Sunday, January 31, 2021

The October Revolution and the Popular Mobilization Units: Will Iraq Become a Province of Iran?ثورة أكتوبر ووحدات الحشد الشعبي: هل يصبح العراق ولاية إيرانية؟

Members of al-Hashad al-Sha'bi militias 2017
A specter haunts Iraq.  Slowly and surely, Iran is taking control of Iraq through its proxy militias, al-Hashad al-Sha’bi (Popular Mobilization Units).  What is al-Hashad al-Sha’bi and what is the threat its militias pose to Iraq?   


Militias favorable to Iran, such as the Badr Organization (Corps), have existed since the Bush administration (foolishly) invited sectarian politicians to return to Iraq from exile in Iran after Saddam Husayn was deposed in 2003. Iran quickly moved to exploit the ties it had created with these politicians, such as Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Badr Organization ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Ibrahim al-Ja’fari, of the Islamist al-Da’wa Party, and his fellow member, Nuri al-Maliki.  These politicians influenced other Iraqi expatriates to favor Iran, such as Ahmad al-Chalabi, convicted by Jordan in 1967 of swindling funds from the failed Petra Bank in Amman. 

al-Hashad units carry banners of Sulemani and Muhandis

In 2007, the late Iranian Maj. General, Qasem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, which is part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), decided to establish a new militia movement which he thought would be more effective in combatting US forces in Iraq and forcing them to withdraw.  Dissatisfied with the Badr Organization, which had by then split with SCIRI, and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which had not performed well against US forces, Suleimani established and trained the Kata’ib Hizballah militia along the lines of Hizballah in Lebanon. Iran's Chosen Proxy Militia in Iraq 


The new militia was led by Abu Mahdi Muhandis (Jamal Ibrahimi), who died together with Suliemani in the January 3, 2020 drone attack at Baghdad Airport, and had a long history of involvement in terrorist activities.  He was linked to 1980s terrorist attacks in Lebanon and terrorist attacks and attacks on the US and French embassies in Kuwait for which he was tried in absentia and sentenced to death.  Once the US learned of his background, he was forced to flee Iraq for Iran where he remained until US forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 


Iran’s proxy militias received a strong boost after Islamic State terrorists seized Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June, 2014, and then went on to occupy additional territory in north central Iraq, almost one-third of the country, and began moving towards Baghdad.  Alarmed at these developments, and the Islamic State’s execution of 1500 Shi’a Iraqi Army trainees at Camp Speicher in north central Iraq, Grand Ayatallah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa calling on Iraqis to take up arms since the Iraqi Army was in disarray and unable to stop the Islamic State. 

(For an analysis of how former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq’s arch sectarian entrepreneur, dismantled the Iraqi Army and set the mostly Sunni populace of Mosul against the Federal Government in Baghdad, see my posts below. In them, I describe how the sectarian policies al-Maliki pursued after he was allowed to remain in office by the Obama administration after he lost the 2010 parliamentary elections enabled the Da’ish terrorists to seize Mosul with relative ease The Political Obstacles to Defeating the (so-called) Islamic State in Iraq, A Tale of Two States: Iraq and the IS, and What Does It Mean to Defeat the Islamic State? The Need for a Comprehensive Strategy).   


At Sistani’s behest, a large number of militias were formed, most of which were Shi’a dominated, and began fighting IS forces with the aid of both IRGC and US forces.  These developments allowed Iran to use its proxy militias to further infiltrate Iraqi security forces, especially Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior, where the pro-Iranian security forces are known in Arabic as the “damaj,” from the verb indimaj (incorporated), namely hired after they were trained in and returned from Iran.   


Ministry of Interior security forces have been instrumental in killing hundreds of peaceful youth protestors who support Thawrat Tishreen and wounding over 25,000.  Dozens of Thawrat Tishreen leaders and activists have been kidnapped and tortured, with the whereabout of many still unknown and thought to be dead or held in secret Hashad prisons.

The Killing of Qasem Suleimani and the October Revolution: What Western Analysts Aren't Telling You but What You Need to Know

Since 2014, and especially after the military defeat of the IS in 2017, al-Hashad has expanded its power in Iraq, playing a central role in its national politics and exercising ever greater control over illicit economic activity, all the while promoting Iranian influence in Iraq.  

