Date: 9 July 2020 Author: Alexander Wielgos

Iraq: Security Sector Reform regarding paramilitary units

The degrees to which the various paramilitary groups, namely from the Popular Mobilisation Forces, or ‘al-Hashd ash-Shaabi’, have been merged with or maintain autonomy within the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) has a direct relation to the de facto political situation in the Iraqi parliament, known as the ‘Council of Representatives’, or ‘Majlis an-Nuwab’. Hashd has never been a monolithic structure . Dynamics between the Hashd subgroups have changed over time, as have their links to political factions in the Majlis. This is pertinent particularly to the question of the extent of US and NATO forces remaining stationed in Iraq in the backdrop of rhetoric from the Majlis, as it does regarding the ties of political blocs and Hashd groups with Iran.


The following article is a sneak-peek of a full text “Iraq’s Two Rivers”, to be released soon as a Special Report, also to be included in 13th Issue of The Warsaw Institute Review

 Most recently, increasing proportions of Hashd’s operationality had been centralised in the Kata’ib Hezbollah unit[1] by late 2019. Now in the absence of then-IRGC Quds Force General Qassim Soleimani and the Hashd’s Deputy Commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Hashd is likely undergoing an internal power struggle to fill in the spot. Anticipating how it unfolds will be key in figuring out potential security-sector reform (SSR), for which the timing is advantageous, including by restructuring and making power-sharing agreements. For  (DDR) programmes, however, the timing is not yet advantageous[2], and, as an extraordinary primer from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy elaborates, it might be wise for Hashd to be “honoured and contained” in this context[3].

In seeking to select the next Deputy Chair of Hashd, the most inner circles from within Hashd convened: Abu Ali al-Basri and Abu Muntadher al-Husseini from Badr Organization, Abu Iman al-Bahali from Kata’ib Hezbollah, Abu Ala al-Walai from Kat’aib Sayyid ash-Shuhada, Laith al-Khazali from Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, as well as Ahmed al-Asadi from Kata’ib Jund al-Imam[4]. These Hashd groups, at times colloquially referred to as ‘the Muhandis core’, put forward Abdulaziz al-Muhammadawi, or ‘Abu Fadak’ and ‘al-Khal’, or ‘the uncle’, as is also known, who is a Kata’ib Hezbollah commander[5] to the Popular Mobilisation Commission, announcing it unilaterally. Al-Muhammadawi, previously in Badr and then involved in internal disagreements within Kata’ib Hezbollah, eventually returned to Kata’ib Hezbollah from Soleimani’s direct instruction upon the onset of the protests which started in Iraq in October last year[6]. Furthermore, with this pronouncement, Kata’ib Hezbollah asserted their view was that Hashd should remain separate from the ISF[7].

To their surprise, on 20.02.2020, his nomination was refuted by Firqat al-Imam Ali al-Qitaliyah, or Brigade 2, Liwa Ali al-Akbar, or Brigade 11, the al-Abbas Combat Division that became Brigade 26, as well as Liwa Ansar al-Marjaiya, or Brigade 44[8]. These 4 Hashd groups constitute the ‘shrine foundation’, and are referred to as the Atabat[9], who are aligned with Ali as-Sistani, an influential Iraqi Shia cleric, and ideologically favour Najaf in Iraq over Qom in Iran. The Atabat asserted they were not consulted prior to this decision, and made their stance known directly to the President and PM[10]. It would seem that Atabat’s outright rejection of a nominee from the ‘Muhandis core’ reflects in different ways some attitudes in the ongoing protests to considerable degrees. Also noticeable, Badr seems to be less vocal or distancing itself from these kinds of incidents or disagreements, and even Qais al-Khazali, leader of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, has limited his social media presence gradually.

At some point in mid-March 2020, newer armed groups were formed, namely Asbat as-Saerin, which claimed attacks on US bases on Camp Taji[11], as well as Ashab al-Kahf, boasting weaponry. Both are clearly more radical and willing to be aggressive. It is likely Asbat as-Saerin was established by Kata’ib Hezbollah, and gives a new dynamic to the choice of actions by those Hashd groups. On 30.03.2020, the new IRGC Quds Force Commander, Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, visited Baghdad unannounced. He met with some Hashd subunit leaders. However, to his dismay, Muqtada as-Sadr, leader of the Sairoon movement, a major bloc in Iraq’s parliament, reportedly refused to meet him. Shortly after, on 04.04.2020, a Joint Communique was released that condemned US forces being stationed in Iraq, and demanded their withdrawal. The Communique was signed by 8 Hashd subunits, including namely most from the ‘Muhandis Core’, as well as a Hashd founding subunit, Harakat Jund al-Imam, but interestingly without Badr. It also was signed by some others around since the earliest days, including Saraya al-Khorasani, Saraya Ashura and Harakat Ansar Allah al-Awfiya, All of these are the most aligned to IRGC in the Hashd architecture.

