Much has been said regarding the fall of Ramadi and the various rumours suggesting that Nouri-al-Maliki, former prime minister and current vice president, ordered the military to withdraw from the city thereby allowing ISIS to enter virtually unopposed. However the operation to liberate Ramadi threatens to open a new bloody, sectarian, and quite simply destructive chapter in the fight against ISIS as the Hashd al-Shaabi (“Hashd”) increasingly takes centre stage in leading the fight. The use of this body of militias and sectarian volunteers in a predominantly Sunni area already distrustful of a sectarian government that empowered a particular social group at their expense, threatens to plunge Iraq into a sectarian abyss with no hope of return.
The Hashd are a composition of sectarian militias openly loyal to Iran. These include the Badr Brigade led by Hadi al-Amiri and whose deputy Mohammad Ghabban is currently the interior minister; Hizbollah; Kataa’ib Imam Ali; Assa’ib Ahl-al-Haqq amongst others. The Hashd have driven back ISIS forces in Tikrit, and have increasingly been called upon to compensate for the ill-equipped and demoralised Iraqi army which suffered under Maliki’s ten-year rule as he sought to prevent any possibility of a coup. However the group remains autonomous with attempts to bring them into the government fold in the form of a National Guard vehemently opposed by Iran.
Although Iraq’s exceptional circumstances arguably permits the use of any force to stem ISIS’s rampant expansion, it is the propagation of sectarian slogans as well as targeted sectarian killings that presents the Hashd as potentially a greater problem for Iraq than ISIS. This includes the kidnapping and killing of Sunnis purportedly supporting ISIS in Diyala and the rampant looting of Tikrit, as well as sectarian slogans in the build up to the operation to restore Ramadi including ‘Labbayk ya Hussein’ (‘In your service oh Hussein), later changed to ‘Labbayk ya Iraq’ (In your service oh Iraq) after objections by the US administration.
To date, the Hashd has mainly operated in predominantly Shiite areas where they have enjoyed support. Anbar however is a different environment altogether with its majority Sunni population. The Hashd are unlikely to enjoy the same local support as their reputation as a violent sectarian body precedes them. Many remain angry with the government’s refusal to arm them in the fight against ISIS. An Iraqi analyst who preferred to remain anonymous informed the International Interest that “Abadi has demonstrated double standards in refusing to arm the Sunnis to fight ISIS but is more than willing to allow the rampant Shia militias to move across Iraq unchecked and fight wherever they wish”. Many also see the Shia militias as enemies committed to their persecution with the stories of atrocities in Diyala and Tikrit causing uneasiness across the region.
Furthermore, many within the Sunni regions view their situation as a matter of choosing between two evils; ISIS terrorist brutality, or Hashd’s sectarian brutality. In practical terms, this means that the local population are apathetic to whoever takes control of the city. In the words of one local resident “people here sell to both ISIS and the government”. Distrust of the government is well-founded after the Sahawaat that helped defeat Al-Qaeda in the late 2000s were subsequently crushed by then-prime minister Nouri al-Maliki who feared a potential challenge to his authority.
The Kurds are also highly distrustful of Hashd with the Head of Intelligence of the Kurdistan region, Masroor Barzani, stating that ‘Hashd may well prove to be a greater problem than ISIS’. Baghdad has been slow to provide arms and money to the Peshmerga in their fight against ISIS amidst fears that the Kurds are building towards independence. Tensions also continue to simmer between the Peshmerga and the Hashd, with the former privately expressing to the US their unease with the latter’s rapid advance.
The US has also pressured Abadi to rein in the Hashd. During the assault on Tikrit, the lengthy siege spurred Abadi to request a US air strike in order to decisively settle the attack. However the US cited a key pre-condition for any air strike; the militias must withdraw from the city and the Iraqi army must be the force that enters the city. After lengthy negotiations, the militias conceded and withdrew.
However the US has been frustrated in attempts to limit Hashd’s involvement in the campaign against ISIS. Iran has prevented Abadi’s half-hearted attempts to bring the Hashd under government authority in the form of a National Guard. The Iraqi army has also failed to achieve results without the support of the Hashd and remains in a pitiful state. The militias continue to enjoy the protection of the interior ministry, run by Mohammad Ghabban of the Badr Brigade and a behemoth of an institution since the Maliki-era whereby it was strengthened significantly at the expense of the Defence Ministry.
The Iraqi army is demoralised, ill-equipped, and possess split loyalties between the government, Nouri al-Maliki, the US, and Iran, all hindering any coordinated movement. It is telling that Iraqi armed forces withdrew from Ramadi without even putting up resistance. Whether Maliki ordered their retreat-as has been privately whispered amongst a number of officials-or not, is irrelevant; the key point is that the Iraqi army is an impotent force to stem ISIS.
As Hashd continue to lead the way in the campaign against ISIS, the burning question is what happens after ISIS is defeated. The two powers left would be the Kurds in the North with their military force in the form of the Peshmerga, and the Hashd over which the government has no authority. Given the government’s low popularity amongst the Iraqi population, a Houthi-style mobilisation may take place whereby the Hashd assume power and bring down the ‘corrupt’ government of Baghdad. The Americans will unlikely be able to prevent such an event given the entrenchment of the Iranians in Iraq and will in this case rally behind the Kurds. Should this happen, the long anticipated subject of partition may well be finally introduced to the table.
Hashd is being used out of necessity. They may not however be the solution Iraq needs if it seeks to preserve any form of unity. The fight against ISIS provides a rare chance for all sects and ethnic groups within Iraq to unite behind a common cause. Hashd has taken the cause and added a bitter sectarian flavour that may destroy Iraq in a way ISIS never will.