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article imageHashed al-Shaabi: controversial force on Iraq's frontlines

By AFP     Oct 25, 2017 in World

A vital force that helped defeat the Islamic State group, or a dangerous tool of Iran?

Fighters from Iraq's Hashed al-Shaabi are a controversial irregular element battling on the country's frontlines.

The organisation formed in 2014 after the country's most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urged citizens to take up arms against IS jihadists who had swept aside government forces and seized much of northern Iraq.

Bringing together a dizzying array of paramilitary groups under the command of Iraq's prime minister, the Hashed has since played a key role in battles against IS and more recently against Kurdish forces.

But the Shiite-dominated alliance remains deeply divisive and has been accused of a wave of abuses.

Iraqi fighters from the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary organisation mark Ashura  commemorating the ki...
Iraqi fighters from the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary organisation mark Ashura, commemorating the killing of Imam Hussein, one of Shiite Islam's most revered figures, as they advance on Islamic State group positions on October 1, 2017
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE, AFP

Ahead of a visit to Baghdad this week, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took a swipe at Tehran's perceived influence over the Hashed by insisting that Iranian militias in Iraq should "go home".

But Iraqi premier Haider al-Abadi stepped up to defend them, insisting the alliance is made up of "Iraqis who have fought terrorism, defended their country and made sacrifices".

- Martyrs or puppets? -

Known in English as the Popular Mobilisation Units, the various forces within the Hashed can field somewhere between 60,000 and 140,000 fighters.

Iraq's parliament classes it as a state force operating within the country's constitution.

While it includes some Christian and Sunni Muslim forces, the umbrella group is dominated by powerful Shiite militias such as Kataeb Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr organisation.

"To many, these martyrs have given up their lives in defence of their country," the Carnegie Middle East Center said in an April report.

An Iraqi man waves a white flag as fighters from the Hashed al-Shaabi advance on the Islamic State g...
An Iraqi man waves a white flag as fighters from the Hashed al-Shaabi advance on the Islamic State group's stronghold of Hawija on October 1, 2017
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE, AFP

But "to many critics, the (Hashed) symbolises Iranian and Shia efforts to exercise supremacy over Iraq."

It said that while the group is riven with internal rivalries, leaders have regularly met with Qassem Suleimani, the powerful commander of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards' foreign operations division.

That connection was made public in July, when the Hashed's number two Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis appeared on Iranian TV speaking Farsi and pledging allegiance to Suleimani.

- 'Part of the problem' -

As the Hashed battled across Iraq to seize territory from IS, they were frequently accused of carrying out brutal abuses.

Residents of Sunni-dominated towns that had fallen under jihadist control often feared their arrival.

As US-backed Iraqi forces regrouped and strengthened after their catastrophic collapse in the the face of IS in 2014, the Hashed were increasingly sidelined.

They were kept away from the gruelling battle for IS bastion Mosul and focused instead on the smaller town of Tal Afar.

Iraqi forces and Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary fighters hold a position as they advance towards the ...
Iraqi forces and Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary fighters hold a position as they advance towards the Islamic State group's stronghold of Hawija on September 30, 2017
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE, AFP

Now, as the fight to oust IS from territories it seized in 2014 draws to a close, the authorities face a conundrum: what to do with the Hashed?

As the jihadists are driven back into a dwindling rump territory on the border with Syria, the group's initial reason for being appears to be fading.

"The (Hashed) is now as much part of the problem as part of the solution," Carnegie wrote.

"Many who perceived the (Hashed) to be a security asset and a saviour in the struggle against (IS) in 2014, when the Iraqi army was in shambles, now view it as more of a liability and menace."

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