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ICC Note: Iraq is 31 days into a governmental crisis which continues to empower paramilitary groups who are seeking economic and political gain. The most prominent of this is the Hashd, whose political alliance gained second place in Iraq’s contested elections. The Hashd played a substantial role in defeating in the Nineveh Plains, the traditional homeland of Iraq’s Christians, and continues to operate there. They have been singled out by many organizations as having committed multiple human rights abuses. The government, when it did exist, has struggled to keep these groups under its control.    

07/31/2018 Iraq (Crisis Group) – What’s new? Iraq’s three-year battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) empowered an array of armed actors that operate autonomously from state security forces. As the country’s focus on security decreases, these paramilitary groups – the Hashd – are moving into economic activities and politics; some of their leaders gained seats in the 12 May parliamentary elections.

Why does it matter? Praised for their auxiliary role in fighting ISIS, and partly legalised, the Hashd challenge the state’s cohesion and monopoly on legitimate violence. Without a plan to integrate them into formal state institutions, they could undermine post-ISIS efforts to build a functioning state and prolong Iraq’s four decades of instability.

What should be done? The Hashd are part of the challenge of rebuilding a state dismantled after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Iraq’s next government should proceed incrementally: separate security actors from politics and economic activity; provide a short-term role in reconstruction; and strengthen security ministries to render them less dependent on semi-autonomous armed groups.

At the end of 2017, when Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over the Islamic State (ISIS), he thanked not just the state’s armed forces but also an array of autonomous armed groups. The strongest among these, the Popular Mobilisation Units (or Forces, the Hashd al-Shaabi), are an umbrella organisation of some 50 paramilitary outfits. The Hashd are exploiting a legal grey zone to expand their reach in the security, political and economic spheres; their autonomy impedes efforts – which they claim to support – to build a functioning state. The question is what to do with them. With their full integration into the formal security sector politically impossible for now, the solution lies in resolving legal ambiguities that have prevented the separation of security actors from political and economic activity; providing work for unemployed former fighters in reconstruction; and continuing to strengthen formal security institutions to render them less reliant on paramilitary assistance.

After ISIS conquered large swathes of Iraqi territory from the retreating and collapsing army and federal police in June 2014, volunteers – responding to a call from the Shiites’ paramount religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – joined paramilitary groups in droves to defend Baghdad, Shiite holy sites and the country generally. The Hashd played a critical role in fighting and, after three years, defeating ISIS. In the meantime, they incorporated militias from Sunni Arab and minority populations to become a formidable security force separate from the federal army and police, enjoying broad popularity among Iraq’s Shiite population in particular.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who on paper is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, has been unable to bring the paramilitary groups under state control and restore the state’s monopoly over the legitimate use of force. By law, the Hashd are part of the state’s security apparatus, but they are recognised as an autonomous unit under the (civilian) National Security Council (NSC). Senior Iraqi political leaders and groups employ their own private guards, further undermining the state’s monopoly over legitimate violence even as they accept that principle in their rhetoric.

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