Iraq’s powerful Hashd al-Shaabi brigades reject calls to demobilize despite apparent end of war against IS.
They heeded a Shia leader’s call-to-arms, were equipped and trained by Iran’s elite military and were forged in the crucible of war against the Islamic State.
In little more than three years the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Units, have risen from disparate alliance of volunteer militias to become a battle-tested force in Iraq.
“We need this force and insist on maintaining it to eradicate and destroy terrorism in Iraq,” said Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi forces.
“The future of the Hashd is to defend Iraq. We need military forces that have this experience of battling terrorists and any international threats, and Iraq must maintain enough force.”
Hashd al-Shaabi fighters have bolstered the Iraqi military since mid-2014, volunteering to fight on frontlines against IS at a point when the Iraqi army was in a state of collapse.
Three days after the fall of Mosul to IS, Ali al-Sistani – Iraq’s highest Shia religious authority – issued a call-to-arms fatwa, pronounced at the Holy Shrine of Imam Hussein in Karbala, calling on any Iraqi man – regardless of faith – who was able to carry a weapon, to volunteer to defend his country and its citizens against IS.
The Hashd al-Shaabi’s reputation now precedes them. They are feared by IS, disliked by Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga – who perceived them as a threat long before the Kurdish region’s ill-fated bid for independence – and, across much of the rest of the country, they are widely credited with having played a critical role in saving Iraq from IS.
Although Iraq now has a range of battle-hardened security forces, the Hashd has proved to be the stand-out success story, rising from assorted pre-existing militias and groups of volunteers in mismatched uniforms to a credible military force, whose fighters have honed their skills on some of the most dangerous battlefields of the 21st century.
“We see our role as complimentary to the Iraqi army role,” explained Muhandis.
“They can’t fight without us and we can’t fight without them.”
He said the Hashd al-Shaabi’s non-military units, including engineering, communications, and an intelligence apparatus he claimed was the best in Iraq, also had an important role to play in helping rebuild the country.
The considerable power of the Hashd has unnerved Western governments, however. Despite being part of the country’s official military since November 2016, the US is ramping up pressure for it to be disbanded.
Read full article by Tom Westcott on The Middle East Eye, December 13, 2017.