Baghdad by Elijah J. Magnier: @ejmalrai
Many analysts and researchers consider the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU or Hashd al-Sha’bi) a pro-Iranian group with an independent agenda. The PMU-much more complex than just a label.
The PMU or Hashd:
In June 2014, as the “Islamic State” (ISIS) advanced in the northern provinces of Mesopotamia down to Baghdad and towards the limits of Anbar, Sistani called (by using a calling upon a specific kind of Jihad (al-Kifa’ei) which means gathering the necessary and required number of fighters for this purpose only) upon all volunteers able to bear arms to defend their country, families, homes, and their holy places (shrines of holy men and of the Shia holy Imams and their relatives buried in Samarra, Balad, Dijeil, Baghdad, Karbalaa, Najaf) by creating an armed body to stop ISIS. The Iraqi security forces were on the run, disorganised, panicking and without firm political and military command following the fall of the northern city of Mosul. Sistani rightly didn’t consider the Iranian influence among some Iraqi groups a problem because the entire country was in danger.
The Prime Minister, then Nuri al-Maliki, had been rejected by most of the Shia groups from the day he renewed his mandate for a second term, because he failed to respect the two pages deal with 18 points , signed by all Shia parties (Sadrists, Majlis al-A’la, Badr, Fadilah…), including the Prime Minister’s representative and negotiator (Sheikh Abdel Halim al-Zuheiry represented al-Maliki and signed on his behalf). It was an absolute condition of supporting him as a Prime Minister for a second term that he includes all parties in his decision-making and shares the government and key positions within the institution with the Shia coalition. They had elected him despite Maliki’s lower number of seats in Parliament compared with AyadAllawi, who was illegally excluded from the Prime Ministership.
Instead, al-Maliki ruled alone, disregarding the other Shia (and non-Shia) groups. He did not support his delegation to Sheikh al-Zuheiri, and was generally highly sceptical about everybody and everything (Shia, Sunni, the Kurds), including his own close advisors, who at a certain point abandoned him. In fact, Iran supported and promoted al-Maliki only because he was the only Iraqi politician with enough determination and guts to stand against Barak Obama’s plans to keep US forces in Iraq and establish military bases in Mesopotamia. Moreover, Maliki was supportive of non-state groups financed by Iran, since these attacked the occupying US forces in the country. Iran considered, and rightly still feared, that a long US military presence could only be an intended base for plotting against the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was therefore also a threat to Iran’s allies in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. Iran never trusted and probably never will trust the US’s intentions towards the Middle East, and it believes that Washington will oppose Tehran and attempt to blackmail Iran’s regional allies (by evoking the “Persian and Safavits danger and their alleged expansionist intentions”) into transforming the Gulf into a huge US weapons warehouse.
In 2014, Hashd defended and liberated Smarrah, Jurf al-Sakher, Balad, Dijel, Duluiyeh, the Baghdad ring, and Karbalaa. Though badly trained and with poor military equipment in the first years, Hashd fought and managed to stop ISIS’s advance with the help of Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah advisors, but above all with their own men, the Iraqi.
It is important to note that during the first six months of ISIS’s devastating control of northern Iraq, the Obama administration refused to support the Iraqi security forces and Army and in the east and west- almost two thirds of Iraq fell under ISIS. US companies – contracted to maintain the Abrams tanks – left the country, and US warehouses stationed in the nearby Gulf countries denied all supplies of ammunition to the central government in Baghdad. This left Iraq vulnerable to the overwhelming ISIS attacks, and it also pushed it into the hands of Iran. The US did not believe Iran was capable of helping the central government against ISIS, and it therefore behaved as if the partition of Iraq was inevitable.
This is when Iranian envoys (the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps – Quds Brigade commander – IRGC- Brigadier General Qassem Soleimani and other Iranian officials) visited Erbil, Baghdad and the Grand Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf offering their military support and expertise. The victory of ISIS represented a direct threat to Iranian national security and the destruction of the Shia holy places in Iraq (ISIS expressed clearly its intention – as part of its ideology – to destroy all Shia shrines throughout Iraq and in all other places outside Iraq). The spiritual leader of Iran, Sayed Ali Khaminei, gave clear orders to all Iranian forces to support Sistani’s Fatwa and that they must prevent Iraq from falling into the hands of ISIS (the Takfiri extremists).
Moreover, Iran (and Baghdad) asked Hezbollah to move hundreds of Lebanon-trained and experienced officers (between 2014 and 2015) to Iraq: only a handful of Hezbollahi remain in the country today. A military camp was established close to the city of Balad and a military operations and intelligence room to fight ISIS was set up in Baghdad’s green zone, with the participation of Iraqi officers, Iranian IRGC, and Hezbollah commanders (Russia joined in this later). It was six months later that the US finally moved in to support the central government in Baghdad and start fighting ISIS, surrounded by what had, by then, become a sceptical entourage.
