While Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi, also known as Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) are leading the charge in the operation to retake Tikrit and central Salahaddin, the country’s Shiite religious parties are thinking about their long term impact upon politics. Two of the pre-existing militias that have joined the Hashd the Badr Organization and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq already had political wings that won seats in parliament. They have been joined by a wide range of other groups some of which were formed to fight in Syria by Iran and others that are brand new having been created in response to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s call to defend the nation after the fall of Mosul. While some of these groups will fade away after the war with the Islamic State is over others will persist. They could turn their role in the conflict into political capital, which worries the existing parties such as Moqtada al-Sadr’s Ahrar and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). Both of those have recently been criticizing some of the PMU’s, which could be just the start of a larger struggle for power between them.
In February 2015, the Sadrists and Islamic Council took the occasion of a death of a leading Sunni sheikh to attack the Hashd al-Shaabi. On February 13, Sheikh Qasim al-Janabi and his entourage were stopped and later killed in Baghdad. PMUs were immediately suspected given the fact that the bodies were discovered in Shiite eastern Baghdad. Moqtada al-Sadr and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq both voiced concerns over this event, while attacking the Hashd in the process.
ISCI issued a statement condemning the murder of Janabi, while stating that PMUs had to follow the directions of Ayatollah Sistani who has consistently called for restraint and to curtail any abuses. Supreme Council parliamentarian Falah al-Sari went on to say that the government should hold a monopoly on force, and that other armed groups should not interfere in security. He noted that his party had its own militia, but there were others that were not following the mandate of Najaf, meaning Sistani’s directions.
Moqtada al-Sadr went a step farther by unleashing a series of diatribes against the Hashd. Sadr said that violence against Shiites could not justify attacks upon others. He then repeatedly condemned what he called “brazen militias” who were not under the command of the army, who were out to weaken the government, and who committed murders that discredited Islam. He said that these elements should be removed from the PMUs, and those responsible for torture and cutting off the heads of corpses should be punished. He claimed that his Ahrar bloc would get the courts to investigate and punish these culprits.
The basis for these statements by the Supreme Council and Sadr was the fear that the Hashd could become their political rivals in the future. Since all of these groups are based upon political Islam they are all vying for the same constituency. Many of these Hashd groups will want to capitalize upon their service in the war, and entering politics is the surest way to do that as it opens the door to a share of the vast oil revenues the state earns. Sadr and ISCI are just as aware of this, which is why they took the occasion of the Janabi murder to attack these groups. Sadr especially, because he has a long history of verbally and physically battling with Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, and attacked all the Iraqi militias that went to fight in Syria calling them “foreign entities” due to their relations with Tehran believes that he is on a collision course with the PMUs. As time passes, these verbal assaults are likely to occur more as each group begins to think about Iraq after the insurgency.
Al Mada, “Sadr calls for the punishment of those who cut off the heads of corpses and demolish houses from “brazen militias,”” 3/11/15
- “Saraya al-Sadr calls for Peace Brigades “to stay on standby,”” 3/3/15
Martin, Patrick and al-Dulimi, Omar with Kagan, Kimberly and Adnan, Sinan, “Iranian-Backed Militias Cause a Political Crisis for Iraq,” Institute for the Study of War, 2/18/15
Shafaq News, “Al-Sadr decides to freeze al-Salam brigades: Iraq suffers from brazen militias,” 2/17/15