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

 


Another 50 migrants rescued off Libyan coast in past two days

Another 50 migrants rescued off Libyan coast in past two days
Updated 18 October 2021

Another 50 migrants rescued off Libyan coast in past two days

Another 50 migrants rescued off Libyan coast in past two days
  • Migrants picked up by humanitarian group Sea-Watch, which now has more than 400 rescued people on its vessel
  • More than 49,000 migrants have reached Italian shores so far this year according to the country’s Ministry of Interior

ROME: Fifty migrants were rescued on Sunday and Monday by the Sea-Watch 3 vessel in the waters off the coast of Libya.

More than 400 people are now on the boat, according to German humanitarian organization Sea-Watch. It is patrolling the central Mediterranean rescuing people trying to reach the small Italian island of Lampedusa in small, crowded boats.

Meanwhile landings continue non-stop on the island. Three vessels with 52 Tunisians on board reportedly landed on Monday morning, and four boats containing 140 foreigners arrived the previous night. One boat, with 13 Tunisians aboard, managed to reach the shore without being intercepted by coast guard vessels.

“On Sunday we had 152 Tunisians arriving here in six different landings,” Lampedusa Mayor Salvatore Martello told Arab News, giving his latest official figures. “There are now 329 migrants in our facility, which can accommodate a maximum of 250 people.

“The prefecture of Agrigento ordered for them to be transferred to the quarantine ship GNV Atlas, which is moored one mile from the coast. We cannot carry on like this. The entire population here is under stress. We are left alone but we have no intention not to help how we can those who arrive here. But this has been going on for too long.”

Meanwhile, more than 100 migrants from Tunisia arrived over the weekend on the southern shores of the Italian island of Sardinia. They were detained by the Italian coast guard and by police.

“They were very dehydrated and tired as they have covered quite a long distance on a small vessel,” a spokesman for the coast guard in Cagliari told Arab News.

The journey to Sardinia from Tunisia is longer than to Lampedusa, and navigation in recent days has been difficult as a result of bad weather.

Sea-Watch said that its Seabird aircraft, which flies over the Mediterranean looking for vessels carrying migrants so that they can be rescued, also reported what it described as “illegal pushbacks operated by the so-called Libyan coast guard.”

Since 2014, nearly 23,000 people have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe, according to the UN’s migration agency.

More than 49,000 migrants have reached Italian shores so far this year according to the country’s Ministry of Interior. This is almost double the number of people who arrived in the same period last year.


More than 150 Houthis killed, injured in Yemen’s Abedia: Arab coalition

More than 150 Houthis killed, injured in Yemen’s Abedia: Arab coalition
Updated 18 October 2021

More than 150 Houthis killed, injured in Yemen’s Abedia: Arab coalition

More than 150 Houthis killed, injured in Yemen’s Abedia: Arab coalition
  • Yemeni FM meets with chief of the International Organization for Migration’s mission for Yemen

RIYADH: The Arab coalition said on Monday that it carried out 38 operations targeting the Houthi militia in Abedia and the surrounding villages in the Yemeni governorate of Marib.
The coalition said more than 150 militia members were killed and 13 Houthi vehicles destroyed in the operations in the previous 24 hours.
The coalition said that “international organizations must assume their responsibilities toward the civilians (who have been) trapped in Abedia” for weeks.
The Iran-backed Houthi militia mounted a brutal offensive in February to take control of one of the last remaining government strongholds. The energy-rich region has served as a safe haven for internally displaced people fleeing the fighting since the conflict began in 2014.
The Arab coalition began hitting Houthi targets in Abedia last week following an escalation in the militia’s incursions.
This comes as Yemeni Foreign Minister Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak warned of the “dangerous repercussions” of the Houthis’ escalating offensive on civilians and displaced people in Marib governorate.
His comments came during a meeting with the chief of the International Organization for Migration’s mission for Yemen, Christa Rottensteiner.
Bin Mubarak said that the. Houthis’ military escalation “exacerbates the difficult humanitarian conditions of the displaced, especially in the Marib governorate, which is home to more than two million displaced people.”
He also warned that “the international community’s disregard for such practices unleashes the Houthis to commit more violence and violations against civilians, which compounds the displacement crisis, forces displacement of civilians, and increases their human suffering.”


Officials: Iraq arrests mastermind of deadly 2016 bombing

Officials: Iraq arrests mastermind of deadly 2016 bombing
Updated 18 October 2021

Officials: Iraq arrests mastermind of deadly 2016 bombing

Officials: Iraq arrests mastermind of deadly 2016 bombing
  • The suicide car bombing in the central Karradah district was the deadliest attack by a single bomber in the Iraqi capital after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion
  • Two Iraqi intelligence officials said the man identified as Ghazwan al-Zobai, an Iraqi, was detained during a complex operation