On 22.04.2020, before his departure, the then Prime Minister Mahdi conveyed a formal decision in a short, less than one-page letter for the Atabat, naming Brigades 2, 11, 26, and 44 specifically, to be “operationally and administratively linked” to the PM[12]. It mentioned that to this end details would be later established[13]. In effect, with this, the Atabat separated from the Hashd command, but the letter is likely purposely ambiguous in whether the Atabat are to remain as Hashd Brigades. By making them directly accountable to the PM, it is a move directly in line with the aforementioned reforms and passed legislation. One would wonder then what this together the more assertive attempts of Atabat to take decision-making capabilities away from the ‘Muhandis Core’ signals to the ISF and the Cabinet, to the Majlis MPs, as well as to other Brigades within Hashd who are wondering how they fit into the political and security apparatuses; especially considering that the Atabat are prohibited from liaising with the IRGC.

Options pertaining to Hashd seem to be becoming, at their vaguest, choosing clever combinations of integration, containment, or suppression, where the wrong choices unfortunately have disproportionately negative effects. As the incremental reforms hitherto have gone in the direction of transferring authority to the Commander-in-Chief, the importance of choosing the next PM was difficult to overstate. First, Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi unsuccessfully made a bid to succeed Mahdi, and then Adnan az-Zurfi also could not manage to garner enough support, but Iran’s preferred choices, Abdul Hussein Abtan and Qasim al-Araji, hardly had a chance.

It was a relief for some, therefore, on 06.05.2020, when Mustafa al-Kadhimi was confirmed, and sworn in on 07.05.2020 the next day. Others, namely leaders of Kata’ib Hezbollah, had made threatening remarks if al-Kadhimi was selected. As a piece on Foreign Policy suggests, it has been noticed by Western observers and analysts, again like his predecessors, that al-Kadhimi, is capable of balancing between the US and Iran, as well as finding some understanding between most political factions – but it is mainly the political system’s dysfunctionality which prevented his predecessors from making sufficiently recognisable progress[14]. Absent enough change, this scenario may likely therefore risk to befall the new incumbent. It had been a pattern.

However, al-Kadhimi thus far seems to not be oblivious to this, and may be even giving those same observers some hope. From the 22 ministerial candidates initially put forward for the Cabinet, 15 were accepted by the Majlis[15]. Key rhetoric addressing the ongoing demonstrations included accountability for those who unjustly applied violence and lethal force against demonstrators, as well as holding early Parliamentary Elections.

On 09.05.2020, al-Kadhimi convened a Cabinet meeting, made clear intent to release unjustly detained protesters, unless of course they were linked to violence, and look into also who was doing the detaining. Separately, meetings with the relatively newer US Ambassador to Iraq Matthew Tueller as well as Iraj Masjedi, the Ambassador of Iran to Iraq (who is an IRGC officer, not from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran) were also held. Next, on 10.05.2020, al-Kadhimi reinstated Lieutenant General Abdul-Wahab as-Saadi as Commander of the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), whose arrest was a factor in widespread anger, and the Supreme Judiciary Council confirmed the release of those unjustly detained protesters[16]. A later piece on Foreign Policy drew attention to these first reforms suggest the intentions of al-Kadhimi in mending the complex divides that still hold Iraqi politics hostage are more than just cosmetic[17]. In this, it may be wise to approach it at least to some extents from a Governorate level[18], but that bringing Hashd under control is as necessary as it is complicated.

On 16.05.2020, as al-Kadhimi was visiting the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Interior, the CTS, and other ISF buildings, he stopped by the Hashd headquarters for what may not have been the easiest meeting from the lot[19]. He arrived with Atabat members, and was greeted by PMF’s Chairman Falih al-Fayyadh, who was accompanied by Kata’ib Hezbollah leaders Al-Muhammadawi and Hussein Falah al-Lami, or Abu Zainab, who are critical of his premiership[20]. In the meeting, al-Kadhimi praised Hashd’s role specifically in the fight against ISIL, but his view on subunits exceeding their mandate is well-known. As such, it is not entirely clear if the Atabat’s earlier reaction did indeed impede al-Muhammadawi’s appointment as Deputy Chair. Nevertheless, on 19.05.2020, some rockets hit close to Embassies in the Green Zone, which, if related to this meeting, could have been done in an another display of reach.

