Leaders from the Hashed Al Shaabi are already jockeying to run, raising concern over the influence armed groups might have in the polls
Iraq's militias: after victory over ISIL, will next battle be at the ballot box?
After achieving victory over ISIL in 2017, Baghdad faces the challenges of not only reconstruction and tackling corruption and sectarianism but also deciding the future of paramilitary militias that were instrumental in defeating the extremist group.
The issue of the militias has come to the forefront as Iraq prepares to hold general elections in May. A number of militia leaders have already indicated their desire to run, while prime minister Haider Al Abadi has warned that political factions associated with armed groups will not be allowed to participate.
The militias known collectively as Hashed Al Shaabi or, in English, the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), were formed in 2014 after Ayatollah Ali 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.
“The Hashed Al Shaabi is extremely popular within Iraq and is seen as a symbol of Iraq's fight against ISIS,” said Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore.
ISIL seized large parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria in 2014, declaring a cross-border "caliphate" and committing widespread atrocities. At their height, the extremists threatened the Iraq's very existence.
With backing from the US-led coalition against ISIL, Iraqi forces along with the Hashed have retaken control of all territory lost to ISIL over the past three years.
However the militias, which are mostly trained and supported by Iran, remain deeply divisive and have been accused of a string of abuses in Iraq.
“We have been tracking abuses by different armed actors in Iraq since 2003 of course and PMF are not an exception in that respect because we have documented many abuses by the Iraqi army and federal police and other state forces,” Belkis Wille, senior Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The National.
“The reality is that since November 2016 the PMF are actual state forces on paper as they answer to the prime minister and as a result Iraq as a government has a certain level of responsibility for their actions,” she said.
They are also seen by the United States and Gulf Arab states as a potential tool for Iranian plans to expand its influence in the region.
There are certain units within the PMF who are considerably more problematic, Ms Wille said.
“They have been the most clearly linked to massacres, demolitions, war crimes, torture, holding of prisoners for extended periods of time,” she said.
Amnesty International reported in January that the militias "continued to use a wide range of arms and ammunition to commit or facilitate serious human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes, with impunity”.
The report urged Iraq’s authorities to implement effective command and control over paramilitary militias by Iraqi armed forces, and establish effective oversight and accountability mechanisms by civilian bodies.
Human Rights Watch has urged Baghdad’s central government to “punish” those units who have been “seen to be abusive”.
“They cannot be allowed to continue to carry out juris functions in their area with impunity because that really does spell the continued cycle of violence in Iraq,” Ms Wille said.
In November, Mr Al Abadi banned militia leaders from running in the elections, saying there should be a “clear separation between political and armed groups”.
Michael Knights, Iraq analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Mr Al Abadi needs to focus on building a strong coalition that marginalises militia leaders.
While the militias are technically under the control of the Iraqi prime minister, Iran holds considerable influence over the groups.
“The problem is that a leader can simply declare themselves separate from the armed militia and compete in the elections, whilst all the time maintaining strong and very obvious informal ties,” Mr Knights said.
“We shouldn’t be focused on legalities in a state with weak rule of law because it is so easy to get around the rules."
The only reason political groups retain their arms is to try to win by force what they cannot win at the ballot box, said Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington.
“Al Abadi is saying that anyone contesting the elections have to be all-in for democracy, even if they lose. But, behind the principle, there's also the recognition that Nouri Al Maliki, Abadi's predecessor in the premiership and Dawa Party rival, has aligned himself with the Hashed Al Shaabi,” Mr Rubin said.
This “signals the ramping up of some political competition before election season officially begins”.
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, said Mr Haddad, the researcher at the National University of Singapore.
“Paramilitary organisations have been a permanent feature of post-2003 elections and a few have contested elections albeit by setting up separate political wings. For example, Asaib Ahl Al Haq — a known paramilitary group — contests elections under the banner of Sadiqun,” he said.
The next election will see more such examples, he said. “The head of the Hashed Commission, Falih Al Fayadh, has already set up Harakat Ata to contest elections and Hashed spokesman Ahmed Al Asdi has set up Al Mujahideen for the same purpose.”
Meanwhile, some leaders of major Hashed groups have been encouraging their fighters to withdraw from areas they currently occupy and to hand over weapons to the state.
Aniseh Tabrizi, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said this suggested attempts "to de-link the military wing from the political one in order to facilitate their participation, aware of the fact they could not run for elections otherwise”.
Mr Haddad stresses that the Hashed is not a group but more of a brand name, encompassing more than 40 formations of varying size, strength, popularity and name recognition.
“What is mythologised and looked up to is the idea of the Hashed rather than any particular person or entity within it," he said. "That abstraction will stand in the way of a direct transfer of the Hashed's iconic status into votes” since no one entity can speak for the Hashed and no one individual or formation can claim the Hashed for themselves.
However, the militias and their members do benefit from the association with Hashed, and also retain distinguishing characteristics, the experts said.
"Some [of the fighters] aren’t Shiite, so they will become an interest group and lobby," said Mr Rubin. "Like the peshmerga [army force] in Iraqi Kurdistan, they feel they are owed something for their sacrifice and because of the Iraqi victory against Daesh, they represent a place of honour in much of the Iraqi society.”
Andrew Parasiliti, director of the Rand Centre for Global Risk and Security, said members of the Hashed had “the street credibility of being part of the successful effort to defeat ISIL”.
Some of the groups have provided “protection and/or services to some of the areas they controlled, thus enjoying different levels of legitimacy and support in the communities throughout Iraq”, Ms Tabrizi said.
“They have their constituencies," Mr Parasiliti said. "But whether individually or collectively they can be an effective political force in the coming elections, especially given Mr Al Abadi’s relatively strong position in light of the events of the past few months, remains to be seen.”