The newly elected Prime Minister harboured substantial bitterness against Soleimani, because the IRGC general had manoeuvred right to the last minute against Abadi during negotiations with the Marjaiya and the other Iraqi political groups on who would become Prime Minister (he wanted to replace him with al-Maliki). Right from the beginning, the two men (Soleimani and Abadi) didn’t get along. In fact Abadi often kept Soleimani waiting outside his office before receiving him (a sign of great disrespect, and an unwelcoming gesture). The PM, who officially asked Soleimani to support Iraq as a military advisor, obliged him to enter Iraq legally and with a visa stamped at the entry airport on the way in and out without dispensing Soleimani from these formalities. Abadi actually accused Soleimani of plotting to remove him, during his first year in office, an accusation that was far from being unfounded, as many sources confirmed.
But the presence of military advisors and the logistical support Soleimani brought with him from Iran was absolutely necessary for Iraq, and prevented the fall of many cities into ISIS control. There is no doubt that it was in Tehran’s interest to stop ISIS in Iraq before it expanded to neighbouring Iranian cities. Moreover, Soleimani’s representative in Mesopotamia (Iraqi MP Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes) was appointed vice-head of Hashd, and was actually running the show on the battlefield. Hashd’s participation was effective in every battle: indeed, only with men holding a robust ideology could Iraq face the strong ISIS ideology in the opposite camp. The well-trained Counter Terrorism forces were not enough to fight on numerous fronts and were guarding the capital as well. Hashd turned out to be vital for Iraq.
Hashd, with its 19 brigades and non-state allies, took back Jurf al-Sakhr, Tuz-Khormato, Amerli, Suleiman Pak, Ishaqi, Tikrit, Hemreen mountains, al-Alam, Ad-dour, al-fathah, al-Tharthar lake, Baiji, and 250 villages west of Mosul: very many battles. Along with Moqtada Saraya al-Salam, who worked alongside it for the same objectives in some part of Iraq (but who refused to be integrated within it, like many other groups), Hashd protected Samarra and split Mosul and Talafar, allowing the retaking of Mosul city first, participating in the retaking of TalAfar, and sending forces to the Syrian border, without crossing it.
All this and more while the US was contesting Hashd’s involvement, unleashing media and analysts against it to discredit it by raising the sectarian aspect and Iranian support. In fact thousands of Shia within the Hashd and other groups were killed to liberate Sunni cities and enable the return of Sunni to their homes in northern Iraq: the motive was not sectarian, the objective was to defeat ISIS.
The Main Stream Media itself became the major, most active sectarian source in the Middle East, accusing the PMU of being a sectarian Shia group when there are 60% Shia within Hashd and the rest are Sunni, with other minorities. This mirrors the Iraqi Parliament’s composition. The sectarian accusation is certainly unfounded (there are crimes committed in every war, specially the US wars in the Middle East and the rest of the World), but mainly related to Iran’s influence within the PMU. Many in Iraq argue that, at the end of the day, if Iraq is well protected from terrorism and not under the influence of the US, Iran is content to moderate its influence over those Iraqi politicians that have a natural and religious link to the Islamic Republic, without necessarily being under its direct influence. Abuses against civilians and the military are not new in war zones or occupied countries by any force, including the long years of the US occupation of Iraq.
Hashd: its composition and groups fighting under its flag:
There is more than one battalion fighting within Hashd al-Shabi directly related, financed and equipped by the Marjaiya (Firqat al-Abbas al-Kitaliya, Firqat al-Imam Ali al-Kitaliya, Ansar al Marjaiya, and Liwa’ Ali al-Akbar). But there are other groups who fought under the Hashd banner but not merged within the PMU brigades. They remained independent, very loyal to Iran and Iraq, and fought PMU battles throughout Iraq.
To be more specific, Moqtada al-Sadr commands Saraya al-Salam, an independent group financed by Moqtada, and receives financial support from the Hashd budget when fighting against ISIS. Once ISIS is defeated, this group would merge with the Hashd command under the 19 battalions and the command of the Ministry of Defence or the Interior Ministry.
As far as it concerns Asaeb Ahl al-Haq or Kataeb Imam Ali or Kataeb Hezbollah or Harakat al-Nujaba’: all will remain independent and will not be integrated within the Iraqi security forces when the war against ISIS is over. These will also take part in the forthcoming election – as independent groups – unlike the Hashd whose elements are not permitted to run in the election, just allowed to vote like all Iraqi security forces.
Up to now Hashd (or PMU) lost between 9,000 to 10,000 fighters, against tens of thousands of ISIS terrorists killed all over Iraq. The PMU stands today against the partition of the country (this includes standing against an independent Kurdistan), and is ready to fight the Turkish forces stationed in Ba’shiqa and in other locations in the north of the country if and when all diplomatic avenues between Baghdad and Ankara will have failed to create the withdrawal of the Turkish forces from Iraq. The PMU will therefore not be dissolved after the war: it is part of the security apparatus and will remain under the same name with its 19 brigades.
