Fatwas and farces: Iran's military toehold in Iraq

Fatwas and farces: Iran's military toehold in Iraq
Comment: The rise of the Tehran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces risks further entrenching violent sectarianism in Iraq, writes Tallha Abdulrazaq
5 min read
02 Dec, 2016
Iraqi fighters from the Popular Mobilisation Forces participate in the offensive to retake Mosul [AFP]

Late last week, the Iraqi parliament legalised a predominantly Shia paramilitary force, giving it a status that places it alongside, but separate to, the regular Iraqi army.

The Hashd al-Shaabi, better known as the Hashd or the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), has been repeatedly shown to be a sectarian paramilitary structure. So why have Iraqi lawmakers decided to legalise and make the PMF an official part of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), and what does the future now hold for state and society in Iraq?

The genesis of the PMF

To answer those questions, one must first look at the genesis of the PMF, which has been in existence for only a relatively short period of time. Compared with the Iraqi Armed Forces, founded in 1921, the PMF have little history as a formal unit outside of the context of the fight against the abomination that calls itself the Islamic State group.

The Hashd came into being following a fatwa, a religious edict, issued by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, an Iraq-based Iranian cleric and the Shia community's most senior religious authority. In response to the threat posed by IS, Sistani called for a jihad against the terrorist group and, in his fatwa, urged Iraqis to take up arms against them.

This was taken as a green light by dozens of Iran-backed Shia militias to band together into an enormous super-militia. Men such as Hadi al-Amiri, Qais al-Khazali and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who head up the three largest and most powerful Iranian-sponsored militias, are now key commanders of the PMF.

Indeed, Faleh al-Fayyad, the head of the PMF Committee, recently alluded to Sistani's fatwa saying that it had led to the creation of the Hashd.

It is critically important to understand, however, that Sistani never issued a fatwa remotely resembling the claims of al-Fayyad and others

It is critically important to understand, however, that Sistani never issued a fatwa remotely resembling the claims of al-Fayyad and others. In fact, the fatwa is still on the Ayatollah's website, and is quite clearly an attempt to encourage Iraqis able to bear arms, to "volunteer and join the security services".

Evidently, then, he did not call for the creation of a new entity, but instead called on those willing to fight, to join existing security apparatuses. The premise upon which the Shia jihadists in the Hashd are predicated, therefore, is a farce.

The Iraqi version of the Pasdaran

Although it was reported not long ago, many people seem to have forgotten that the PMF was already operating as an official force having received the full sanctioning and backing of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi himself last summer. Abadi formally ordered for the Hashd to be established as an "independent military formation", and as a result, the Iraqi parliament's vote to legalise the PMF is merely formalising an existing reality.

And what a grim reality it is. As I mentioned earlier, the Hashd have been repeatedly exposed as perpetrators of sectarian atrocities, especially against the Sunni Arab community.

Indeed, Human Rights Watch made repeated efforts to find out exactly how the Iraqi government were holding the Shia forces to account, after gruesome abuses were committed in Fallujah - recaptured in June this year - only for them to conclude that the investigation was "mired in secrecy", suggesting it was being covered up.

They then called upon Iraqi policymakers to ban these abusive militias from participating in the current operation to retake Mosul from IS, only for those pleas to fall upon deaf ears.

So why does the PMF enjoy so much impunity and a lack of accountability?

So why does the PMF enjoy so much impunity and a lack of accountability?

The answer to that lies in Iran's influence and control over much of Iraq's state structure, not least of which is the Hashd that is now being groomed to become a fully fledged Iraqi version of the Iranian Pasdaran, better known as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), as a parallel and potentially competing force to the Iraqi army.

While experts have long been able to ascertain this by observing the PMF's behaviour and command structure, last August, Lebanese journalist Jean Aziz interviewed a PMF commander after a secret meeting held in Beirut between western countries and the PMF.

According to this commander, the PMF informed western countries that they would "be an alternative army subordinated to the state, just like Iran's [IRGC]".

This much has come to pass. The latest bill stipulates that the Hashd answer directly to the office of the prime minister himself, which means that the Iraqi chief of the defence staff has no authority or control over them.

The PMF are therefore an Iranian-controlled, religiously motivated force that are embedded within the Iraqi state structure.

This means that the PMF exist to preserve the authority of the executive, rather than being subsumed under the authority and chain of command of the regular military. This may, in future, lead to a parallel state structure that the PMF may control, similar to the way in which the IRGC runs its own courts and even controls vast business empires in Iran.

Some may argue that the official designation of the PMF will mean that it will be more accountable and open as a national, unifying force. Indeed, the Hashd does include Sunni, Christian and even Yazidi units.

However, that misses the point and is all mere window dressing in order to give the illusion of national legitimacy and to increase the group's patriotic credentials. The small contingents of minorities who fight alongside the Shia militias are so marginal and weak that they are not be able to exercise any influence over the now formal organisation's trajectory and decisions.

Leaders such as al-Amiri, al-Khaz'ali and al-Muhandis are all directly linked to Iran. Now they are no longer powerful militia leaders, but commanders in a formal Iraqi military unit, yet with loyalties to Iran. The PMF are therefore an Iranian-controlled, religiously motivated force that are embedded within the Iraqi state structure.

That on its own should frighten people about the chilling future of Iraqi sovereignty and democracy.

Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues. 

Follow him on Twitter: @thewarjournal

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.