As documented by the Arabic press, and a special report by the highly respected French newspaper, Le Monde, the most powerful Hashad militias, which are trained and funded by Iran, have created their own “state within a state.” "Popular Mobilization Forces" control the arteries of Iraq "a state within a state" «لوموند»: ميليشيات «الحشد الشعبي» تسيطر على مفاصل العراق «دولة داخل دولة»


This deep state includes not only the penetration of the organs of the state, but the creation of an illicit “black market” economy.  Using a complex in Jurf al-Sakhar in Babel Province developed by Saddam Husayn to test weaponry and ammunition, an “economic zone” has been created near the Tigris River with road connecting it to Iran.  Only members of certain militias are allowed into this zone.  As the Le Monde Report noted, not even current Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi can enter this zone.   


One of the most lucrative activities are the sale of smuggled automobiles which, like all goods traded by the pro-Iran militias, don’t pay Iraqi customs taxes.  With Iraq’s budget already in a free fall due to the drop in oil prices and the massive state corruption and salaries paid to militias members, losing customs tariffs further weakens its economy. 


Meanwhile, in Jurf al-Sakhar, an estimated 110,000 members of the Janabeen tribe, most of who are farmers,  has been expropriated and the former owners forced to leave the area.  Several tribal shaykhs who protested the expulsion have been assassinated. 

In October 2021, Iraq will hold scheduled national parliamentary elections.  These elections will be highly contested by multiple political parties and interest groups.  However, at the core of the elections will center on the struggle between two groups seeking to influence Iraq’s future politics and political identity.   


One group represents the youth who organized the powerful October Revolution in October 2019 (Thawrat Tishreen) which seeks to end the massive corruption that plagues Iraq’s political class and establish effective democratic governance.  The other group is the al-Hashad al-Sha’bi militias which view any political change, especially if it proposes ending corruption and greater democratization and transparent governance, as an existential threat to its political and financial interests.  

Which of these forces will win out?  The youth and their extensive support among the Iraqi populace at large, or al-Hashad which will sees the October 2021 elections as an opportunity to further consolidate their power and Iran’s influence in Iraq? 


Thus far, over 240 political parties, many of them new, and at least 3 associated with supporters of Thawrat Tishreen, have registered to participate in the October 2021 national elections.  To date, youth democracy activists have conducted most of their political activity online.  As reported by Iraq’s most respected newspaper, al-Mada, they fear appearing in public could lead to their assassination by al-Hashad militia members. 

أحزاب تشرين تستعد لخوض الانتخابات بحملات إلكترونية تجنباً لعمليات الاغتيال


After a lengthy investigation, al-Mada has also reported that Iran has organized social media training for Iraqi agents to disrupt the October 2021 elections through "electronic armies."  Located in a dilapidated, non-descript Baghdad warehouse, members of Lebanon’s Hizballah teach these Iraqis how to spread fake news and intimidate democracy activists.  Using state of the art technology and equipment, funded by Iran, Hizballah directs the trainees to “out” democracy activists so that they become intimidated by being identified as opposing Iran and the Islamist republic it seeks to impose on Iraq. These

ناشطون يشكون ملاحقات الجيوش الإلكترونية: هددونا بالتصفية وحرق البيوت

Already, additional youth supporters of Thawrat Tishreen have been abducted.  In the city of al-Nasiriya in Iraq’s southern Dhi Qar province, older generation supporters of democratization have been killed or wounded.  Recently, large demonstration of youth in al-Nasiriya demanded that the city administration and security forces inform them of the whereabout of Sajjad ‘Ali by Friday, February 5th. 

Terrorsist activity engaged in by members of al-Hashad al-Sha'bi


Will the Mustafa al-Kadhimi government be able to protect voters who seek to elect true democrats to Iraq’s parliament?  The record thus far in protecting the peaceful demonstrators of Thawrat Tishreen isn’t encouraging.  There have also been calls to invite United nations and European Union countries to send representatives to monitor the elections to ascertain if they are fair and free. 


If the elections are bring about meaningful reforms in Iraq’s political system, al-Hashad al-Sha’bi – Iran’s proxies in Iraq – must first be brought under control. The Biden administration and the European Union must make it clear to Tehran that there will be no sanction relief unless  it allows the Iraqi government to dissolve its proxy militias.