The dangers of legitimizing ‘Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi’
In a measure, which moderate Sunni politicians are already describing as “the last nail in the coffin of reconciliation,” the Iraqi Parliament on Nov. 26 approved a law integrating the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) into the Iraqi Army.
Propagandists for this Iran-sponsored entity say that this measure will help regularize the role of these militias. Critics fear that this process of legitimization and empowerment will obscure the PMU’s dangerous sectarian role and shield it from past and future war crimes, while consolidating its position as a Hezbollah-style state within a state.
The Popular Mobilization Units (Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi) emerged after Daesh’s 2014 takeover of much of Iraq and Syria. The PMU was composed of a number of Iran-sponsored Shiite militias, which between 2003 and 2010 had been occupied with fighting the Americans and were responsible for some of the worst sectarian bloodshed over that period in Baghdad and other mixed areas of central Iraq. These militias in mid-2014 exploited a fatwa from Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani calling for jihad against Daesh in order to mobilize tens of thousands of supporters, with limited state accountability for their objectives and actions. Qassem Soleimani, the notorious head of Iran’s Quds Force, was the brain behind their mobilization, relying on massive quantities of Iranian funding.
It is convenient for Western policymakers to buy into the fiction that the PMU is the world’s front line of defense against Daesh (the same people who believe that Bashar Assad and Russia are the bulwark against Daesh in Syria), particularly given the continuing chronic weaknesses of the Iraqi Army. However, Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi’s actions tell a very different story. Let us briefly remind ourselves of some of the evidence substantiating an alternative view of the PMU’s primary objective: Consolidating Iranian sovereignty over the Iraqi state and skewing Iraq’s demographic balance through systematic sectarian cleansing operations against Sunni populations:
• PMU leaders have exploited their prominent role against Daesh to make the Iraqi state entirely beholden to them and their Iranian paymasters. This is reinforced through a growing role in key ministries and ensuring that Hashd becomes the dominant military force across Iraq.
• All those who stand up to the PMU make themselves targets: As a result of some relatively gentle comments about protecting Sunni populations, Saudi Ambassador Thamir Al-Sabhan was targeted for assassination and forced out of his post.
• Every battlefield where the PMU has been deployed has been distinguished by a bloody trail of atrocities and scorched earth. Amnesty International relates what happened when citizens fleeing the Fallujah fighting earlier this year were intercepted by these militias: Dozens of men and older boys were separated from their families, lined up and shot in the head. In just one zone north of Fallujah, at least 900 summary executions were carried out.
• Villages in areas of PMU control are looted and burned to the ground. Tens of thousands of displaced Sunnis have been prevented from returning to “liberated” homes. Security pretexts and accusations of pro-Daesh sympathies have acted as an excuse for sectarian cleansing.
• The fact that the PMU is openly talking of relocating to Syria after the Mosul battle to fight alongside Bashar Assad and forces under Iranian command, demonstrates that what is actually at stake is an expansionist project to consolidate a belt of Iranian hegemonic control through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. This amounts to the dissolution of Iraq as a sovereign state and shows why the PMU is a far greater long-term risk to Iraq’s territorial integrity than Daesh.
In this context, a law which normalizes the PMU within the army is very dangerous, especially as Hashd will constitute the strongest and best-armed segment of the armed forces.
In the recent conflicts it has at least been possible to subject the PMU to a degree of scrutiny as a separate fighting force — a fact, which hasn’t prevented reports of systematic atrocities in its zones of control. However, with Hashd disappearing into the ranks of the army, it will become difficult for outside observers to attribute blame for abuses perpetrated under the umbrella of the security forces.
Those who raise concerns about a new “state within a state” point out that the composite militias of Hashd, like the Badr Corps, the Hezbollah Battalions and Asaib Ahl al-haq, have a long history of independent action, particularly during their role of running terrorist operations against US forces and Sunni civilians in the post-2003 period. It seems unlikely that these entities will meekly subject themselves to the army’s command structure — particularly when they hold the regular army in such open contempt.
It is transparently obvious to Iraqi Sunni politicians and their constituencies that the consolidation of PMU’s military and political control effectuates the exclusion of Sunnis and other communities from the political process, and the elimination of those hostile to the PMU’s agenda.
If we accept the hypothesis that Hashd is primarily an agent for enacting sectarian cleansing and Iranian hegemony, then we can interpret this new law as a license to kill Iraq’s Sunnis.
Systematic extrajudicial killings across Sunni areas are not just an accidental and unavoidable byproduct of the conflict. To those militias, which have spent the past two years perpetrating these atrocities, they will see their acts being retrospectively legitimized. Meanwhile, this represents a voluntary surrender of sovereignty and decision-making power by Parliament.
More dangerous still, this law makes major sectarian conflict in Iraq almost inevitable by effectively disenfranchising Sunnis and other communities opposed to Iranian dominance — and in this I include moderate and independent Shiites who put their affiliation to their nation before everything else. A large number of MPs boycotted the vote, while some are calling for the creation of an equivalent Sunni force, which would be another step toward division of the state down sectarian lines. By making the army and political institutions so disproportionately dependent on a particular sectarian entity beholden to a foreign state, history may come to judge Nov. 26, 2016, as being the date when the last opportunity for salvaging the project of a unified Iraq was cast overboard.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the United Kingdom.