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The difference between Iraq’s Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi and Al-Sahwa

International organizations have reiterated that the Shiite Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, or People’s Mobilization Forces (PMF), is a dangerous organization. There is a deliberate campaign to mislead the world about the PMF’s legitimacy compared to other organizations such as Al-Sahwa (Awakening Councils) and the Kurdish Peshmerga.
In the last years of the US presence in Iraq, the military leadership resorted to the formation of Al-Sahwa — a force of Sunni tribes from Anbar province to expel the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization — after the Americans failed.
Following Al-Sahwa’s formation, it was ridiculed on the grounds that the people of the province are all suspects, and because Al-Qaeda was at the height of its influence, especially the most dangerous branch founded by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, which we call today Daesh.
He succeeded in killing Al-Sahwa’s commander, yet tough battles ended after two years with the elimination of the terrorists. The government of Nouri Al-Maliki opposed the establishment of a tribal sectarian force because Al-Sahwa was Sunni and could turn against the central authority. It was eventually dissolved and its funding suspended, with a few members recruited into the armed forces.
Theoretically, concern over the existence of a parallel power in a turbulent country was justified. However, when Al-Sahwa was dissolved it was not replaced by the national army to guard western Iraq, so Al-Qaeda returned, seized large swathes of territory, displaced thousands of people and killed many. Because Al-Maliki failed to compensate for Al-Sahwa’s dissolution, the cancer of terrorist groups returned, besieged the outskirts of Baghdad and seized Mosul, Baiji and others.
There is a second parallel force: The Peshmerga. It operates in the Kurdish region under a compromise deal, relieving the state from deploying its own armed forces. As long as the Kurds have special status in a semi-independent territory, the Peshmerga will remain to protect their neighborhoods.
The PMF’s story differs from that of Al-Sahwa and the Peshmerga, as it was born from existing sectarian Shiite militias backed by the state within quota bases among competing Shiite religious forces.
Following the fall of Mosul and the escape of the military leadership, Iran entered the fray and triggered influential political forces to weaken the ruling system established by the Americans, including the military, which was deemed as remnants of Saddam Hussein’s rule.
This is not true, because after Saddam’s fall thousands of members of the armed forces were killed and excluded after the Iraqi Army was dissolved in 2003. However, Iran and sectarian leaders were keen to build a sectarian military force parallel to the army and directly belonging to them, with the state bearing armament costs and employees’ salaries.
The idea is similar to what followers of Ayatollah Khomeini did after the revolution against the shah, when they founded the Revolutionary Guards to seize power and exclude the other Iranian forces that took part in the revolution.
The PMF is a tremendous militia nominally belonging to the state, and we will see how it takes shape to strengthen one Shiite team of governance and marginalize the other Shiite and Iraqi forces. Iran will be the dominant political group that controls the PMF.
The difference between the Sunni Al-Sahwa and the PMF is that the former was established to fight Sunni extremists in Sunni areas, but the latter is a Shiite force being used to rule Iraq in general. While Al-Sahwa was dissolved, the PMF is a ballooning project that is not only assigned to liberate Mosul or track Daesh.
Although Iraqi authorities tried to reassure opponents and skeptics of the PMF by adding small Sunni units, the PMF remains a dangerous sectarian project and Iranian weapon that threatens all Iraqis.
Hence the question remains: Can Iraq be spared the dangerous consequences of these serious changes?
As long as the elected central authority is weak, and as long as Iran is gradually taking over Iraqi institutions, it will not be easy to stop the PMF project. It is similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon, which practically dominates the country without the need to eliminate political institutions — including the presidency, government and Parliament – after rendering them powerless.
The solution is primarily for Iraqis to stop the sabotage of the state, and for international organizations to ensure accountability by issuing resolutions to prohibit arming the PMF, put its leaders on blacklists, and urge the US to be responsible and intervene to correct the situation. Iraqis will lose all of their modern state, for which thousands have died, if they fail to stand against the building of militias, sectarian blocks and Iranian hegemony over the state.
• Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya News Channel, and former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article was originally published.