Erwin van Veen is part of the Clingendael Institute in the Netherlands, which has released a series of reports about the Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq over the last several years. The last one came out in July 2019 and talked about how different Hashd groups were expanding their influence in Iraq. This is an interview about those development. Van Veen can be followed on Twitter @ErwinVeen.
1. Prime Minister Mahdi just announced a new plan to try to further integrate the Hashd into the Iraqi government. What are the chances that it will be successful and what if it isn’t? Could this plan actually offer opportunities for the Hashd?
From what I understand, the decree was largely the result of US pressure in the context of its standoff with Iran in which it sees the Hashd as an Iran-affiliated body, and (a) Friday sermon(s) by Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani. In other words, it is not based on a more deliberative consultation with the Iraqi Security forces (the Hashd included), although these forces have made substantial sacrifices in the fight against Islamic State and deserve to be consulted. Naturally, they responded positively and formally in order not to be seen to contradict formal government instructions. Yet, I don’t think the decree will stick as an effective way to increase government supervision over the Hashd because of its unilateral, top-down and abrupt issuance.
Having said that, we do see a trend in our research work of the ‘original’ Hashd – in the sense of the broad popular mobilization of 2014 - becoming increasingly dominated by Iran-affiliated groups. This creates a risk for Iraq’s development as a country since it enables the entrenchment of yet another network that fuses coercive, political and economic power with appreciable autonomy from the government (i.e. similar to those of for example Al-Sadr or Barzani), but unclear accountability / obedience to the government. That complicates effective governance.
2. How are the pro-Iran groups assuming control of the Hashd and marginalizing the others such as those loyal to the religious authorities in Najaf, and what are the implications?
First of all, a word about loyalty if I may. In fact, we say that the ‘Iranian groups’ we have looked at – the Badr Corps, Asaib ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah - are affiliated with Iran, not loyal to Iran. The difference is one of degree. Based on our research findings, I would say that the Badr Corps and Asaib ahl al-Haq have actually become more Iraqi and less focused on Iran over the past few years. It’s a different story for Kataib Hezbollah. All these groups have ties with Iran of course, and undoubtedly work to advance some of its interests, but they are not 100% proxies or ‘loyal subjects only’, in my understanding.
Having said that, Iran-affiliated Hashd groups have come to dominate the Hashd as a whole to the point that one can argue that the ‘original’ Hashd no longer exists. To make this happen, they have used three main strategies:
· Strategy 1: From resisting ‘the state’ to embracing it. The Hashd law and various decrees have brought the Hashd into the orbit of the Iraqi government without, however, increasing its supervisory capability over the Hashd, which is in part due to the fact that the PMF Committee remains under firm control of Iran-affiliated groups. This grants them substantial administrative and financial power while also enjoying the benefit of state legitimation.
· Strategy 2: From the battlefield into politics and business. This is essentially a strategy of portfolio diversification in which Iran-affiliated Hashd groups – especially the Badr Corps and Asaib – have developed political wings/parties as well as a whole array of private and public, licit and illicit economic activities. This process accelerated since 2017 when the fight against the Islamic State drew to a close.
· Strategy 3: From organizational diversity to centralization. Iran-affiliated groups have used the administrative power of the PMF Committee to delist and defund other groups and fighters from the Hashd organizational structure and payroll, deploy their own forces to lucrative areas and kept control over the payroll. By these means they have advantaged their own forces and disadvantaged for example the shrine brigades, Saraya al-Salam forces as well as Sunni and Yezidi forces.
3. How are Hashd groups expanding into the economy and business?
A key example our research highlights is control over a number of lucrative border checkpoints such as those near Dohuk, Safra (both between Arab and Kurdish Iraq), Shalamche and Chazbeh (Iraq-Iran) and Al-Qaim (Iraq-Syria). I have come across estimates that the tariffs and taxes levied by the Badr Corps on goods at the Safra border crossing alone generate about US$12–15 million a month. These are significant sources of revenue that should, of course, accrue to the Iraqi government instead of particular armed groups, whether they are part of the Iraqi state or not.
But not all Hashd economic influence is necessarily negative. In the Kirkuk area, for example, we also encountered interesting examples of Hashd work in the area of economic reconstruction or social rehabilitation, say repairing drainage, restoring water supply, rubble cleaning and building activity, in collaboration with local communities – e.g. via the Hashd al-Madani. This type of activity was pitched to us as the Hashd functioning as ‘the vanguard’ of the state in places where it is absent.
4. Several Hashd groups ran in the recent parliamentary elections. How did they do and how is that allowing for the expansion of their power within the government?
Al-Ameri’s Fatah coalition gathered 48 seats in total after the recount. While this is probably less than expected and certainly does not make Iran-affiliated groups kingmakers in Iraq’s parliament, it not a negligible number either. Their electoral strategy of leveraging their credentials gained by fighting Islamic State to mobilize their core Shi’a constituencies worked well, especially in a context of low turnout. Today, this puts these groups on the inside of the government and in control of ministerial posts, ministries and public resources. It would be very surprising if they would not also use these assets for their own benefit. It creates the risky situation in which actors with autonomous coercive capacity, substantial business interests and partial foreign sympathies also hold public power over the governance of the country as a whole, its foreign relations, economic development and the like. The potential of conflicts of interests and abuse of power is appreciable.
