Inside Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units
The anti-ISIS forces can unify Iraqis.
To many observers, the Hashd al-Shaabi were the militia that spelled the end of Iraq, as much as the emergence of ISIS signalled endless chaos. The popular narrative goes like this: the paramilitary organization formed in the wake of a call by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in June 2014 for Iraqis to take up arms against the ISIS onslaught.
But instead of saving Iraq, Iranian-backed groups used the call to multiply in strength. As the Iraqi army continued to stumble from defeat to defeat, the Hashd surged into Sunni majority areas, sparking a sectarian bloodbath.
The former allies of the United States, tribal sheikhs who formed the backbone of the Anbar Awakening, were then trapped between ISIS and the Hashd, while Abadi’s embattled government was subsumed by Iran.
While dramatic, in many ways this story is an oversimplification. To begin with, the Hashd, or Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), comprise about forty groups with slightly differing agendas. This open-tent diversity has given the Hashd raw strength in numbers. But as Moqtada al-Sadr’s Hashd look set to clash with Iran-backed groups, it could become an Achilles’ heel.
At the end of April, I traveled to Iraq for the third time in over a year to work on an independent documentary about life in Iraq. My hosts were Ataba, an organization that runs Iraq’s holy shrines. They wanted to show me a side of the war that was more nuanced than commonly portrayed.
In fact, I had just written a long essay on Sunni tribes in Iraq from 1979 to the present day, and was contemplating Iraq’s tangled history. The salience of sectarianism ebbs and flows in Iraq, and it is not the dominant narrative now as it was in 2006. To take just one example from history, the 1995 Ramadi uprising of Sunni tribes against the regime is an important but mostly forgotten episode. Similarly, the tensions between the Jabour tribe and Saddam in the early nineties illustrate the complex and shifting alliances of Iraqi politics. These episodes reverberate today in what amounts to civil wars within Sunni tribes, one reason why America cannot simply revive the Anbar Awakening.
Nonetheless, you cannot interview people from military organizations during a war and expect that their answers will be free of bias or attempts to shape the media narrative. Despite this, it was clear from my interviews with the Hashd that testimonies had not been prepared prior to interview, although as expected, many were laced with misty-eyed patriotism.
For example, interview testimonies correlated with the political and geographic background of those speaking: a Sunni from the Albu Mahal tribe explained that the Karbuli tribe were “with Daesh” (the two tribes had a long running feud after 2003) and the commander of the Iran-backed Saraya al-Khorasani explained his conviction that the United States was fully supporting Daesh.
Interviews with Sunni members of the Hashd were retranslated in London by a Sunni journalist from Diyala, who further verified that interviews appeared unforced. Particularly interesting was a visit to the Christian Hashd, the Lions of Babylon Brigade, based in Baghdad. Their spokesman asserted in an almost Churchill-like way how his men fought a noble battle for Iraqi civilization and heritage, as well as all civilization. PR-savvy answers, certainly, but remembering the massacre of Iraqi Christians by Al Qaeda in 2010 at a nearby church, how could I disagree?
Speaking to fourteen members of the Hashd from four different units, I came home with some tentative conclusions. ISIS brutality has created cross-sectarian alliances that will be hard to reverse. Just as the brutality of Al Qaeda forced Sunni sheikhs to reach out to U.S. units, ISIS has made an even bigger blunder by forcing many sheikhs to align themselves with Hashd units. Baghdadi may have (emphasis on “may”) created a pan-sectarian alliance that is the polar opposite of Zarqawi’s aim to divide Sunnis and Shia in an endless war of chaos. But real credit goes to Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who has repeatedly called for pan-sectarian cooperation.
In the spring of 2015, Hawija mayor Sabhan Khalef Ali al-Juburi put it this way:
“One day Iran was our enemy, but now Iran is helping us fight our enemy.”
Remember, this is the mayor of Hawija, a town where Iraqi soldiers shot dead Sunni protesters in 2012. The time Sabhan refers to when Iran was “our enemy” was the Iran-Iraq war, when at least fifty thousand Juburis fought the Ayatollah’s men.
It is incredible therefore, that the PMU has become more inclusive as ISIS have been rolled back. As early as September 2014, the first Sunni tribal fighters from the Jabour reached out to members of Asaib Ahl al-Haq in the small village of Dhuluiya. As noted, the Jabour had a long and complex relationship with both Saddam and post-2003 governments.
But their choice of AAH as an ally seemed odd, given the group’s controversial reputation—an indication of how quickly things were changing. Before long, Iraqi social media was awash with two incredible stories. A Sunni sheikh’s daughter, Umayyah Jabara, was killed in a firefight with ISIS in the bloody summer of 2014, and Um Qusay, another Sunni woman from Salahaddin, sheltered twenty-five Shia cadets who managed to escape the Speicher massacre. For some, these women have become symbols of national unity.
Of course, ten years after the bombing of the Shia Askari shrine, sectarian anger still haunts Iraqi society. As one Iraqi man told me, “the Sunnis will never return to Jurf al-Sakhar,” a town liberated from ISIS in 2014.
At the same time, it is true to say many Sunnis dread the arrival of Hashd units in their town, with Mosul being the glaring example. Likewise, there have been a number of well-documented atrocities committed by some Hashd groups, with at least one being openly admitted to by a Ministry of Interior official.
But even this story is not so simple. In 2015, there were reports of Hashd forces burning homes in Tikrit following ISIS’s expulsion from the town. It later transpired that many of those destroying property were Sunnis from the Jabour tribe, taking revenge on members of the nearby Albu Ajeel tribe, who had been accused of supporting ISIS. Later, Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Ameri visited a sheikh from Albu Ajeel to discuss the incidents, in what the sheikh said was a “fruitful meeting.”