A regular blog, Musings on Iraq, elaborates that ISIL attacks and security incidents in Iraq have in the meantime been resurging[21], but after a re-intensification of ISF operations since 21.05.2020 they had decreased again[22]. It may or may not be correlated with the CTS Commander’s reinstatement, meaning that the cleaning up operations against ISIL resurgent group “White Flags” cannot be ignored in the meantime.

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On 03.06.2020, while Ghaani made another visit to Baghdad, al-Fayyadh announced in a new SSR-related Memorandum for Hashd[23] in a short, page-long document. It makes reference to both the Popular Mobilisation Commission Law of 2016 as well as Executive Order 237 of 2019. Besides reiterating the need for depoliticisation and using ‘Brigades’ terms and structure, Hashd Administrative Decree 2155, which is not publicly accessible, would allegedly have overseen the Tribal Mobilisation Militia formally integrated into Hashd by 03.07.2020, with two other such documents pertain to legal status of Hashd members, their pay, as well as shutting down some Hashd offices or bases outside their mandate[24]. Al-Fayyadh may wish to better his relations with al-Kadhimi, or make changes before al-Kadhimi does[25]. Unlike the previous Memos, it was not instructed by the PM, and inaccessibility of the texts it refers to raises arguments that these may potentially be more obscuring than clarifying in character.

On 09.06.2020, further arrest warrants were issued, including Lieutenant General Jamil ash-Shammari, who was responsible for the deaths of around 20 protesters. In this time, Kata’ib Hezbollah began an intensification of attacks against US bases or bases with US personnel. Meanwhile, one of the more recent situation reports from the Institute of the Study of War has noted that the Majlis MPs of Tahlaf al-Fatah closer to the ‘Muhandis Core’, namely MP Saad as-Saadi, are seeking to solidify the Regulation to expel US forces into binding legislation[26], including by means of attempting to garner support for a motion of no-confidence against al-Kadhimi if it is not implemented. One could therefore unfortunately expect increasing acts of intimidation or threats against certain MPs or Government officials or other individuals. Meanwhile, on 11.06.2020, the Strategic Dialogue between Iraq and the US began, the first session. It would even seem that in this backdrop, US presence in Iraq enjoys more support than Iran, for the first time, perhaps ever.

On 25.06.2020, al-Kadhimi authorised a Iraqi CTS Special Operations Forces operation into a Kata’ib Hezbollah building in the Dora area of southern Baghdad[27], arresting 14 members and seizing rockets planned for subsequent attacks on US personnel in Iraq. Iraq’s JOC affirms that it was a CTS operation only, and was consulted with the US prior[28]. This was the first raid the Iraqi Government conducted successfully on the basis of pre-emptive intelligence gathering.

In response, coming in from various bases in southern Iraq, Kata’ib Hezbollah swiftly mobilised dozens of armed vehicles and though the figures vary among different sources, perhaps around 600 members[29] towards the PM’s residence in Baghdad, with demands of the release of those detained, and threatened legal action[30] against the PM. Those arrested had been handed over to the Hashd Security Directorate that is run by Hussein Falah al-Lami, as would be supposedly in line with the procedure of ISF military discipline protocol, but likely to be also politically calculated gesture.

The tense standoff has not seemed to escalate uncontrollably since then, and it is more than likely that discussions, not necessarily calm ones, are or have been taking place. However, there are worrying flashpoints that signal a trend. Shortly after, on 04.07.2020, Ashab al-Khalf responded to reports that the US is testing air defence systems for the US Embassy in Baghdad with rather threatening rhetoric[31]. Some more rocket attacks followed suit on 05.07.2020, one being blocked by those same air defence systems, and another detonating close to the airport. Then, on 06.07.2020, a revered security strategist, Hashim al-Hashimi, was assassinated outside his home in Baghdad, condemned by the Embassies of both Iran and the US. The culprit is unconfirmed, though al-Hashimi sought advice from colleagues on how to deal with death threats specifically from Kata’ib Hezbollah.

In the wider context, the signals are of a worrying trend. The situation does remain tense; it would be a disservice to misidentify any relative quiet in the aftermath of flashpoints as inconsequential. These events do rather indicate it is potentially volatile enough for additional flashpoints, and the cause-and-effect developments of these incidents give a lot to think about for policy-makers and observers.

Ahead of the next round of US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue expected to take place at some point this month (July 2020), it is worth attempting to anticipate the plausible calculus of each of these states[32], Hashd subunits, Cabinet members, Majlis groups or MPs, and others, as well as their susceptibility to react. Yet, reviewing the sequence of developments in its entirety but also in-depth quickly reveals that figuring out how best to go about this, in the pursuit of peace and stability, is anything but simple.

