How Iraq’s Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi turned into an Iranian foreign policy instrument

How Iraq’s Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi turned into an Iranian foreign policy instrument
A security guard stands next to placards denouncing Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi as Iraqi Kurds attend a demonstration outside the US consulate in Irbil in 2017. (AFP/File)
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Updated 21 August 2021

How Iraq’s Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi turned into an Iranian foreign policy instrument

How Iraq’s Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi turned into an Iranian foreign policy instrument
  • Conglomeration of predominantly Shiite militias was first formed in June 2014 to defend Iraq against Daesh
  • Given its investments in its proxy networks, Iran is unlikely to relinquish control over Hashd, analysts say

IRBIL, IRAQI KURDISTAN: It is seven years since their yellow flag first appeared in the campaign against Daesh, the extremist group which seized swathes of northern Iraq and eastern Syria. After Daesh captured large parts of northern Iraq, including Mosul, in 2014, the fighters of Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces, won the admiration of many Iraqis for heeding Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani’s call to arms.

Since then, the umbrella organization of mainly Shiite militias has, however, adopted a more sinister cause. Last month, a convoy of Hashd fighters mounted a show of strength in Baghdad’s Green Zone, the center of Iraq’s political life, and forced the country’s elected leaders to release Qassim Musleh, a Hashd commander close to Iran who had been arrested in the western Anbar province.

Musleh has a reputation as a brutal operator. In late 2019, thousands of mainly young Iraqis took to the center of Baghdad to protest against systemic corruption and Iran’s influence over their country’s affairs.

After days of protests, snipers believed to be from Hashd units took to nearby rooftops and killed dozens of people. Musleh and his Iranian sponsors are thought to have been instrumental in ordering the killings. His recent arrest was in connection with the May 9 murder of Ihab Al-Wazni, a prominent activist in the southern shrine city of Karbala.

“Many Iraqi activists have been speaking out against Iran-backed militias’ ability to operate outside the boundaries of the law, and it makes sense that the militias would then seek to silence anyone working to constrain their positions of power,” Emily Hawthorne, a Middle East and North Africa analyst for Strator — a RANE Company, told Arab News.

Kyle Orton, an independent Middle East researcher, believes Iranian-controlled militias in Iraq were behind the worst atrocities against anti-corruption protesters. “The Hashd is fairly clearly more powerful than the Iraqi security forces, both in its ability to control the social and street-level space, and the political sphere, with its control of key ministries and its effective veto-wielding bloc in parliament,” he told Arab News.

The Hashd was first formed in June 2014 to defend Iraq against Daesh after that group conquered Mosul.

In 2018, about 30 militias under the Al-Hashd-Al-Shaabi umbrella were formally included in — and paid by — the Iraqi security forces. It has a significant presence in the Iraq parliament through the Fateh coalition, which has more than 40 seats in the 329-seat assembly.

On the ground, Hashd units have repeatedly targeted Ain Al-Asad airbase in Anbar and even Irbil International Airport in Iraqi Kurdistan, both of which host US troops and personnel. The US embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone has also been repeatedly targeted.




Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi fighters gather around the Tal Afar airport, west of Mosul, as they and Iraqi forces backed by local militia and a US-led coalition advanced in driving Daesh from the city in August 2017. (AFP/File)

While most of these attacks were with short-range rockets, the more recent ones have been carried out using explosive-laden attack drones, underscoring the evolving capabilities of such groups.

“The motivations for these operations are a confluence of issues,” Joel Wing, author of the “Musings on Iraq” blog, told Arab News. “Both the Hashd brigades and Iran want the US military out of Iraq. It would be a great victory for them if that happened.”

For Iran, proxy attacks by Iraqi militias are a way for it “to pressure the US over its (Iran’s) nuclear program and sanctions.”

The array of units under the Hashd umbrella is bewildering. There are militias loyal to Al-Sistani, widely viewed as a figure of moderation and an opponent of overseas interference in Iraq. There are even tribal defense units, the so-called Sunni Hashd.

These groups exist to make the organization seem more diverse and legitimate, both domestically and internationally. “The reality is this is a ‘popular front’ tactic. All these groups are dependent and subordinate to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC),” Orton said.

Behind an elaborate facade of names and acronyms, Iran is sponsoring an array of more effective paramilitary groups, according to the analysts. “The most powerful brigades within the Hashd are all pro-Iran,” Wing said, identifying them as the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah.




Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, head of the Kataib Hezbollah, was killed beside Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani at Baghdad’s international airport. (AFP/File)

Iranian policy in Iraq has, however, had its share of setbacks. In January 2020, the US killed Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force, the IRGC’s overseas arm, in a drone strike. Soleimani was the architect of Iranian policy in Iraq and elsewhere across the Middle East, from Lebanon to Syria and Yemen.

