Experts say cleric's opposition to disbanding the Hashed Al Shaabi will ensure that they remain subject state control
How Sistani has strengthened Iraqi government's hand against militias
Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani has strengthened the Iraqi government's position by opposing the disbanding of a controversial paramilitary force, experts said.
The Hashed Al Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Units, comprises militias formed in 2014 after Mr Al Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, urged citizens to take up arms against ISIL militants who had swept aside government forces and seized control of much of northern Iraq.
In a sermon delivered through his representative on Friday, Mr Al Sistani praised the militias as a vital element of the Iraqi state, and one that the country should continue to benefit from, while insisting the groups should be kept within the judicial framework of the country’s security services.
Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, said Mr Al Sistani's call was positive for Baghdad.
“One of the key issues heading into next year's elections is the status of the Hashed Al Shaabi, and Sistani's statement has the effect of strengthening the central government versus any militia,” Mr Rubin told The National.
Although it played an important role in defeating ISIL, the Hashed remains deeply divisive and has been accused of abuses against Iraqi minorities in areas recaptured from the extremists. There are also concerns about its links to Iran, which has trained and armed many of the militias.
Iraq's parliament passed a law in November last year that recognised the militias as a legitimate arm of the state and part of its official security apparatus, answerable to the commander in chief.
The reality is far messier, said Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore.
“Article 9 of the Iraqi constitution of 2005 forbids the formation of militias and forbids the Iraqi armed forces and their personnel from standing for political office," Mr Haddad said.
“Some foreign observers were expecting Sistani’s sermon to announce the disbandment of the Hashed — this was always unrealistic. The debate within Iraq is not so much about the Hashed’s existence but more about its role, limits and legal constraints.”
In November, Iraq's prime minister Haider Al Abadi banned militia leaders from running in parliamentary and provincial elections in May, saying there should be "a clear separation between political and armed groups”.
Abbas Kadhim, senior foreign policy fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, said Mr Al Abadi's government welcomed the cleric's call "as it gives them authority over the fighters who are loyal to Grand Ayatollah Al Sistani”.
"[Grand Ayatollah Al Sistani's statement] solves the constitutional problem of banning political entities from running for elections while keeping armed wings, which applies now to most political entities”, Mr Khadim said.
Mr Haddad said the call “seeks to check the more Iran-leaning and more expansionist wing of the Hashed and to force them to toe the line if they wish to continue claiming the political and social capital that is gained from the Hashed affiliation”.
Mr Rubin said that although the Hashed had a central leadership, it was not "monolithic".
"The government has folded many of the groups that formed in response to Mr Al Sistani's 2014 call into the government already, but a few groups — often Iranian-backed — have sought to maintain autonomy. Sistani's statement, however, removes any implied religious cover these Iranian-backed groups might cite," he said.
Mr Khadim said that while the Hashed, which can field between 60,000 and 140,000 fighters, is recognised as a state entity, that does not make its militias part of the Iraqi armed forces.
For that to happen, the Hashed legislation “must be implemented to restructure the PMUs, replace their current commanders with military officers, and fully integrate them within the main body of the Iraqi military, ending their current status as semi-autonomous auxiliaries”.
On Monday, the influential Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr ordered his group of fighters in the Hashed, known as the Saraya Al Salam, or Peace Brigades, to disband and hand over territory held by them to state security forces.
Calls have been growing from the West for the Hashed to disband, with French president Emmanuel Macron proposing "a gradual demilitarisation" of the group and for all militias in Iraq to be "dismantled".