If anything, however, this is the time for creative approaches[33], simply because not changing anything leaves no chance of any positive developments. Of course, creative is not and should not be synonymous with detached from reality, and the Warsaw Institute cordially invites you to share your thoughts in its MENA Monitor programme.

So what might such ideas look like? What do you think should be done, by whom, and in what way?


[1] Michael Knights, Honored, Not Contained: The Future of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 03.03.2020, page vii

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Michael Knights, Honored, Not Contained: The Future of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 03.03.2020, page 23

[5] Nazli Tarzi, Hierarchical rifts split Iraq’s PMF, Arab Weekly, 01.03.2020

[6] Ismaeel Naar, Meet ‘the uncle’ Abu Fadak, the new head of Iran-backed PMU militias in Iraq, Al Arabiya, 22.02.2020

[7] Crispin Smith, Iraqi Militias Split Over New Iran-Backed Head, Reflecting Wider Divisions, Just Security, 04.03.2020

[8] MECRA, Who is Abu Fadak, Abdul-Aziz al-Muhammadawi, the man who will replace Muhandis?, MECRA, 22.02.2020

[9] Michael Knights, Honored, Not Contained: The Future of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 03.03.2020, page 23

[10] Nazli Tarzi, Hierarchical rifts split Iraq’s PMF, Arab Weekly, 01.03.2020

[11] ISW News, Video: The operator of the rocket attacks to Americans in Iraq was identified!, ISW News, 16.03.2020

[12] Shafaq News, Abdul-Mahdi Disengages Shrines Forces From the PMF, Shafaq News, 22.04.2020

[13] Ibid.

[14] Steven Cook, Nobody Can Help Iraq Anymore, Foreign Policy, 24.04.2020

[15] Khrush Najari, Mustafa al-Kadhimi voted in as Iraq’s prime minister, Kurdistan 24, 07.07.2020

[16] Al Jazeera, New Iraq PM releases protesters; promotes respected general, Al Jazeera, 10.05.2020

[17] Seth Frantzman, Iraq’s New Prime Minister Needs to Take Control of His Security Forces, Foreign Policy, 16.06.2020

[18] Ibid.

[19] Michael Knights, Kadhimi as Commander-in-Chief: First Steps in Iraqi Security Sector Reform, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 19.05.2020

[20] Ibid.

[21] Joel Wing, Islamic State Offensive In Iraq Takes Off In May, Musings on Iraq, 03.06.2020

[22] Joel Wing, Security In Iraq Jun 15-21, 2020, Musings on Iraq, 23.06.2020

[23] Katherine Lawlor, Iraq Situation Report: June 3-9, 2020, Institute for the Study of War, 12.06.2020

[24] Michael Knights, Hashd Reforms in Iraq Conceal More Than They Reveal, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 09.06.2020

[25] Ibid.

[26] Katherine Lawlor, Iraq Situation Report: June 3-9, 2020, Institute for the Study of War, 12.06.2020

[27] Ali Mamouri, Iraqi security forces raid militia headquarters, Al Monitor, 26.06.2020

[28] [Twitter] @arwaib, Bold move appears to hv been agreed btw @MAKadhimi pro-US administration & Washington after 33 attacks targeted US interests in Iraq over past 8 months – six which took place during past 2 weeks alone. Move also coincides with launch of #US-#Iraq strategic dialogue on June 11., Arwa Ibrahim, 26.06.2020

[29] [Twitter] @thestevennabil, Military sources confirmed to me that nearly 600 Armed groub members (Militias)arrived in Baghdad coming from the southern provinces., Steven Nabil, 26.06.2020

[30] [Twitter] @AliBakeer, #Iraq’s #Hezbollah wants to sue the Prime Minister for arresting 14 of its members as suspects of planning for attacks in the green area. Iraqis going the Lebanese model when it comes to its #IRGC-created militias and this is very bad for Iraq as a state. Check #lebanon, Dr. Ali Bakeer, 29.06.2020

[31] [Twitter] @IntelTweet, In response to reports that an air defense system is being tested to protect the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, armed Iraqi Shiite faction Ashab al-Kahf has threatened, “if it did not help them at Ain Al-Assad [Air Base], then it won’t protect them at the embassy either.”, Evan Kohlmann, 04.07.2020

[32] Ranj Alaaldin, Was Iraq’s prime minister right to go after an Iranian proxy?, Brookings, 01.07.2020

[33] Kathlee McInnis, Strategists Have Forgotten the Power of Stories, Foreign Policy, 19.05.2020

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