Tellingly, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, head of the Kataib Hezbollah, was killed beside Soleimani as they were being driven from Baghdad’s international airport.

In May, Reuters reported that Iran had changed its strategy vis-a-vis its militia proxies. Instead of relying on the larger established groups, Tehran has started to form small elite groups that are more loyal and better trained to do its bidding in the region.

“This shift in strategy grants both Iran and established groups like Kataib Hezbollah plausible deniability whenever a smaller, likely linked group conducts an attack. It is indicative of a desire to protect the political position in Baghdad that a well-known group like Kataib Hezbollah enjoys,” Hawthorne, the Stratfor analyst, told Arab News.

Both Wing and Orton believe that the shift to smaller units masks a commitment to continued domination via plausible deniability. “Today, it’s unclear whether Iran is attempting to regain control of these factions or simply backing all the new front groups that Hashd brigades have created, to deny responsibility for attacks upon US targets in Iraq,” Wing said.

Soleimani’s death may well have caused Iran’s different power centers to experiment with divergent interests and objectives. The power centers range from the Quds Force, which organizes and trains Tehran’s proxy militias across the Middle East, to the Iranian foreign ministry.

“It has been reported that they don’t all agree on how to use their Iraqi allies,” Wing told Arab News. “The Hashd brigades were also competing with each other for a period to try to show which one was the leader of the resistance within Iraq, and the attacks were part of that.”

Orton sees Iran as adopting the same model in Iraq as it did in Lebanon in the 1980s, when it split Hezbollah from Amal, previously the dominant Shiite militia in the country. “The use of ‘new’ pseudo-groups or fronts, where they exist — some are entirely imaginary, existing solely online to claim recent attacks — is just the latest iteration of this effort to embed the Islamic Revolution in local conditions.”

That effort appears to be back on track following Soleimani’s killing. Hashd seems to be succeeding in spreading its control over broad areas of the northern Middle East. Musleh, the man at the center of the latest clashes between the militia and central government in Baghdad, is head of the Hashd in Anbar, traditionally a Sunni stronghold.

Hashd fighters have taken part in battles in neighboring Syria to help Iran prop up the Assad regime in Damascus. Hashd groups also proved instrumental in Iran’s ability to move weapons overland across Iraq into Syria.

Groups such as Kataib Hezbollah control important border points with Syria in both Anbar and Nineveh in northern Iraq, in addition to their own smuggling routes. “They are able to move men and material back and forth at will,” Wing told Arab News, referring to the paramilitary forces.

That said, Iran has been forced to change tactics in response to risks from the Israeli Air Force. Instead of shipping missiles through Iraq to its militia proxies in Syria, it has begun delivering smaller pieces of equipment along with advisers. These are much less detectable.

Given all that it has invested in these networks, the analysts are skeptical that Iran will relinquish control over them, even if it means a comprehensive nuclear deal with the US and Western powers that includes extensive sanctions relief for its economy.

“Iran will never ‘cut off’ any of the Iraqi militias, Hezbollah or the Houthis, because it cannot; they are integral, organic parts of the revolution,” Orton told Arab News.

“Any proposal in the nuclear negotiations for Iran to in some way trade its ‘proxies’ is a non-starter as such.”

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Twitter: @pauliddon

 


Help build solid basis for Libyan elections and don’t fixate on dates, Security Council told

Stephanie Williams, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s special adviser on Libya, recently reiterated the importance of holding elections “in the shortest possible time frame.” (Reuters/File Photo)
Stephanie Williams, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s special adviser on Libya, recently reiterated the importance of holding elections “in the shortest possible time frame.” (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 9 min 8 sec ago

Help build solid basis for Libyan elections and don’t fixate on dates, Security Council told

Stephanie Williams, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s special adviser on Libya, recently reiterated the importance of holding elections “in the shortest possible time frame.” (Reuters/File Photo)
  • Lawyer and activist Elham Saudi condemned “weak” vetting that resulted in candidates implicated in corruption and crimes against humanity being cleared to stand
  • US envoy highlighted concerns about deteriorating human rights situation in the country and continuing reports of violence and abuse targeting migrants, asylum seekers and refugees

NEW YORK: Mediators need to take into account the lessons learned in Libya in the past two years and focus on “creating milestones” for the country’s political transition, rather than fixating on the time frame involved, according to Elham Saudi, co-founder and director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya.

These milestones include an electoral law, a code for conducting elections, and a solid constitutional basis “that appropriately sequences presidential and legislative elections in line with the broader road map to complete (the) transition effectively,” he said.

Addressing the UN Security Council on Monday during its regular meeting about developments in Libya, Saudi said that when these steps are implemented, elections will naturally follow and will be “far easier to manage, protect and successfully deliver.”

