Divisions within Iraq’s Hashd al-Sha’abi (Popular Mobilization Forces or PMF) were on display recently, after Iranian-backed brigades appointed Abu Fadak al-Muhammadawi as the deputy president — the de facto head — of the Hashd al-Sha’abi Committee to replace Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed with Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike in January. The late February appointment drew criticism from elements of the Hashd not aligned with Iran, demonstrating one of the fault lines within the movement as a whole — and hinting at a wider division in Iraq’s politics over the role and future of an organization increasingly operating as a parallel security force to the conventional Iraqi military.

A New Head for the PMF 

Al-Muhandis was a skilled operator and may prove impossible to truly replace. As the founder and commander of Kata’ib Hezbollah (Iran’s go-to proxy in Iraq) al-Muhandis had the intelligence, political ability, and military experience to unite the various militias that make up the Iranian-backed element of the Hashd al-Sha’abi. He also had a strong working relationship with Soleimani, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force commander. In 2016, the entire Hashd al-Sha’abi formation (made up of dozens of disparate militias and armed groups) was legalized and incorporated into the Iraqi Security Forces through an act of parliament. From that time, Iranian-backed militias (coordinated by al-Muhandis) were able to embed themselves into parts of the Iraqi government. Al-Muhandis became particularly influential through his role as the operational commander of the PMFs.

His nominated replacement has a lot to live up to. Al-Muhammadawi (real name Abdul Aziz al-Muhammadawi) worked for the Badr Organization from 1983. Badr is among the oldest of the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, having originally formed to fight Saddam Hussein. The organization became part of the Hashd al-Sha’abi and continues to be one of the more powerful Iran-backed elements in the formation. Al-Muhammadawi went on to work with Soleimani via a number of militias resisting the United States in the years following the 2003 invasion. 

The selection committee formed to choose a successor to al-Muhandis demonstrated the degree to which the Hashd al-Sha’abi has been captured by its Iran-backed militias. Though the formation and its governing body is established in law and sits under the prime minister and the Iraqi government, the individuals on the selection committee represented some of the major Iran-linked groups. In addition to al-Muhammadawi himself, other members included Abu Ali al-Basri (Badr Organization and assistant to the vice chairman of the Hashd), Abu Muntazir al-Hussaini (Badr and former prime ministerial advisor for Hashd Affairs), Abu Iman al-Bahli (head of Hashd intelligence, and linked to Kata’ib Hezbollah), Abu Alaa al-Walai (secretary general of Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, or PMF brigade 14), Laith al-Khazali (brother of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq’s leader and founder Qais al-Khazali), and Ahmed al-Asadi (the PMF official spokesperson, and Fatah party official).

Kata’ib Hezbollah quickly announced its full support for al-Muhammadawi via a statement on its website. The statement went on to praise the Hashd al-Sha’abi for its role countering ISIS and the “Zionist-Saudi-American axis of evil.” Kata’ib Hezbollah also warned that it will be important to keep the Hashd al-Sha’abi independent of the mainstream Iraqi security forces, and stressed that Kata’ib Hezbollah will stand against those seeking to dismantle or weaken the Hashd. 

In recent months, there have been growing questions about the future role of the Hashd al-Sha’abi. Though the militias are legally part of the Iraqi state, the government has limited control over Iran-backed element. The issue has been raised frequently by anti-corruption protesters, who have been met with violence by Iranian-backed Hashd al-Sha’abi elements.

Pushback from Within the Hashd al-Sha’abi 

After Mohammadawi’s appointment was announced by Iran-backed PMF elements, a group of four Hashd al-Sha’abi brigades issued their own statement criticizing the decision and process. “We had no knowledge of any appointment to the position of deputy president of the Hashd al-Sha’abi Committee at this time. This requires a legal process which is unavailable at a time of two governments, where one is conducting business [as a caretaker government] while the other has not yet finished being appointed. The Shrine Militias have lodged their view with the President of the Committee and are awaiting an official response.” The statement referred to the ongoing situations in Iraqi politics, with outgoing Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who resigned due to the anti-corruption protests, performing a caretaker role as then-Prime Minister-designate Muhammad Tawfiq al-Allawi attempted to form a cabinet and pass it through parliament. (Allawi was unsuccessful and withdrew; President Barham Saleh now must select a replacement prime minister designate.)

