Al-Hashd al-Sha’bi: The Process of Secession, Its Aftermath and the Possibilities

Taylan Çökenoğlu Expert, Security Studies

The military-political positioning of the Shrine Militia so far and their secession seem to reflect Ayatollah al-Sistani’s vision.

Summary

  • The existing differences of opinion within al-Hashd al-Sha’bi have become more profound in the aftermath of the U.S. attack that killed Qasem Suleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
     
  • In a statement issued on February 22, the Hashd al-Sha’bi militia groups close to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, namely al-Imam Ali Combat Division, Ali al-Akbar Brigade and Ansar al-Marja’iyya, fiercely objected to Abu Fadak’s appointment to the position vacated by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Moreover, these militia organizations demanded new arrangements be made at the administrative level. However, their objections and new demands were refused.
     
  • After the attack on Camp Taji carried out on March 11 by pro-Iranian Hashd al-Sha’bi militias, the U.S. conducted a retaliatory strike against these elements in Karbala. The militias closely aligned with al-Sistani reacted fiercely to both attacks.
     
  • The representatives of the militias close to al-Sistani met with Defense Minister Najah al-Shammari in order to discuss their full integration into the Iraqi army. The Ministry, on the other hand, stated that a full integration was out of the question at the moment.
     
  • Persistence on the part of the four al-Hashd al-Sha’bi militia organizations close to al-Sistani eventually paid off. With an executive order signed on April 19 but announced to the public on April 22, those four militia groups have been both militarily and administratively brought under the authority of the Prime Minister.
     
  • The four militia groups announced in a joint statement they made on April 23 that they had become subordinate to the Office of the Prime Minister and stressed that they hoped other al-Hashd al-Sha’bi groups would do the same.
     
  • While some groups backed by Iran accused al-Sistani-aligned four militia groups of treachery, it was alleged that those groups received threats aiming to stop them from seceding from al-Hashd al-Sha’bi.
     
  • Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the biggest al-Hashd al-Sha’bi militia group, the Badr Brigades, started doing rounds at the end of April and beginning of March, in order to bring those groups that seceded from al-Hashd al-Sha’bi into the fold under a new organization called “joint administration”. Word came out later that al-Amiri had failed in his attempts to convince the secessionists to come back.
     

Context

  • Al-Hashd al-Sha’bi, which is not a monolithic military entity, is known to comprise three main branches except for the Sunnis and the minority groups: Militia groups that are close to Iran, to Muqtada al-Sadr and to Ayatollah al-Sistani.
     
  • Al-Hashd al-Sha’bi, as is known, was established after al-Sistani’s fatwa addressing all Iraqis and calling for the “establishment of volunteer units against the ISIS invasion.” This fatwa has become the single most crucial religious and national basis behind al-Hashd al-Sha’bi.
     
  • Although groups closely aligned with al-Sistani fought against ISIS on the battlefield as they did during the Liberation of Mosul, they were in the first place formed to protect the Shia shrines in Iraq. In this respect they are also called “The Shrine Militias”. The Shrine Militias follow al-Sistani’s lead in religious and political matters.
     
  • The disagreements between these al-Sistani-aligned militia groups and the ones close to Iran dates back to a few years ago. The Shrine Militias have filed their complaints on matters of administration, politics, military and economics with the state on several platforms.
     
  • Militias backed by Iran have been dominant in the decision-making mechanism within al-Hashd al-Sha’bi Commission since its inception. Because of this, the al-Sistani-aligned militias have many times stated that they were not allowed to equitably participate in the administrative committee.
     
  • The al-Sistani-aligned militias have been troubled by the transnational political-military agenda of the militia groups close to Iran. In other words, they oppose the involvement in the Syrian civil war and the tensions between U.S. and Iran of the Iran-backed groups. As such, they argue that the groups supported by Iran do not prioritize Iraq’s national security interests.
     
  • Therefore they have regarded the targeting of protestors during the riots against the government by groups of armed militia close to Iran as violation of national security and have been very critical of this situation.
     
  • These groups with allegiance to al-Sistani have opposed participation in political activities of people that are members of or organically linked with the armed groups. As a matter of fact, they had talked about the “full integration” into the Iraqi national army of al-Hashd al-Sha’bi also before the general election in 2018. Pro-al-Sistani groups think that other groups within al-Hashd al-Sha’bi use the name al-Hashd al-Sha’bi for political leverage.
     
  • The al-Sistani-aligned militia groups have argued that their share of the grant that the state handed over to al-Hashd al-Sha’bi Administrative Committee has been particularly small and stated that they have been forced to pay the salaries of several militia groups out of funds donated to the shrines by regular people.
     
  • The al-Sistani-aligned militia groups have criticized al-Hashd al-Sha’bi groups close to Iran for pursuing economic activities in such areas as reconstruction, public works and transportation and transboundary trade, part of which is claimed to be illegal, under the name of the organization.
     

Analysis

  • The military-political positioning of the Shrine Militia so far and their secession seem to reflect Ayatollah al-Sistani’s vision. It is clear that the process, with its emphasis on the “Iraqi national interests”, has been green-lighted by al-Sistani himself. That is to say, al-Sistani has once again manifested his renouncement of the military, political and economic strategies of the pro-Iran al-Hashd al-Sha’bi units.
     
  • The secession of these militia groups can be interpreted as al-Sistani’s stripping of the groups underpinned by Iran of their “spiritual legitimacy.” Thus, it is possible that the Iran-backed groups may fall into a new crisis of legitimacy in the days ahead, which might have negative repercussions for them in the upcoming elections.
     
  • As a matter of fact, that Hadi al-Amiri met with al-Sistani’s representatives and suggested that they jointly administer the Hashd al-Sha’bi Committee are signs that he takes this legitimacy crisis seriously.
     
  • Also, the claims by the Iran-backed groups that the attacks by ISIS which are becoming ever more frequent have been organized by the U.S., their emphasis on the weakness of the army and their discourse (“we will stay only if the people demand so”) corroborate the allegations that they have been seeking new sources of national legitimacy.
     
  • It is critical that the Iran-aligned militia groups, which emphasized new sources of legitimacy during and in the aftermath of secession, has been ratcheting up their threats towards political processes and willing to channel political processes into antagonism towards the U.S. In this respect, these groups, despite their loss of power, still demonstrate that they are a significant actor in the context of the U.S.-Iran tensions.
     
  • After al-Muhandis’s death, the Hashd al-Sha’bi wing supported by Iran has fallen into a crisis of coordination with respect to administrative activities. The Shrine Militias, looking to take advantage of this situation and bring al-Hashd al-Sha’bi closer to Al-Sistani’s line of thought, have afterwards turned to the option of full integration into the army. Moreover, in a new act of defiance, they have called the groups not backed by Iran to adopt the same option. The call has increased the possibility that more militia groups may secede from al-Hashd al-Sha’bi. Hence, for the Shrine Militias which do not want to become instruments in the regional tensions used in an asymmetric manner, post-al-Muhandis period has been regarded as one whereby they can gain more ability to maneuver.

Al-Hashd al-Sha’bi, Shrine Militias, al-Sistani, Iraq, Iran, U.S.A.

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