3/26/16
Al Masalah, “League of the Righteous suggest their participation in the upcoming elections,” 7/21/15
Pelham, Nicolas, “ISIS & the Shia Revival in Iraq,” New York Review of Books, 6/4/15
Shafaq News, “Nouri al-Maliki: the poplar crowd became the third military force in Iraq,” 4/13/15