5. Ayatollah Sistani helped create the Hashd with his fatwa in 2014 calling on Iraqis to defend the state. He originally said that was for people to join the security forces, but then it became a way for new and older militias to be included. Sistani has never been a fan of Iran and its influence in Iraq. If the pro-Iran groups are taking over the Hashd and further spreading through the Iraqi state why doesn’t the ayatollah simply offer another fatwa saying the need for the Hashd is no longer necessary?
I cannot presume to speak for him or his office obviously. But there are a few factors that are clear for everyone to see that play a role in this conundrum. The first is that the Hashd made substantial sacrifices to defend the country and deserve credit for it. Disbanding them would be a bit odd with this in mind. At a minimum it would require a generous scheme with provision for transition back into civilian life and longer-term stipends for those injured or killed. These are not really measures that are within Najaf’s competence, however.
Moreover, alternative job prospects in Iraq are poor as it is essentially a rentier state in which employment is greatly dependent on the public sector payroll. Putting tens of thousands of men with fighting experience back on the streets without income is not necessarily a recipe for peaceful and stable social relations if one takes account of unresolved issues such as Sunni marginalization, the disputed territories or the reconciliation v. justice challenge in dealing with former Islamic State fighters. From this perspective, keeping the Hashd intact is a bit like the choosing the lesser of two evils.
Finally, the Iran-affiliated Hashd groups have already become too powerful to just demobilize them. The status of the Hashd is now legally enshrined in Iraqi law and the moment has passed, it seems to me, for such a fatwa. Although it is difficult to judge from the outside, one might be forgiven for thinking that passing the Hashd law in 2016 that legitimized the organization without also introducing provisions for effective oversight – like more independent control over the PMF Committee or direct control over the Hashd payroll – was a critical mistake.
6. One of the most common ways westerners try to explain the militia and now Hashd al-Shaabi experience in Iraq is to claim that these groups all want to be like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and create a state within a state. Is that a legitimate comparison for Iraq? Could a different comparison be that the Hashd are simply following the example of the current ruling parties and seeking to carve out a piece of the Iraqi state to exploit for their own ends via patronage networks, corrupt dealings, etc. and be integrated into the political system like previous militias and political parties did?
It's a complex question, but a good one. Absent the possession of a crystal ball, I must answer with some caution. There is some evidence to suggest that Iran-affiliated Hashd groups are threading the path of Hezbollah because they are enlarging their influence in different sectors (economic, cultural, political). They are trying to legitimize their role by taking on state-type services for particular constituencies. We heard, for example, stories about Hashd groups extending their influence in schools and hospitals, presumably to facilitate access and services to those sympathetic to it, among others. This has echoes of the Gramscian model that Hezbollah also follows: offering practical support to resolving the challenges of daily life, controlling the discourse, exercising political influence and maintaining coercive capability - all in the same hand. Yet, it is not clear to me that the Badr Corps and Asaib al ahl-Haq are as Iran-affiliated as Hezbollah is and so this is where the comparison starts being difficult. While that is admittedly much more the case for Kataib Hezbollah, Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhuda or Kataib al-Imam Ali, these organizations have much less economic and political influence than Badr and Asaib.
Nevertheless, even if a clear Hezbollah-like trajectory would become apparent, Iraq has strong competing power centers that will likely restrain it from achieving similar dominance. There is strong intra-Shi’a competition, consider Messrs. Al-Sadr and Al-Hakim for instance, or the Kurds of course. There is also the religious authority of Najaf and Karbala to consider, which does not exist in Lebanon. Plus, in the end Iran-affiliated Hashd groups have far lower budgets and less manpower than the Iraqi army and federal police. Numbers don’t tell the whole story of course, consider the fall of Mosul in 2014, but they are also relevant.
7. Can you project into the future a bit and try to predict what will be the Hashd’s position 10 years from now and what that will mean for the Iraqi state and society?
Much will depend on whether the Iraqi government and its bureaucracy can improve their performance over the next few years. Stronger institutions, less corruption and clearer policies on issues that matter to Iraqi’s will increase the legitimacy of the government and its policies, and reduce the scope for Iran-affiliated Hashd groups to chart their own course and remain autonomous. Some of these groups would be quite able to contribute significantly to addressing Iraq’s socio-economic challenges as junior partners in the state.
Yet, enabling them to do so in a responsible manner requires the ability to regulate them effectively. Re-organizing control over the PMF Committee, professionalizing and reinforcing the Iraqi Federal Police and Army at the local level and working with charters as ‘service level agreements’ in which local government and Hashd groups agree on socio-economic performance objectives can help strike a better balance between inclusiveness and supervision.
It is this type of developments that should be encouraged – and watched - in the near future, they will give a good indication of the long-term situation that may result.