Stephanie Williams, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s special adviser on Libya, recently reiterated the importance of holding elections “in the shortest possible time frame.” She said this month that “it is possible, and needed, to have elections before the end of June.”

However, Saudi said that “focusing on the dates for the elections instead of a clear process to facilitate them risks once again compromising due process for the sake of perceived political expediency.”

Growing polarization among political powers in the country and disputes over key aspects of the electoral process — including shortcomings in the legal framework for the elections, contradictory court rulings on candidacies, and political and security concerns as cited by the High National commission for Elections — resulted in the postponement of the elections, which had been scheduled to take place on Dec. 24 last year.

Saudi reminded members of the Security Council that “accountability is a prerequisite to political progress. Poorly defined and fundamentally weak vetting criteria applied to candidates applying for elections resulted in individuals implicated in corruption or crimes against humanity and human rights violations, including persons who have been indicted by the ICC (International Criminal Court), being accepted as candidates.”

Following the postponement of polling in December, Libya’s House of Representatives established a “road map committee” to develop a new path toward national elections. The committee will present its first report for debate on Tuesday in Tripoli.

Rosemary DiCarlo, the UN’s under-secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, welcomed what she described as renewed efforts by Libya’s Presidency Council to advance national reconciliation but lamented the political uncertainty in the run-up to the elections. which she said has “negatively impacted the overall security situation, including in Tripoli, resulting in shifting alliances among armed groups affiliated with certain presidential candidates.”

She expressed concern about the human rights situation in Libya, citing “incidents of elections-related violence and attacks based on political affiliation, as well as threats and violence against members of the judiciary involved in proceedings on eligibility of electoral candidates, and against journalists, activists and individuals expressing political views.”

DiCarlo added: “Such incidents are an obstacle to creating a conducive environment for free, fair, peaceful and credible elections.”

Taher El-Sonni, Libya’s permanent representative to the UN, told the Security Council that while some people had been surprised by the postponement of elections, it had been widely expected.

“In light of the crisis of trust and the absence of a constitution for the country, or a consensual constitutional rule as advocated by most political forces now, it will be very difficult to conduct these elections successfully because the elections are supposed to be a means of political participation and not a means of predominance and exclusion, and a means to support stability and not an end in itself that may open the way for a new conflict,” he said.

El-Sonni called on the UN to offer more “serious and effective” support to the electoral process and send teams to assess the requirements on the ground.

“This would be a clear message to all about the seriousness of the international community in achieving elections that everyone aspires to, without questioning it or its results,” he said.

The Libyan envoy invited the council to “actively contribute” to the processes of national reconciliation and transitional justice, “two concomitant and essential tracks that have unfortunately been lost during the past years, although they are the main basis for the success of any political solution that leads to the stability of the country.”

He also once again called on the African Union to support his country’s efforts in this area.

Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, senior advisor for special political affairs to the US mission at the UN, said it is time for the wishes of the millions of Libyans who have registered to vote to be respected.

“It is time to move beyond backroom deals between a small circle of powerful individuals backed by armed groups, carving up spoils and protecting their positions,” he said “The Libyan people are ready to decide their own future.

“Those vying to lead Libya must see that the Libyan people will only accept leadership empowered by elections and that they will only tolerate so much delay.”

Like many other ambassadors at the meeting, DeLaurentis also addressed the migrant crisis and reports of violence and abuses directed at migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in Libya.

“Libyan authorities must close illicit detention centers, end arbitrary detention practices and permit unhindered humanitarian access to affected populations,” he said.


Coalition in Yemen begins military operations in Sanaa

Coalition in Yemen begins military operations in Sanaa
Updated 19 min 19 sec ago

Coalition in Yemen begins military operations in Sanaa

Coalition in Yemen begins military operations in Sanaa
  • More than 50 Houthis killed in operations targeting Marib and Al-Bayda

RIYADH: The Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen said on Monday that it had began “military operations” against “legitimate targets” in the capital, Sanaa, Saudi state TV reported.
The coalition said the operation is in response to threats and out of military necessity to protect civilians from hostile attacks.
The Iran-backed Houthi militia launched missiles toward Saudi Arabia and the UAE earlier on Monday, sparking widespread condemnation from the international community.
Meanwhile, the coalition said it carried out 14 operations targeting the Houthi militia in Marib and Al-Bayda during the past 24 hours, killing more than 50 fighters and destroying nine military vehicles.


