In Iraq, the Hashd calls the shots, by Adel Bakawan (Le Monde diplomatique

Saraya al-Salam jihadists in clashes with Iraqi security forces, Baghdad, 30 August 2022

Ahmad al-Rubaye · AFP · Getty

When ISIS fighters took Mosul, Iraq’s second city, on 10 June 2014, the nation suffered a collective shock. The army, anti-terrorism forces, police and other national security bodies had proved unable to defeat a few hundred jihadists and, as state forces retreated, they left behind tonnes of military equipment that was picked up by the Sunni-affiliated Daesh (ISIS) fighters. It was experienced as a national disaster, creating a widespread sense of panic and humiliation.

Three days after Mosul fell, Ali al-Sistani, the highest religious authority in Najaf — the heart of Iraqi Shiism — issued a fatwa calling for a popular military mobilisation against ISIS.

In response, thousands of young volunteers who would never have considered signing up to Iraq’s discredited army joined new or existing militias. To keep control of these diverse militias, the government created a body called the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Committees). Some Iraqi politicians were soon calling it the ‘new Republican Guard’, a reference to Saddam Hussein’s elite corps. The Hashd played a crucial role in defeating ISIS and its influence still largely shapes Iraqi politics.

The militias, united under one banner, have expanded their operations beyond fighting ISIS and its affiliates. It’s indicative of the Hashd’s growing importance that in July 2023 the government budget recorded its headcount as 238,075 (compared to 122,000 in 2021) or 6% of the civil service, with a payroll of around $2.65bn (1.8% of the total national budget). By way of comparison, the army has a staff of 454,000 and the interior ministry 700,000. Understanding how a paramilitary outfit reached such a size and got to have such a significant impact on public finances entails tracing the evolution of post-Saddam Iraq.

For the authorities that took over after Saddam was removed from power on 9 April 2003, the Hashd was a guarantor of survival, much like the Pasdaran who defend Iran’s Islamic (…)

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