But many commanders and groups within Hashd are indeed pro-Iranian, faithful to their faith as Shia and to what Qassem Soleimani represents (the axis of the Resistance) without necessarily being anti-Iraq unity. Most Iraqi Shia are – like most Shia in the Islamic world – linked to the same ideology but they don’t have the same culture and are not blindly connected nor do they adopt the same approach towards their neighbours or towards the US. The Iranian general Soleimani enjoys influence among various groups because he represents the “line of resistance” against US influence in the country (and the Middle East)- also because he has been very generous with many groups since 2004, forming resistance organisations against the US occupation forces and later against the al-Qaeda franchise in Iraq before it metamorphosed into ISIS.
In 2004, the first to benefit from Iran’s finance and training was Moqtada al-Sadr (more details to come in the third part). Moreover, between 2014 and 2015, the Iraqi government was not capable of matching Iran’s generosity and will to stop Takfiri Jihadists. Many groups (Asaeb Ahl al-Haq, Hezbollah Iraq, Kataeb Imam Ali, Harakat al-Nujabaa’ and more) received (and still receive to date) direct finance from Iran. The Marjaiya in Najaf pushed for and fully supported the Prime Minister Haidar Abadi’s decision to merge all PMU within the security forces. Those unwilling to drop their own agenda and become part of the Iraqi security apparatus can leave and, if they keep their weapons, they will become outlaws. The other independent groups fighting within the PMU are the government’s business.
Now the Marjaiya is not very happy because this decision to merge the Hashd within the security forces, though approved by the parliament, has not yet been fully implemented. This is again considered another weakness of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi. He is hesitant, slow to enforce this law and to face those the Marjaiya would like to see under the central government of Baghdad’s command, and not under Iran’s control. Sistani doesn’t agree with outside interference in Iraqi affairs by any other country, particularly by Iran, without necessarily being against Tehran. He can see how powerful groups like Asaeb Ahl al-Haq are, with many men and weapons, enjoying the broadcast facilities of two fully equipped and functional television stations.
Abadi, unlike Sistani, understands that the Hashd can only be merged with the Iraqi security forces once the threat of ISIS is over (which it is not, to date). Abadi fears the role that leaders and groups who fought within al-Hashd can play in the forthcoming elections. These leaders – like Ahmad al-Asadi (MP and spokesperson of PMU), Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes (MP and vice head of Hashd), Hadi al-Ameri (MP and ex-Minister) and heads of groups who fought with the PMU but kept their independent political and military status, will stand in the forthcoming elections and form a “resistance front” opposed to those who don’t mind the US presence and influence in Mesopotamia.
Therefore, many within the PMU and many Iraqis themselves claim to be followers of Sistani, but are, in a way, out of the direct sphere of influence of the Marjaiya. People are not following the recommendations pronounced in the weekly sermon by Sistani’s representatives, though they still gather at every event, in al-Rasoul street, chanting to express support to Sistani: “Our jewel is Sayed Ali Sistani” (Taj..Taj..‘Ala al Rass, Sayed Ali Sistani). This is why the Grand Ayatollah in Najaf will keep silence for many months and will channel his complaints against the government and the Prime Minister’s inefficiency through Friday prayers- mainly in Karbalaa, the most holy Shia shrine of Imam Hussein.
However, Baghdad still needs Hashd for two reasons:
-The battle against ISIS is far from over. Hawija, Ana, Rawa, Al-Qaem and the length of the Iraqi-Syrian and Iraqi-Jordanian borders are still ISIS’s operational domain.
-The Parliamentary election, expected next year, is heating up. Therefore, in Abadi’s case, it would be very unpopular for him to hit Hashd while he needs the support of a large number of the population, using the security issue as a tool to run for a second term.
But Hashd sacrifices are far beyond gathering all in one article: the Iraqi Shia of the Hashd are mainly from the south of Iraq, with no wealth, left their families and modest belongings to respond to the call and defend Iraq. Iraqis consider these (unlike many analysts and Iraqi “experts” sitting abroad) to be the real heroes, the defenders of every home, of the elderly, of women, and of children.
When praised about the Fatwa he issued to form a corps of volunteers saving Iraq from ISIS Sayed Sistani answered me, emotionally: “These poor volunteers are the ones to honour and respect, whose feet should be kissed…They are the ones who offered thousands of young and elderly volunteers without hesitation, to defeat ISIS and return Muslim Sunni and Shia, and other minorities provinces, villages and homes to their rightful owners…They are the ones who prevented thousands of Iraqi women from being enslaved by ISIS…They are the ones the World owes so much to, for defeating this terrorism, not me…”.