ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – A schism is deepening within the ranks of Iraq’s paramilitia groups, between those loyal to the country’s top Shiite religious authority Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and those tied to Iran.

First published by Rudaw

The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), known in Arabic as Hashd al-Shaabi, was created in 2014 when Sistani issued a fatwa (a religious call to action) urging young Iraqis to take up arms against the Islamic State group (ISIS).

Since the territorial defeat of ISIS in Iraq in late 2017, the role of the Hashd has increasingly been called into question, with demands to withdraw units garrisoned in northern areas and to fully integrate them into the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF).

Others have fought to maintain the Hashd’s autonomy from the ISF and its commander-in-chief, the Iraqi prime minister, allowing it to continue carrying out Iranian military objectives inside Iraq.

Hashd units close to Iran are widely accused of abducting and killing protesters during Iraq’s recent wave of anti-government unrest. They are also believed responsible for a spate of deadly rocket attacks targeting US and coalition personnel stationed at bases across Iraq.

Sistani-affiliated units, meanwhile, are not known to have fired on protesters, have a generally better human rights record in areas they occupy, and are not implicated in the targeting of foreign troops and infrastructure.

The wound opened between those wishing to integrate Iraq’s many armed factions into a single unified military apparatus and those who envisage an Iraqi variant of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) is quickly turning septic.

The catalyst for this deepening animosity was the US assassination of Hashd commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, alongside IRGC general Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike near Baghdad airport in January. The deaths sparked bitter disagreements over the leadership succession and the organization’s goals.

The divergence was further exposed by the recent decision of four Hashd units in Iraq’s holy shrine city of Najaf to move under the direct command of the chief of armed forces – the Iraqi prime minister.

“The Hashd is already evolving,” Michael Knights, a senior fellow of The Washington Institute, told Rudaw English via email.

“The shrine militias loyal to Ali al-Sistani have detached from the Hashd command structure, working directly to the prime minister.”

“The new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, has called for greater regulation of the Hashd before elections in 2021 or 2022. The Hashd budget will have to be cut alongside the whole Iraqi budget due to low oil prices, which will mean auditing their numbers,” Knights added.

With Kadhimi winning parliamentary approval for his new cabinet in the early hours of May 7, the Hashd can expect painful reforms high on the PM’s agenda.

Mahmoud al-Rabeie, spokesman for the pro-Iran Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, sought to downplay the Najaf incident, insisting the four units had moved under the prime minister’s command because of their special status as protectors of the holy shrines – not because they had split from the Hashd.

“The four units are linked with the holy shrines and thus their responsibility is different from other units,” Rabeie told Iran’s IRGC-affiliated Tasnim news agency on May 5.

“Some circles want to push the idea that these four units separated from Hashd but this is not the case,” he said.

“All the units of the Hashd al-Shaabi operate under the command of the chief of armed forces but because of the nature of the duties of these four units it was decided that their orders come directly from the chief of armed forces,” he added.

Knights couldn’t disagree more. For him, the Najaf incident is an epochal moment for the Hashd.

“The split is not only real – it has already happened,” he said.

“Now the Sistani units answer directly to Mustafa al-Kadhimi and their funds will come from him. This is a huge change.”

Tehran already held sway over dozens of Iraqi militias before Sistani issued his fatwa – many of them battle hardened resisting the US occupation and Sunni groups in the years of sectarian civil war.

Iran is no doubt reluctant to hand over control of its proxies in Iraq at a time when the US maximum pressure campaign against its nuclear program has brought Washington and Tehran to the brink of war.

Kadhimi’s success, coupled with recent US sanctions and strikes against Iran’s proxies in Iraq, have put Tehran on the back foot. Now pro-Iran factions much adapt in order to survive.

“Iran has failed to block Kadhimi and Tehran’s key proxy Kataib Hezbollah has been humiliated,” Knights said.

“The Hashd factions backed by Iran are quite splintered and now have one to two years before elections to separate their militia wings and their political parties.”