US ‘prepared to meet directly’ and ‘urgently’ with Iran on nuclear issue

US ‘prepared to meet directly’ and ‘urgently’ with Iran on nuclear issue
Updated 9 sec ago

US ‘prepared to meet directly’ and ‘urgently’ with Iran on nuclear issue

US ‘prepared to meet directly’ and ‘urgently’ with Iran on nuclear issue
  • The comments came after Iran said it will consider direct talks with the US during ongoing negotiations in Vienna

WASHINGTON: The US State Department on Monday repeated that it remains open to meeting with Iranian officials directly to discuss the nuclear deal and other issues after Iran’s foreign minister said Tehran would consider this but had made no decisions.
Speaking at a briefing, State Department spokesman Ned Price also said the US had not made Iran’s releasing four Americans a condition of reaching an agreement for both nations to resume compliance with the nuclear deal, saying that achieving such an agreement was an uncertain proposition.
Earlier on Monday, the State Department said the US was prepared to hold direct talks with Iran after Tehran said it would consider such an option.
“We are prepared to meet directly,” a State Department spokesperson said.
“We have long held the position that it would be more productive to engage with Iran directly, on both JCPOA negotiations and other issues,” the spokesperson said, referring to the nuclear deal between Iran and major powers.
The spokesperson said that meeting directly would allow “more efficient communication” needed to reach an understanding on what is needed to resuscitate the 2015 deal.
“Given the pace of Iran’s nuclear advances, we are almost out of time to reach an understanding on mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA,” the official said.
The comments came after Iran said Monday it will consider direct talks with the United States during ongoing negotiations in Vienna aimed at restoring the deal.
“Iran is not currently talking with the US directly,” Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said in televised remarks.
“But, if during the negotiation process we get to a point that reaching a good agreement with solid guarantees requires a level of talks with the US, we will not ignore that in our work schedule,” he added.
(With AFP and Reuters)


‘Horror scenes’ in Syrian refugee camps amid ‘extremely cold winter’: UN official

‘Horror scenes’ in Syrian refugee camps amid ‘extremely cold winter’: UN official
Updated 24 January 2022

‘Horror scenes’ in Syrian refugee camps amid ‘extremely cold winter’: UN official

‘Horror scenes’ in Syrian refugee camps amid ‘extremely cold winter’: UN official
  • ‘No one should have to live in these conditions,’ Mark Cutts tells briefing attended by Arab News
  • Nearly 3m people internally displaced in northern Syria, most of them women and children

LONDON: Brutal winter conditions in northern Syria have ushered in mass-scale suffering for 2.8 million internally displaced persons, a top UN humanitarian official warned on Monday.

“We’re extremely concerned about the situation there,” Mark Cutts, the UN’s deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, said in a briefing attended by Arab News.

The IDPs, he added, are “some of the most vulnerable people in the world,” the majority of them living in temporary camps and tents.

“During this extremely cold weather, we’ve seen some real horror scenes in the last few days — about 1,000 tents have either collapsed completely or been very badly damaged as a result of heavy snow,” said Cutts, adding that temperatures have dropped to as low as -7 degrees centigrade.

About 100,000 people have been affected by the heavy snow, while 150,000 more have been affected by freezing conditions and heavy rain.

“These are people who’ve been through a lot in the past few years. They’ve fled from one place to another. The bombs have followed them. Many of the hospitals and schools in northwest Syria have been destroyed in the 10 years of war,” said Cutts, adding that what he and his team are seeing in camps now is a “real disaster zone.”

He said: “Our humanitarian workers have been pulling people out from under their collapsed tents … They’ve been clearing snow from tents with their bare hands.”

Children, the elderly and the disabled are suffering the most from the conditions, added Cutts, who appealed to the international community to “do more, to recognize the scale of the crisis, to help us get these people out of tents and into safer, more dignified temporary shelter.”

In a final plea, he said: “It’s absolutely unacceptable that you’ve got 1.7 million people living in camps in these appalling conditions — most of them are women and children and elderly people.

“These civilians are stranded in a warzone, and now, on top of that, they’re dealing with temperatures below zero. No one should have to live in these conditions.”


Iran: ‘Possible’ to agree on prisoners, nuclear deal

Iran: ‘Possible’ to agree on prisoners, nuclear deal
Updated 24 January 2022

Iran: ‘Possible’ to agree on prisoners, nuclear deal

Iran: ‘Possible’ to agree on prisoners, nuclear deal

TEHRAN: Tehran on Monday said it is “possible” to reach an agreement on the two issues of Iran-US prisoners’ release and the Vienna talks to restore the 2015 nuclear deal.

“They are two different paths, but if the other party (the US) has the determination, there is the possibility that we reach a reliable and lasting agreement in both of them in the shortest time,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said during his weekly press conference.

Khatibzadeh’s comments came in reaction to remarks made by the US envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, who on Sunday said it is unlikely that Washington would strike an agreement unless Tehran releases four US citizens.

BACKGROUND

The four US citizens held in Iran are Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi, 50, and his father Baquer, 85, as well as environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, 66, and businessman Emad Sharqi, 57.

“Iran has not accepted any precondition from day one of the negotiations,” Khatibzadeh said.

He added that “the negotiations are complicated enough, and should not get more complex with complicated remarks.”