On July 14, the Badr Organization held a funeral procession in Baghdad for several of its leaders who had died fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Anbar, including Abu Muntadhar Al-Muhammadawi, Badr’s national operations chief; Abu Habib Al-Sakini, commander of Badr’s Fourth Brigade; and Abu Sarhan Al-Sabihawi, head of the Fourth Brigade’s operations. The procession was similar to that which a general in the Iraqi army might receive, and alongside Badr leader Hadi Al-Ameri marched key figures of Iraq’s Shia political establishment—Vice President Nouri Al-Maliki, Deputy Prime Minister Bahaa Al-Araji (the Sadrist Movement’s highest-ranking official), Islamic Supreme Council of Iraqi (ISCI) leader Ammar Al-Hakim, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis (a long-time Iranian asset who oversees the part of Iran-backed militias in the war effort), and National Security Advisor Faleh Al-Fayyad, among others. During the procession Badrists carried the Iraqi flag and their own militia’s flag, a yellow-and-green design of a rifle overlaying a picture of Iraq, reminiscent Lebanese Hezbollah’s.
Badr—founded in the 1980s in Iran, its continued supporter—is not only the most important of the various armed groups composing the Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashd). It also symbolizes how Iraqis’ hopes for a democratic country governed by the rule of law have given way to a political system that is expressly sectarian and increasingly resembles a garrison state. No other militia-political party was better prepared to capitalize on the collapse of Iraqi security forces in northern Iraq last June. Badr’s military commander, Ameri—who tried and failed to get an appointment as minister of defense or interior, in part due to U.S. opposition—has been transportation minister since Maliki’s second cabinet and is now a parliamentarian. Under the new government of Haider Al-Abadi, Ameri was able to get a member of his party, Mohammed Salem Al-Ghabban, confirmed as interior minister. Prior to leaving office, Maliki had made Ameri the military governor of Diyala—an informal appointment usually described euphemistically as al-masuul al-amani (the security official)—which he remains to this day.
Ameri, now on leave from parliament, has captured far more renown in his militia commander role than he ever did as a cabinet minister. In October 2014, Ameri was often described as the “leader” of the militia-led offensive to subdue Jurf Al-Sakhr, a mostly Sunni area south of Baghdad, and consolidate Shia control around the capital. By February 2015 Badr had secured Diyala, whose narrow Sunni Arab majority is nestled between Baghdad and Iran. Badr and other militias sustained criticism that they were engaging in retribution attacks and attempting to cleanse the Sunni population from these areas. But the ministry of human rights—also held by a Badrist, Mohammed Mahdi al-Bayati—sent a senior official to speak at Badr’s February 16 celebration of their victory in Diyala and defend the conduct of the Badr-led Hashd.
Ameri’s military preeminence continued in March with the launch of the operation to liberate Tikrit and northern Salahuddin. Iran, through Badr, initially played more of a role in the offensive than Iraqi leaders did, and photos of the infamous Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani sometimes appeared alongside Ameri himself, dominating media coverage. Yet the militia-led offensive was forced to step back from Tikrit to let the U.S.-led international coalition conduct airstrikes against dug-in jihadis, allowing the formal security services—army and federal police—to lead the liberation of the city. Although Prime Minister Abadi initially held back the militias in Anbar out of fear of sectarian conflict, he gave way after the security forces defending the provincial capital of Ramadi collapsed on May 17. Ameri promptly took the lead as “field commander” of the new Anbar offensive, only to decide in early June—apparently entirely on his own—to shift focus to Fallujah, which lies between Ramadi and Baghdad.
Badr is also the only militia-political party that dominates a specific province (Diyala), a fact that cements its role in the country. Badr’s grip on the province entered a new stage after Muthanna Al-Tamimi, a Badrist who had been chairman of the provincial council, was elected as governor of Diyala on May 26. This is controversial because Diyala is, or at least has been, a majority Sunni Arab province. Using the 2009 provincial elections, in which all demographic groups participated strongly, as a proxy for a census, Diyala was over half Sunni Arab and roughly one-third Shia, with Kurds making up most of the remainder. The 2013 provincial elections resulted in a twenty-nine-seat council with fourteen Sunni Arabs, twelve Shia, and three Kurds. The Kurds’ alliance with the main Sunni coalition allowed the election of a Sunni Arab as governor in 2013, but the war has since driven the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the dominant Kurdish party in northern Diyala, closer to Iran. Tamimi’s election was the fruit of this renewed Shia-Kurd alliance.
Governor Tamimi gave an interview on Al-Sumaria on July 23 that provided a revealing look at Badr’s military hold on the province. Tamimi naturally denied accusations that Badr has engaged in the systematic cleaning, kidnapping, or killing of Sunnis, but he seemed proud that he took direction from Ameri and that “Badr brigades in particular,” not just the Hashd, maintained security in Diyala. Many displaced Sunnis have been prevented from returning to Diyala, and the Shia parties may win about half of the council when provincial elections are again held in 2017—with the Kurds, they should be able to shut Sunni Arabs out of power permanently.
Because the role of Shia militia parties in the current war could impact the future electoral balance of power, the July 17 terrorist attack against Shia in Diyala’s town of Khan Bani Saad has become a matter of national attention. The attack, which killed over 200, put Badr in an awkward position: Badr is known to be responsible for the province’s security, and if it cannot protect Shia residents, then Badr’s role is called into question. Ameri quickly made a video statement expressing outrage at the attack, insisting that in “retaliation,” those behind it must be detained and executed at the site of the attack. Ameri also used the moment to criticize the government, claiming that foreign governments had already condemned the attack but Iraq’s had not. The attack also coincided with Sunni claims of kidnappings by militias, which given Badr’s control would at least indirectly implicate it. Governor Tamimi appeared on the Sunni-oriented Al-Sharqiya to address the issue and dismiss the allegations, saying flatly, “There are no abductions in the province.”
Ameri’s focus on criticizing the Iraqi government—of which he is a part, but which in context clearly referred to the part of it Abadi controls—points to how Badr’s credibility is at stake. Beyond the impact of this on strategic military goals of dominating Diyala and Samarra in southern Salahuddin, the respective standing of the Shia factions will determine the country’s balance of power when national elections are held again in 2018. Because of the war in Anbar, the 2014 parliament is more sectarian and more Shia Islamist than the 2010 parliament. Badr won twenty-two seats (out of 328 total and 183 reserved for Shia blocs), and Ameri’s star has risen dramatically since then. Although continued militia failures combined with increased efficiency among other parts of the government could change things, right now new elections would see a militia party surge, with Hadi al-Ameri as kingmaker.
In response to a question about whether Ameri could be prime minister, Governor Tamimi, having praised Ameri effusively throughout his hour-long interview with Al-Sumaria, said, “No office is higher than Sheikh al-Mujahid… including prime minister.” And so Iraq’s future may follow the Lebanon model, with Ameri heading the informal Shia militia state and someone friendly to Badr in the prime minister’s office.
This article is reprinted with permission from Sada. It can be accessed online at: http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/2015/08/13/badr-at-forefront-of-iraq-s-shia-militias
Kirk H. Sowell is a political risk analyst and the publisher of the biweekly newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics. On Twitter: @uticensisrisk.