The fall of Ramadi on May 17 has had two key repercussions, neither of which will be reversed by simply retaking lost ground. First, it weakened Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi vis-a-vis his political rivals, in particular former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the pro-Iran militias allied with him. Second, it heightened the sectarian nature of the conflict by giving these militias a mandate to retake Anbar. Whereas the fight for Ramadi since January 2014 has been a largely non-sectarian affair—with army and police units made up of both Shia and Sunni personnel fighting against Sunni jihadis—Shia militias backed by Iran have since moved to the fore.
Ramadi’s fall to the Islamic State (IS) in May was preceded by a nearly seventeen-month-long pitched fight in which many of the city’s neighborhoods changed hands repeatedly. In early 2015, as the situation became increasingly dire, members of Anbar’s Sunni political and tribal leadership began to do the previously unthinkable by calling for Shia militias to intervene. That Ramadi fell after the Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashd) were prevented from participating blew whatever political capital Abadi might have had as a war leader at that point. As his army units retreated to eastern Anbar to regroup, he had no choice but to call for the Hashd to intervene in Anbar. Anbar’s provincial council also overcame its reservations and voted to endorse Hashd intervention in Anbar, but only on May 17, as the city was falling.
Nor were militia leaders themselves shy about making clear that Ramadi’s fall meant that they were in charge. Indeed, in doing so they quickly overreached, choosing the sectarian chant “We Obey You, O Hussein!” as the name of a wide operation in both Salahuddin and Anbar. The Hashd announced that Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the pro-Iran Badr Organization, would be the “field commander” in Anbar. On June 3, Ameri publicly blamed Ramadi’s fall on the prime minister giving in to Western pressure to restrain the Hashd. And when asked about whether the Hashd would participate in “liberating” Anbar, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Hashd’s overall military commander, told reportersthat the Hashd would “lead in Anbar.”
Following criticism, the name of the operation was changed to “We Obey You, O Iraq,” but militia leaders lost none of their swagger in asserting themselves. One of the strongest speeches came from Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) leader Qays al-Khazali, who spoke in the tone of a national war leader representing the Shia majority. In a swipe at Abadi, Khazali noted that they changed the name of the operation at the prime minister’s behest, “But still we say, ‘We Obey You, O Hussein!’”
But the Hashd’s discordant moves in Anbar—with Ameri first leading Hashd forces out to retake Ramadi only to then shift focus to Fallujah—illustrate how the army’s failure, Abadi’s enfeeblement, and the militias’ empowerment has left pro-government forces in strategic incoherence. In Ramadi, the withdrawal of some Hashd forces has left the army unable to take the city as planned. Also, disparate factions issue endless declarations about new operations and field victories without ever defeating the enemy. They disagree over who deserves credit for successful operations—in Karma, northeast of Fallujah, the Badr Organization, the army, and Ahrar Karma (a locally recruited Sunni Hashd group) each took responsibility for recent victories in the area.
In a sense, Karma also illustrates the weakness of Hashd, whose members speak incessantly of their “victories” and complain about those who downplay their achievements. The militias’ military record to date is actually rather mixed—unlike the army, they are undefeated when on the defense, but when on the offense their limited victories have occurred only when they had overwhelming numerical superiority, such as in Jurf al-Sakhr, Diyala, and some parts of Salahuddin.
Despite this mixed military record, the Hashd has achieved such a public standing that neither Abadi nor any other Shia public figure can truly criticize it. On June 13, attending a Hashd event commemorating the first anniversary of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s fatwa declaring a jihad against IS, Abadi emphasized a nonsectarian vision for the Hashd. Indeed, Sistani’s fatwa did not found the Hashd or even reference the militias under any name. The real origin of the Hashd dates to Maliki’s call to mobilize a “reserve army” on June 11, the day after Mosul’s fall. As he has before, Abadi sought to co-opt the Hashd even while backing it, saying that its legitimacy came from being subject to his rule.
The same day, AAH leader Qays al-Khazali presented a different vision for Hashd from the southern province of Muthanna. Headlining an event commemorating the Shia cleric-backed revolt against the British in 1920, Khazali drew a straight line of “Islamic resistance” from that uprising to the AAH-led fight against U.S. forces during the 2004-2011 period to the conflict against the Islamic State today. This narrative was ironic in a way Khazali surely did not intend; the 1920 revolt failed, after all, as did AAH’s war against the United States, which ultimately resulted in Khazali’s own captivity. But the “Revolution of 1920” is nonetheless revered in Iraq today, especially among Shia, and the Hashd and its leadership seek to gain prestige by tying itself to this narrative in the eyes of Iraqis.
In practical terms, the Hashd is important because to some extent it cannibalizes the army’s ability to secure arms, money, and recruits. In Dhi Qar, for example, there are four training camps supervised by the provincial police, who are reportedly training close to 3,000 new Hashd recruits. At the same time, while Iranian influence at the national level may give pro-Iran elements an edge (the Interior Ministry, which controls the police, is headed by a Badrist, Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban), ordinary Iraqis who are volunteering are doing so to fulfill a national call, and do not necessarily have divided loyalties.
Abadi’s key challenge now is to try and find a way to bring militia leaders in line, something which may only be possible once they have suffered an unmistakable defeat in an offensive they are leading. Over the long term, Abadi’s power of the purse—being able to decide which militias get money for salaries—could give him leverage, although Iranian support for its groups undermines this. So the irony for the Iraqi government is that with its forces so dependent on Hashd militia support, it may struggle to impose itself on the country unless they face military setbacks, and conversely, sustained Hashd success could undermine the process of state consolidation.
This article is reprinted with permission from Sada.
Kirk H. Sowell is a political risk analyst based in Amman, Jordan and the publisher of the biweekly newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics. On Twitter @uticensisrisk.