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Country Risk

Law legalising Iraq's Hashd al-Shaabi assures militias' funding and facilitates political engagement but hinders country's reconciliation project

02 December 2016
Fighters of the Popular Mobilisation Units on the front line against Islamic State militants outside Mosul, Iraq, on 26 November 2016. Source: PA

Key Points

  • The passage of law making the Hashd al-Shaabi part of Iraq's armed forces will not increase government oversight or influence over Shia militias.
  • However, the legislation will safeguard militias against pressure to demobilize following the conclusion of military operations against the Islamic State and facilitate such groups' future participation in elections.
  • Sunni opposition to the law threatens to derail the project for national reconciliation.

EVENT

On 26 November 2016, Iraq's parliament voted to give the predominantly Shia Hashd al-Shaabi militia (also referred to as the Popular Mobilisation Units or PMU) legal status by making it a permanent stand-alone component of the Iraqi armed forces, under the Ministry of Defence.

As with the army, Hashd al-Shaabi fighters, which comprise approximately 110,000 soldiers will receive salaries and pensions. This will probably be in addition to ongoing funding from Iran received by many of the Iran-aligned component groups. The Hashd al-Shaabi comprises groups of varied political affiliations and loyalties; its leading components - the Badr Organisation, Kata'eb Hizbullah and Asai'ib Ahl al-Haq - are closely aligned with Iran and their operations on the ground are co-ordinated by the head of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani. Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Peace Brigades are another component, had until recently maintained an openly antagonistic stance towards these groups and distanced himself from association with the Hashd al-Shaabi as an entity and its Iranian backers. The final component comprises those groups that answer directly to the Shia religious establishment in Iraq's holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, including the Ali Al Akhbar Brigade and the Abbas Division; these receive donations from Iran, but do not receive training from, and are not otherwise close to, the IRGC. Although the Hashd al-Shaabi will be funded from the Ministry of Defence budget, the law did not specify under whose operational command it would fall; and this may be, on paper, the Iraqi chiefs of staff/minister of defence, it is likely that in reality it will be answerable directly to the prime minister, with Iran exercising a controlling influence.

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