Iraq's Road to Counterinsurgency

Nonetheless, closer analysis of the Hashd is required before we risk tarring this vast organization with the same brush. The ultimate strategy that we must support the Iraqi government with should be to integrate many of these militias into the armed forces, so that rogue elements do not act unilaterally. If they did so--perhaps by fighting each other, as has happened, or attacking Coalition forces (and therefore ending Coalition support to Iraq) the biggest loser would be Iraq, now the world’s second fastest growing oil exporter.

The Hashd al Shabi

First of all, it is clear that some elements of the Hashd have committed serious human rights abuses and extra-judicial killings, accusations that have also been leveled at Kurdish and Yazidi groups. Some elements have clashed in the past and have fired upon Sunni allies of the government, as well as Kurdish forces. This is both disturbing and indefensible, but needs to be seen in the historical context of pitting volunteers against terrorists in violent counterinsurgencies, from Malaya to Vietnam--and Iraq. These abuses are not reason enough to reduce Iraq to a purely sectarian battle, but it seems evident that some of Iraq's anti-ISIL forces have had extremely limited training.

It is critical to understand that the PMU are not a homogenous force. For comparison, the Kurdish anti ISIL alliance consists of PUK and KDP Peshmerga factions, the YPG, the terrorist designated PKK, Sunni Arab fighters and Christian and Yazidi militias. Similarly, the mainly Shi’a PMU involve both Sunni and Christian units in addition to Shi’a militias of differing political and religious opinion.

Like their counterparts in the KRI, Hashd al Shabi leaders are aware of the allegations against them, and despite some denials, several Hashd commanders have condemned unlawful killing and are trying restrain their forces, in line with Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani’s clear condemnation of violence. In fact, Moqtada al Sadr temporarily withdrew his forces from the Tikrit battle in protest at allegations of what he called “sectarian” abuses.

Subsequently, grim predictions of genocide against Sunnis in the aftermath of the Tikrit battle have not happened, and the Sunni Salahaddin provincial leader remains resolutely with the government. In fact, it was in Salahaddin that the first Sunni Hashd unit was formed within the strongly pro Iranian Asa’ib ahl al Haq. This brings us to the opportunity to bring the Hashd under firmer government control.

For this effort it is critical for Abadi and his allies to have close relations with the Iranians just as he seeks to firm up Western support and re-build regional relationships. While the Hashd are loosely coordinated by an IRGC linked politician Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, this does not mean they are all mindlessly doing Iran’s bidding. The aforementioned influence of Sistani persists, and many groups emerged in the wake of his call for national resistance to ISIL, groups such as Firqat al Imam Ali. Other groups, such as ISCI’s Saraya Ashura, could hardly be classed as dangerous terrorists equitable to ISIL, a point Fanar Haddad cogently argues.

46 Responses to Iraq's Road to Counterinsurgency

  1. Nicasso 6th July 2015 at 07:45 #

    Hi Robert,

    A useful article - good stuff. Muqtada al-Sadr will be minor player in any dialogue with the Hashd al-Shabi. His 'Peace Brigades' are not in the same league as Badr, AAH or Kaitab Hezbollah. Lots of rhetoric but the capability is not there as it was 2004-2008. Another problem will be convincing rank and file Hashd al-Shabi that the US is their ally. The amount of suspicion of US intentions is palpable in southern Iraq. It's quite common to hear ordinary Shi'a Iraqis talking of the US arming ISIS, even though elements of the Hashd are reportedly living side by side with US forces in Anbar. I believe closer co-operation is required but it will need high level agreement between US and Iranian officials....yes Iranian not Iraqi.