During his address to the UN General Assembly in September 2015, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared that the al-Hashd al-Shaabi (popular mobilization) forces are part of the official state. Yet, it is no secret that Abadi has never been comfortable with the Hashd—an umbrella organization of various non-state armed groups that have never been directly accountable to the prime minister. Some of the groups and fighters under the umbrella have been accused of committing crimes during various battles.
Even as a member of parliament in 2013, Abadi expressed hesitations to the author about the prominence of sub-state military actors in Iraq, but in 2015, he is openly legitimizing the Hashd. What has changed?
Sistani’s Fatwa and the Iranian-backed Militias
The Hashd umbrella includes groups that predate the 2014 crisis, when the self-proclaimed Islamic State took the city of Mosul and threatened to march on Baghdad, as well as newer formations. The vast majority of these fighters are Shia Muslims. Indeed, the concept of al-Hashd al-Shaabi was launched not by the state but by a so called al-wajib al-kifai fatwa issued in June 2014 by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shia leader.
The older and more powerful groups that assembled under the al-Hashd al-Shaabi flag in 2014 are Iranian-backed Shia Islamist militias that do not report directly to Sistani, and which are also not necessarily committed to Abadi’s success as prime minister.
For example, Hadi al-Ameri, who leads a powerful militia group known as the Badr Organization, is wary of Abadi’s intentions. He sought the job of interior minister when Abadi took office in 2014, but was passed over in favor of another Badr Organization member. Nouri al-Maliki, whom Abadi replaced as prime minister in September 2014, is also keen on undermining his successor. Maliki has a close relationship with another large Hashd faction, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and is rumored to be creating his own military group. The third major Hashd group, known as Kataib Hezbollah, is similarly strongly committed to the Iranian theocratic doctrine known as velayat-e faqih and seeks to maintain Iranian influence in Iraq even at the expense of Abadi’s Shia-majority government.
Many of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs complain of what they perceive to be the sectarian motivations of these paramilitary groups. During their march, members of the Abbas Fighting Division shout “Ali,” while many other al-Hashd al-Shaabi groups exclaimed “We Obey You, O Hussein!” during the battle for Ramadi. These are commonly used Shia chants and as such invoke sectarian concerns among many Iraqi Sunnis, whether or not the chants are necessarily intended to be sectarian or are merely figures of speech.
The Growing Power of Non-State Actors
More generally, Iraqis from all communities fear that Abadi is not in charge, that he is unable to control many of the groups and fighters within al-Hashd al-Shaabi, and that the growth of politically autonomous militias at the expense of the regular army will undermine the functioning of the central government.
Max Weber’s oft-cited definition identifies a state as an entity that enjoys a monopoly on legitimate violence. The key to the Weberian definition is not that there should be no paramilitaries, but rather that the state should have a monopoly on the authorization of legitimate force. The incorporation of the Hashd’s essentially autonomous Shia militias into the official Iraqi security apparatus, via the al-Hashd al-Shaabi umbrella, clearly challenges this concept.
In summer 2014, the Iraqi central government desperately needed the support of the paramilitaries to defend against the Islamic State onslaught. Together with Sistani’s fatwa, which decreed a sort of conscription for all able-bodied Shia Iraqis, the paramilitaries became so prominent that the political elite had no other choice than to recognize them. The Hashd militias have thus been able to establish themselves as a part of the Iraqi government without surrendering their autonomy or their connections with Iran.
It is not a unique occurrence. To the contrary, it represents a wider trend in the region: states are now outsourcing legitimate violence to sub-state actors, which are becoming de facto state security institutions. For instance, the Kurdistan Region’s Peshmerga forces in Iraq are now internationally recognised and Western capitals sanctioned the Peshmerga’s 2014 deployment in Kobane, Syria, to fend off the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Similarly, Hezbollah in Lebanon has solidified its status as a permanent security apparatus coordinating its actions with the Lebanese army and policy.
In the Iraqi case, the question is now whether Prime Minister Abadi and the Iraqi government can successfully claim authority over al-Hashd al-Shaabi? In some ways, the opposite seems to be happening.
Collectively, the Hashd factions are now stronger than the official state-administered Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). The ISF is widely seen as weak, corrupt, and ineffective and many of Iraq’s Shia Arabs favor al-Hashd al-Shaabi over the ISF, which failed to contain the Islamic State in 2014.
This initially created a competition. While the ISF struggled with recruitment and was plagued by its poor public image, the Hashd groups pursued a comprehensive and effective recruitment campaign in many parts of Iraq. Their success is largely attributed to Sistani’s fatwa. Well-informed contacts in Baghdad estimate that s ome 80 percent of fighting- aged men from the Shia provinces have put their name down as recruits. Several Hashd leaders even claim that they do not need foreign fighters to come to answer Sistani’s fatwa because they have enough recruits on the ground.
However, since the Hashd is increasingly perceived as a branch of the state apparatus, the competition between the state and the paramilitary group has died down.
The Hashd factions and their political wings also extend their influence inside state institutions. Many government officials have responded to Sistani’s fatwa and now play a pivotal role in training, supporting, and legitimizing al-Hashd al-Shaabi. At a graduation ceremony for newly trained recruits, for example, the First Deputy Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, Humam Hamoudi, who is a member of Ammar al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, one of the largest Shia parties, claimed that “we in the parliament, in the government, and in all places, have as our top issue that al-Hashd al-Shaabi is trained, armed, and paid.”
Abadi’s Attempt to Reclaim Authority
Despite Abadi’s initial concerns, the prime minister has been an important actor in the transformation of al-Hashd al-Shaabi from irregular “Shia militias” into an official extension of the ISF.
When speaking of battles against the Islamic State, for instance, Abadi regularly mentions both the Iraqi Army and al-Hashd al-Shaabi. He has also begun to add the predominantly Sunni Arab tribal fighters (abna al-ashair) to quell Sunni anxieties and to project a cross-sectarian narrative.
More critically, Abadi has allocated $1 billion from Iraq’s state budget to al-Hashd al-Shaabi and government agencies have been tasked with training Hashd fighters. For instance, the governorate of Dhi Qar in southern Iraq has opened four camps to train thousands of new Hashd recruits.
It is a calculated bargain and an effort to reclaim, in a Weberian sense, the state monopoly over the authorization of force. By making al-Hashd al-Shaabi a wing of his security forces, Abadi wants to incorporate an otherwise dangerous competitor in order to gain leverage, assert authority, and reduce the armed groups’ dependence on Iran and other factions that work against him. But it is a risky move, since it enshrines the government’s dependence on al-Hashd al-Shaabi and undermines the Iraqi army.
One tactic that Abadi may be looking to exploit is the power of the purse. In a rare move, the Hashd leader Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis sent a letter to Abadi criticizing the prime minister’s delays and shortages in providing funds and equipment to al-Hashd al-Shaabi. Although the letter exposes the internal rifts evident among Iraq’s Shia political and religious leaders, it also hints at the Hashd’s own dependence on Baghdad for support. Abadi would do well to leverage this to reclaim at least some authority as prime minister and commander in chief.