BAGHDAD: Iraq said Monday it has detained the mastermind behind a deadly 2016 bombing in a Baghdad shopping center, which killed around 300 people and wounded 250.
The suicide car bombing in the central Karradah district was the deadliest attack by a single bomber in the Iraqi capital after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Two Iraqi intelligence officials said the man identified as Ghazwan Al-Zobai, an Iraqi, was detained during a complex operation that was carried out with the cooperation of a neighboring country they did not name. He had been tracked by authorities for months.
They told The Associated Press that Al-Zobai was detained in an unidentified foreign country and transported to Iraq two days ago. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak of the operation on the record.
The 29-year-old Al-Zobai was an Al-Qaeda militant when he was imprisoned by the Americans in Iraq at Cropper prison until 2008, and then escaped from Abu Ghraib prison in 2013. He joined the Daesh group after that.
The officials said Al-Zobai plotted many attacks in Iraq, the most infamous of which was the 2016 bombing in Karrada in 2016. He operated under the Alias Abu Obaida.
At least 292 people died from the bombing, most of them from an ensuing fire that turned the Hadi shopping center into an inferno. The blaze was fed by a tinderbox of shops filled with clothing and oil-based perfumes for sale and lined with flammable panels.
Al-Zobai’s arrest came in the second such operation conducted by the Iraqi National Intelligence Service since Iraq’s federal elections Oct. 10.
Iraqi officials said they captured Sami Jasim, an IS leader last Monday in a similar operation abroad. Jasim had a $5 million bounty on his head from the US State Department’s Rewards for Justice program, which describes him as having been “instrumental in managing finances for IS terrorist operations.”


Syria buries former lawmaker shot near Israeli border

Syria buries former lawmaker shot near Israeli border
Updated 18 October 2021

Syria buries former lawmaker shot near Israeli border

Syria buries former lawmaker shot near Israeli border
  • Midhat Saleh, a well-known figure in Syria, was fatally shot Saturday at the Israeli border in the Golan Heights where he ran a government office
  • Syria said he was killed by Israeli sniper fire

DAMASCUS, Syria: A former Syrian lawmaker allegedly felled by Israeli sniper fire was laid to rest Monday in an official funeral attended by hundreds of people near Damascus.
Midhat Saleh, a well-known figure in Syria, was fatally shot Saturday in Ein el-Tineh, a village along the Israeli border in the Golan Heights where he ran a Syrian government office. Syria said he was killed by Israeli sniper fire. Israeli military and other officials declined to comment on the charge.
Israeli media, however, said Saleh had been assisting the Iranian military presence against Israel. If the Syrian claims are confirmed, it would mark the first time that Israeli snipers are known to have killed someone identified as an Iranian-linked target across the border.
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed the area. Most of the world does not recognize the annexation, though the Trump administration declared the territory to be part of Israel.
On Monday, Saleh’s coffin, wrapped in a Syrian flag, was brought in an ambulance from the Mamdouh Abaza hospital in Qunetira to Jaramana, on the outskirts of Damascus, for burial at a Druze cemetery. Hundreds of people attended, in addition to senior officials and Druze clerics.
Saleh was born in Majdal Shams, in the Israeli-controlled side of the Golan, and was jailed several times by Israel, most recently for 12 years until 1997. He later moved to Syria, was elected to parliament in 1998 and served as an adviser to the government on the Golan issue.
Saleh’s son, Golan, a 17-year-old student, said that his father has always told him that the territory would return to Syria.
“I am proud that my father was martyred,” he said.


Egypt poverty rate falls 3% despite pandemic

Egypt poverty rate falls 3% despite pandemic
Updated 36 min 27 sec ago

Egypt poverty rate falls 3% despite pandemic

Egypt poverty rate falls 3% despite pandemic
  • Extreme poverty in Egypt (the percentage of people who cannot secure their food needs) decreased nationwide
  • CAPMAS said that 80.6 percent of individuals who live in families with 10 or more members are poor

CAIRO: Egypt’s poverty rate has fallen to the lowest level in 20 years, according to data from the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics.

CAPMAS defines poverty based on material wealth measurements, and classifies Egyptians as impoverished if they are unable to provide “minimum basic needs for themselves or a family.”

Needs include food, housing, clothing, education, and health and transportation services, according to the agency.

CAPMAS said that poverty rates in Egypt fell to 29.7 percent during the 2019-2020 fiscal year — a decline of 2.8 percent from the 32.5 percent recorded in 2017-2018. It added that this reflects the success of the country in striving for social justice in conjunction with economic reforms implemented by the state.

The agency said that extreme poverty in Egypt (the percentage of people who cannot secure their food needs) decreased nationwide to 4.5 percent in 2019-2020, down from 6.2 percent in 2017-2018.

The agency noted a correlation between growing family sizes and financial insecurity, saying: “The increase in the size of the family is a cause and a consequence of poverty. At the same time, it is a result of poor families not having sufficient social protection and therefore resorting to having more children for social protection when old or ill as a source of income.”

CAPMAS said that 80.6 percent of individuals who live in families with 10 or more members are poor, and that 48.1 percent of individuals who live in families with 6-7 members are also poor, compared to 7.5 percent of families with fewer than four members.

The agency indicated that education levels are the most relevant indicator of poverty, as poverty rates decrease as the level of education rises among parts of the population.

The percentage of poor among Egyptians with no formal education reached 35.6 percent in 2019-2020, compared to 9.4 percent for university graduates.

CAPMAS said that the Egyptian state is “making a lot of efforts” to protect the poor with the aim of improving the quality of life of citizens.

Social programs launched by the Egyptian government form the cornerstone Egypt’s Vision for Sustainable Development 2030.

The agency said that one of the most important programs is the national project for the development of Egyptian rural villages, which aims to improve living standards, build infrastructure, support people with disabilities and boost urban services.

The CAPMAS results came as the International Monetary Fund raised its forecast for the growth of the Egyptian economy during 2021, despite lowering estimates for the global economy.