In contrast to these incidents, when I spoke to Commander Ali al-Yasseri (pictured) of the Iran-backed Saraya al-Khorasani, he genuinely enthused about Sunnis in their ranks “who suffered under Saddam” and fought with great bravery.
Now a range of Hashd groups have significant Sunni membership, with one unit funded by Ataba and the Ministry of Defense, the Ali al-Akbar Brigade, boasting around 20 percent Sunni membership. Others, such as the (also MoD-backed) Abbas Combat Division, have only 10 percent Sunni membership, but the Sunni Hashd in that unit that we spoke to in southern Anbar appeared fiercely loyal to their outfit.
The simple reason is that the Abbas Combat Division had given them food aid and blankets. This is not surprising: being supported by the shrines, the Abbas Division closely follow Sistani’s command to protect Sunnis, who were (to Sistani) “not only our brothers, but us.” Much of Ataba’s recent work has involved helping internally displaced people (IDPs).
In Nukhaib, I spoke to a young Abbas Division fighter from the Albu Mahal tribe (the original Sahwa tribe) who had recently been taking part in the offensive on Hit, northwest of Ramadi. Another fighter, also from the Albu Mahal, confirmed that he had been fighting alongside the Jughaifa, a tribe with arguably the longest-running conflict with Salafist jihadis, in Haditha. I asked him about the United States and the Awakening, and his response was bleak:
“The Sahwa collapsed, is not here anymore. Before 2014, Daesh started by attacking undercover, assassinating people, hitting checkpoints. I think the Coalition at the very beginning were with us and we did very well, but in the end they dumped us and left us. So we were left with tribal and army support in Haditha.”
These Sunni Hashd, who had seen over a decade of war, could form the nucleus of the Sahwa 2.0, something that would be far more resilient than the first Sunni rebellion against Salafist terrorists in Iraq: an indigenously Iraqi Sahwa style movement (rather than one initiated by Washington) could have staying power, especially since groups such as the Abbas Combat Division say they will be incorporated into the armed forces, if the command is given.
Historians will long debate whether Maliki and his associates crushed a truce with former Baathists, and got ISIS in return. To many, the way the Sahwa were handled by Maliki seems foolish, and only a handful of Sunni sheikhs backed the PM after the arrests of Sunni politicians in 2011 and beyond. But reading about the Alwani tribal leader from Anbar who was linked to a massacre of Shia near Hillah in 1991, it is hard to suggest that the West could force the issue of reconciliation.
This isn’t to say we should throw reconciliation to the wind and be uncritical of Iraq’s conduct in fighting terror. Iraq should treat captive terrorists in accordance with international conventions, but our voice is limited in Iraq.
That said, a field commander in the Abbas Combat Division was aware of media reports about the Hashd, and stressed to us that “whatever you have heard, we do not torture captives.” Similarly, the commander of Saraya al-Khorasani spoke about “trials” for Sunnis who had supported “Daesh” after the war. We should be encouraged by these sentiments and continue to support partners in Iraq, who will be open to hearing how strengthened human rights are a key part of fighting terrorism.
Of course, since Saraya al-Khorasani were recently tipped by one Iranian MP to be the Iraqi version of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, it's clear that there are many sides to the Hashd. At the end of a long discussion on Iraqi politics with al-Yasseri, I asked if Western investors would be safe to work in Iraq. “Of course,” he smiled. “You are safe here with us, is that not proof enough?” Could the Iran detente be spilling into Iraq?
It seems unlikely now, but in Iraq things can change fast. If someone had told me in 2014 that the nearly destroyed Iraqi army would now be advancing on Mosul, I would not have believed them. But current political chaos in the Green Zone shows that events in Iraq can move faster than either Washington or Tehran can predict.
What matters now is that the nascent alliance of Sunnis and Shia in Iraq has an Iraqi vehicle, and that right now this is the Hashd. The Iraqi government will strongly reject any attempt to heavily arm a new version of the Sahwa, and so far the National Guard plan for Iraq’s Sunnis has been rejected. Romantics of the Sahwa movement can complain about this, but it is the new reality. Meanwhile, in the current Fallujah operation, the Sunni Jumailat tribe are present under commander Jumaa al-Jumaili, alongside fighters from the powerful Albu Issa tribe. The town’s mayor, Eissa Sayer al-Issawi, from the Albu Issa tribe, has praised Sunni participation in the Hashd.
More pressingly, Iraqi politics is now fragmented and in total deadlock. But just as there are new, albeit strained Sunni-Shia relations in the war on ISIS, nothing is simple in Iraq. Radical cleric Sadr effectively backs PM Abadi’s reforms. IRGC ally Hadi al-Ameri has repeatedly negotiated with the Kurdish PUK over the disputed city of Kirkuk (and signed at least one major contract with a U.S. firm when he was a Minister). And Saraya al-Khorasani are clearly close to former PM Maliki. What is the lesson here? Perhaps it is that understanding internal political dynamics within sects and ethnicities is more important for preventing Iraq’s next crisis than understanding the difference between Sunni and Shia.
Robert Tollast is a security and political risk analyst based in London, who focuses on Iraq. He has worked on studies in oil and gas, transport and telecoms in Iraq and the wider MENA region. He has written over seventy articles on Iraq in publications including Foreign Affairs and Delayed Gratification Magazine. He blogs at Iraq Business News.
Image: Saraya al-Khorasani commander Ali al-Yasseri. Photo credit: Scott Chasserot.