Iraq’s militias: Double the size, double the money, double the threat
Mushrooming funding for the Tehran-backed Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi paramilitary movement in Iraq has almost doubled their size to 238,000 personnel and nearly $3 billion of the budget, according to the Iraqi parliament’s finance committee.
When the Hashd movement’s institutional structure was established by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki in mid-2014, it had one specific purpose — to combat Daesh. Daesh today scarcely exists in Iraq beyond a smattering of attacks in a handful of localities. Yet Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ Al-Sudani has resolved that the Hashd needs to double in size. Why?
While Iraqi MPs were debating the budget, they undoubtedly had one eye on news footage of the Rapid Support Forces in Sudan and the Wagner uprising in Russia — showing the catastrophic destruction wreaked when militias are allowed to expand and outgun the regular army. Yet still they raised no objections to this monstrous diversification of public money.
This immense expansion was approved with so little objection because the Hashd has consolidated its hold over Iraqi institutions at all levels. It would probably have made its share of the budget share even larger, if it thought it was possible to expand any faster.
In the post-Daesh era, there is no suggestion that the Hashd exists to confront any conceivable threat from Iraq’s neighbors. Consequently, the only justifications for the Hashd’s expansion are, as has been frequently threatened, to combat US forces or to act against Iraqis themselves. Hashd forces have a long record of massacres, atrocities and sectarian cleansing against Sunnis, although in recent years they have more often been used in anger against fellow Shiite citizens.
Around the 2018 elections, the Hashd’s strategy focused on winning power via the ballot box. But following the brutal suppression of Shiite protesters after those elections, the movement’s popularity plunged. Consequently, its only strategy for retaining power can be the use of naked force.
Sudani has effectively surrendered the entirety of Iraq’s borders to the Hashd, even after a former finance minister warned that 90 percent of Iraq’s customs revenues were being pocketed by these militias.
We caught a glimpse of this when rival Sadrist and Hashd forces amassed in Baghdad in mid-2022 in gatherings that could easily have escalated into armed confrontations. These incidents occurred because the Hashd, despite having won minuscule numbers of seats in the 2021 election, demanded the right to dominate the government. Remarkably, they succeeded — and even unashamedly seized a significant swath of additional parliament seats after the Sadrists walked out. Expect future power grabs to be even more blatant and brutal.
It isn’t possible to know the actual size of the Hashd movement. Along with semi-independent factions and sizable affiliated criminal elements, many shadowy “resistance” forces — such as Ashab Al-Kahf, Kata’ib Karbala and Kata’ib Saifullah — aren’t even officially on the state payroll. Such entities continually appear and disappear for specific purposes, and are probably composed of the same pool of radical Hashd elements repeatedly resurfacing under different guises to stage attacks against the Americans, Arab states and Iraqi rivals.
One Kata’ib Hezbollah commander referred to eight Hashd brigades that “represent the Islamic resistance,” and said Iraq’s leadership “cannot touch them, their salaries or their equipment.” Meanwhile a sizable chunk of the budget is inevitably syphoned off for the corrupt, nefarious purposes of the Revolutionary Guard and Hashd leaders.
On paper, Iraq’s army exceeds 300,000 personnel, although the military had to be rebuilt almost from scratch after its spectacular collapse against Daesh in mid-2014. Numbers of operational and effective brigades are actually rather small, particularly when the rampant phenomenon of ghost soldiers is taken into account. Considerable segments of the army are effectively under the control of Hashd warlords such as Hadi Al-Amiri; and through these militias’ post-2003 dominance of the Interior Ministry, a high proportion of the security forces are essentially an appendage of the Hashd.
Through imposing their choice of prime minister, in Sudani the Hashd possesses a malleable puppet, overseeing a state budget of $152 billion, who can grant them everything in their wildest dreams while ordinary Iraqis are submerged in poverty, unemployment, power cuts, pollution and non-existent public services. The prime minister’s announcement that new permanent Hashd military camps would be established around the edges of major cities sounds unsettlingly like encirclement by a conquering army.
If these immense funds are considered insufficient, Sudani has furthermore approved the launch of a Hashd-controlled business conglomerate named after assassinated Hashd leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, enjoying preferential access to government tenders.
A militia force that has expanded to nearly the same size as the Iraqi army is a time bomb waiting to detonate, particularly given their wholesale takeover of Iraq’s political, economic and social domains.
Sudani has benevolently awarded this Al-Muhandis General Company vast areas of land throughout southern Iraq. One segment of these Hashd territories, described as half the size of Lebanon, straddles Iraq’s border with Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The Hashd already dominates much of the Iraq-Syria border region and controls the movement of goods coming from Iran. Sudani has effectively surrendered the entirety of Iraq’s borders to the Hashd, even after a former finance minister warned that 90 percent of Iraq’s customs revenues were being pocketed by these militias. The Hashd can additionally easily double its already swollen on-the-books revenues through the movement of narcotics, munitions and other clandestine goods.
If Sudani is sincere about his professed desire to rebuild relations with Arab states, establishing armies of hostile forces on the borders with Saudi Arabia and Jordan raises questions about whose agenda he is really following.
A militia force that has expanded to nearly the same size as the Iraqi army is a time bomb waiting to detonate, particularly given their wholesale takeover of Iraq’s political, economic and social domains. Long-suffering Iraqi Shiites have demonstrated their repeated fearless readiness to mobilize en masse to demand the downfall of these hated agents of a hostile foreign power.
Just as Wagner fatally overplayed their hand in Russia, the likes of the Hashd have signed their own death warrant by making Iraqis’ lives so hellish that they will reach a point where it doesn’t matter whether these brutal thugs turn their guns on protesting women, youths and ordinary citizens.
At that moment, it will be of little consequence whether the Hashd is 200,000 or 500,000 strong — because 50 million Iraqis will be telling them to pack their bags and head for Tehran.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.