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Increasing inter-factional competition within Hashd al-Shaabi threatens deepening insecurity in Iraq

On 3 January, an airstrike conducted by a United States military unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) at Baghdad International Airport killed the head of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps – Quds Force (IRGC-QF), Qassem Suleimani, and a deputy chairman of the Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militia umbrella the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Before the airstrike, the dynamics within and between the various Shia militias within Hashd al-Shaabi were relatively stable. Suleimani controlled factions with close ties to Iran, such as Kataib Hizbullah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Imam Ali, Saraya al-Khorosani, and Jund al Imam, while Muhandis had oversight over the more nationalistic Iraqi factions, such as the Qiwaat Abu Fadl al-Abbas, Badr Brigades, and Saraya al-Salam. After the strike, though, the power vacuum created by the deaths of two senior commanders, and the need to replace them, has catalyzed increased competition within Hashd al-Shaabi. Although the factions with closer ties to Iran are now most likely commanded by Esmail Qaani, Suleimani’s replacement as head of the IRGC-QF, it is not clear who has succeeded Muhandis with regard to Iraqi nationalist factions.

Impact of competition within Hashd al-Shaabi

The tensions that have arisen in the wake of the airstrike have manifested themselves in different ways. First, the competition calls into question the military role of Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq. The Iraqi nationalist factions actively participated in the 2014–17 campaign to reclaim territory from the Islamic State, operating across a large area, from Fallujah in Anbar province to Tal Afar in Ninawa province. Conversely, though pro-Iran factions were also present on front lines and in military operation rooms, their role in actual combat was much more limited.

An anti-government protester in the Iraqi capital Baghdad in November 2019.  (Getty Images)

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