The groups that issued the complaint are known as “shrine militias,” formed to protect Shi’ite holy sites and also a part of the Hashd al-Sha’abi (Brigades 2, 11, and 44). Unlike many of the larger militias, these brigades largely owe allegiance to the influential Iraqi Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is based in Najaf and widely seen as the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shi’ites.

Sistani was influential in the creation of the Hashd al-Sha’abi — in a 2014 fatwa, he called on “citizens to defend the country, its people, the honor of its citizens, and its sacred places” from the growing ISIS threat, by “volunteer[ing] to serve in the security forces for this holy purpose.” Sistani’s intention was always for volunteers to serve with the conventional security forces, and since 2014 he has never used the term “Hashd al-Sha’abi”, preferring “mutatawwa’een” or “volunteers.” Indeed, the 89-year-old Ayatollah’s influence is generally viewed as a moderating force both by the Hashd al-Sha’abi militias and in wider Iraqi politics.

While pro-Iranian brigades such as Kata’ib Hezbollah, Badr, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, and Harakat al-Nujaba have gained significant attention due to their considerable combat power and their role as Iranian proxies in a shadow war against the United States, it is also important to understand that the other factions exist under the Hashd al-Sha’abi umbrella. Some of these factions — including shrine militias like the al-Abbas Combat Division, Ansar al-Marja’iya Brigade, and Ali al-Akbar Brigade, are wary of the growing Iranian capture of the PMF and the wider Iraqi government. 

Policy Implications

Understanding the differences among the Hashd al-Sha’abi factions is vital as the organization gains increasing influence in government, including the official Iraqi security sector. It can be easy to assume that all elements of the PMF function as a monolithic entity, and at Iran’s bidding. In fact, there are concerns inside the formation and across wider society about the future of the Hashd al-Sha’abi. The naked coopting of the whole movement by Iran and Iranian-linked militias has been a concern for Sistani-linked units and for Iraqi nationalist groups for some time. There is also concern about the Hashd’s attempts to capture government, even as militias frequently flout the rule of Iraqi law. Muhammadawi’s appointment to a government position created through Iraqi legislation by a cabal of leading Iranian proxies was clearly brazen enough for some militias to express their concerns in public.

The United States should consider ways to strengthen the more constructive elements in this drama. The next Iraqi government should be encouraged to exercise its legal power over the Hashd al-Sha’abi to appoint an “official” candidate to the role of deputy president. Ideally, the individual would be less overtly loyal to Iran than the likes of al-Muhammadawi but would still possess significant popular stature and combat experience to be accepted by the wider formation, while being able to withstand attempts at intimidation by Iran-backed elements.

U.S. officials also should continue to emphasize the importance of keeping known human rights abusers out of the Iraqi government. Continuing to designate leaders of problematic militias involved in corrupt acts and human rights abuses against protesters under the Global Magnitsky Act and the Specially Designated Global Terrorist program shores up existing domestic criticism of these bad actors, by indicating to protesters (and concerned Hashd al-Sha’abi units) that their concerns are shared by Iraq’s allies.

While any effective reform of Iraq’s security sectors will take a decade or more, this is a critical moment for setting the conditions for future success. Iran-backed groups like Kat’aib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq should not be allowed to continue consolidating control over the Iraqi state, especially as they disregard the rule of law or the human rights of their fellow Iraqis.

IMAGE: Fighters of the Hashd al-Sha’abi (Popular Mobilization units) advance through a street in the town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, after the Iraqi government announced the launch of the operation to retake it from Islamic State (IS) group control, on August 26, 2017. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images)