One of the most controversial aspects of Iraq’s campaign against the Islamic State has been the role of the Popular Mobilization Units (also referred to as their Arabic name, the Hashd al-Shaabi), the groups formed in response to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s call to defend Iraq against the Islamic State.
Too many analysts paint the militias with a broad brush describing them all as Shi’ite (which is false) and also entirely under the thumb of Iran (which is also false). While most members are Shi’ite, perhaps ten percent are Sunni or Christian. After all, many of the militiamen are responding to what they see as a national emergency and are motivated as much out of a desire to protect Iraq as their ethnic or sectarian community.
That does not mean that fears about Iranian influence are invalid. There is a reason why Qods Force chief Qassem Soleimani constantly makes the rounds of various Popular Mobilization Units and why Tehran has appointed Iraj Masjedi, Soleimani’s advisor, to be Iran’s next ambassador to Iraq. Many in Iran’s security structure do hope to transform the Hashd al-Shaabi into something akin to Iran’s paramilitary Basij, if not an Iraqi equivalent of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Still, it is essential to address the militias with nuance. To treat them all as Iranian puppets is to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Simply put, the United States should engage with those militias which are Iraqi nationalist in character and quarantine and roll back those loyal to foreign powers. At the same time, it is essential to support Iraqi efforts to regularize them under the banner of the Ministry of Defense, something on which the Abadi administration has made progress. After all, it is somewhat hypocritical to oppose the Popular Mobilization Units as being irregular and too linked to outside political bosses when the U.S. military engages with the peshmerga, which remain affiliated with political bosses and whose centralized control remains more theoretical than real.
The real problem for American policymakers has been the abuses in which any militias have engaged. There have been sporadic reports—some real and some not—about sectarian reprisals perpetrated by militias as they retake territory won at tremendous cost against the Islamic State. While these have been exaggerated in the West, a lack of professionalism has undercut progress. This can be expected given the volunteer nature and rushed training of many units, but it is nonetheless problematic. When militiamen loot the Beiji refinery, for example, all they do is hurt Iraq’s reconstruction.
When Iraqi officials have been confronted with accusations against the Popular Mobilization Units, however, they have often acknowledged argued that it was hard to collect evidence and testimony against the alleged perpetrators. After all, violations often occur against the backdrop of combat and suspects’ peers are loathe to testify against their comrades in arms. Whether the Iraqi government was sincere or simply taking the easy way out was always open to question, with most policymakers suspecting the latter.
Now, however, word comes out of Baghdad that the Ministry of Justice has taken action against several dozen militiamen accused of crimes. From Iraqi News:
Iraq’s central criminal court said on Wednesday it had sentenced 47 affiliates with the mostly-Shia militias fighting Islamic State with the Iraqi government to death and prison over charges of murder and arms possession. The sentences levied upon Al-Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Units) affiliates ranged from 15 years, life in prison and death after they were convicted of murder, kidnapping and the illegal possession of arms, said court president, Maher al-Aaraji, in a press conference. Al-Hashd al-Shaabi had occasionally vowed to hold accountable “infiltrators” who give a bad image of the militias….
This is a step in the right direction and one that should be supported fully by the Pentagon and the incoming Trump administration. As the Iraqi government and Popular Mobilization Units do the right thing, it would be wise to increase cooperation with them so as to incentivize them to greater professionalization. The United States spent $25 billion trying to re-craft the Iraqi military in our image, and it was a spectacular failure. Perhaps it’s time to work with the military that works best for Iraq, and help them operate to the highest standards while simultaneously countering Iranian efforts to subordinate Iraqi nationalism to narrow sectarian interests.