Failed mediation

Hadi al-Ameri, secretary general of the Badr Organization and head of the pro-Iran Fatih (Conquest) bloc in the Iraqi parliament, is thought to be the most powerful man in the Hashd since the killing of Muhandis.

Despite his best efforts, Ameri has failed to incorporate Sistani-affiliated units into the Hashd command structure.

Ameri tried to sweeten the deal by sacking Abu Fadak al-Mohammedawi, the man appointed to replace Muhandis on February 21, who is unpopular with the Sistani-affiliated units.

He then proposed appointing two deputies to the Hashd presidency – one selected by Sistani and one nominated by the pro-Iran units. Sistani’s representative Ahmed al-Safi rejected the proposal.

Two households

It is possible the Hashd could break into two distinct factions, with up to 90,000 fighters peeling off the main body of around 164,000 militiamen to join Sistani’s Al-Marjaiyyah Hashd.

Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi security analyst, believes another ten Hashd units will soon break away from the main Hashd organization, including several Sunni units.

One significant breakaway could be Saraya al-Salam, the militia loyal to Iraq’s influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who heads the Iraqi parliament’s largest bloc.

Speaking to Rudaw English, Hashimi said there are three likely scenarios ahead for the Hashd. In one instance it could continue to operate as one whole, but with separate internal structures. In another scenario it could divide up responsibility for strategic territories between the rival sections. Or it could reform the leadership structure to better represent the rival sections.

“The issues within Hashd al-Shaabi might result in its collapse, as the differences and rivalries between the Marjaiyah-affiliated Hashd units and the Iranian-backed Hashd units deepen,” Hashimi said in a piece for Al-Aalam al-Jadeed newspaper on April 4.

“Hashd units close to Iran know that Hashd units who are affiliated to the Marjaiyah in Iraq are legal forces and they are respected by most Iraqis,” he said.

In fact, pro-Iran factions need the Sistani-affiliated units to give them legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis, Hashimi said. Without them, the Hashd’s legitimacy is called into question.

Protests have already taken place in parts of Nineveh province where residents have called for the withdrawal of Hashd units and the return of official Iraqi army and Peshmerga forces.

International observers have branded the Hashd an impediment to religious freedom and the safe return of displaced minorities. The US Treasury Department has also singled them out for corruption and human rights abuses.

The Islamic Front for Resistance

Iran’s theocratic rulers are not standing idly by while their Iraqi proxies lose their grip. The IRGC, which answers directly to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has established a new umbrella group in Iraq to bolster its interests – the Islamic Front for Resistance.

The front, allegedly established by Soleimani shortly before his death, is thought to be composed of militants drawn from the ranks of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Iraqi Kataib Hezbollah, the Badr Organization, and al-Nujaba.

Crucially, the new front has no formal ties with Hashd al-Shaabi and receives all its funding and support from Tehran.

One role of the Islamic Front for Resistance is to force the US to withdraw its troops from Iraq. It is also designed to act as an insurance policy should Tehran lose influence over Iraq’s new government.

The loss of Soleimani and Muhandis in January was a major setback for Iran’s strategy in Iraq which has the IRGC scrambling for a new footing.

The key feature of the Islamic Front for Resistance is its independence from Iraq’s official military and political structures, allowing it to pursue Iranian interests without outside interference and under the US radar.

“The US knows that the new umbrella movements are simply Kataib Hezbollah and the other militant groups (Nujaba, Asaib, Shuhada, Khurasani) but [under] another name,” said Knights. “The US approach will not alter: the address for the actions of these groups, and new umbrellas like the ‘Islamic Front for Resistance’, is the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps in Iran.”

And if hostilities with Iran and its proxies continue to escalate on Iraqi soil, Washington is prepared to act.

“The US will expect Iraq to better protect US persons in Iraq, and if this fails, the US will begin broader strikes against IRGC interests across Iraq and the region,” Knights added.