The Iran-backed Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi paramilitary movement has adopted a “divide-and-conquer strategy” in its efforts to dominate Iraq’s ethnically diverse Nineveh province.
A new report by the International Crisis Group also warns that the activities of these Iranian proxies risk triggering a regional war with Turkey, with tensions further exacerbated by Ankara’s proposed new military incursion into northern Syria.
As Daesh was pushed out of this ethnically complex region between 2015 and 2017, the Hashd backed a confusing range of local militias, pushing civil tensions to breaking point. Every conceivable local sect and ethnicity — Yazidi, Shabak, Shiite Turkmen, Sunni, Kurd, and Assyrian and Chaldean Christian — now has their own Hashd faction, who in turn have preyed upon local populations while competing to monopolize the local economy and cross-border smuggling trade.
A wider regionalized power play is at work. Turkey has sought to cultivate ties with the Kurdish Democratic Party in Iraqi Kurdistan, while trying to eliminate the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, and its Iraqi affiliate the Sinjar Resistance Units. The Hashd have even brought segments of the latter on to their payroll as the “80th battalion,” while Hashd factions have staged provocative attacks against Turkish military positions in northern Iraq. Turkey has meanwhile assassinated Hashd-affiliated Kurdish personnel, including 80th battalion commanders.
This is a deeply traumatized region. When Daesh unleashed its genocidal campaign in 2014, minorities suffered the worst fates imaginable. Yazidi men were slaughtered en masse. Women were captured for sexual slavery and brutal servitude. While enslaved women have sometimes been received back into communities, they were often forced to take the inconceivable step of leaving behind children from forced marriages to Daesh members.
Such devastating traumas require generations to alleviate. Each time I meet the Yazidi activist and Nobel peace laureate Nadia Murad, I am struck by her oceanic, sad eyes, which eloquently speak of unimaginably shattering experiences that will cling to her for ever.
Many Nineveh communities initially viewed the Hashd as their saviors for their role in liberating these territories. However, citizens have come to bitterly recognize that the Hashd’s divide-and-conquer agenda serves only Iran. Likewise, Shiite communities in southern Iraq have increasingly turned against this predatory movement, which exists under the pretext of defending them.
Iran manipulates confessional identities for its own ends: “Christian” militias stage ceremonies to venerate Shiite imams, while Shiite populations were mustered to vote for pro-Hashd politicians to occupy parliamentary seats reserved for minority groups. An Iran-funded school in the Christian district of Bartella was even named after Imam Khomeini! The mind boggles as to what ideological agendas such institutions indoctrinate children with.
There has been fierce rivalry among smaller minority militias to get themselves included on the Hashd payroll, financed at the expense of the Iraqi state. This creates a dangerous dynamic whereby these groups struggle to outdo each other in advancing Iran’s aggressively expansive agenda. Hashd-aligned militias have reaped millions of dollars from illegal checkpoints and extorting “protection money” from local businesses.
Impoverished Christian and Yazidi farming communities have been dispossessed of their lands. Mosul is awash with Hashd economic offices, as rival factions compete to dominate every conceivable sector of the local economy and monopolize reconstruction funds.
To counter this blatant corruption, successive Iraqi prime ministers sought to have the worst-offending militias relocated. However, these factions defied orders from Baghdad, mustered supporters to cause chaos, and secured high-profile backers such as the Iranian ambassador and Hashd leadership figures to fight their cause.
Efforts by Hashd factions to permanently entrench themselves at a local level throughout Iraq come at a time when these groups are fighting tooth and nail to mitigate the consequences of their shattering election losses in October last year. These parasitic entities believe they can’t be ousted if they dominate all levels of society. They hope to compel rival parties to grant them Cabinet seats and allow their retention of powerful positions throughout Iraq’s governing system.
When Hezbollah wields the means to drag Lebanon into war with Israel, or the Hashd controls large segments of the Iraqi economy, there is little hope for the survival of these states as coherent nations.
As with Hezbollah in Lebanon, these groups’ control of key border points allows them to exert a stranglehold on the Iraqi governing system, while dominating regional trade and preventing customs revenues from reaching the state purse.
The wider region is awash in weapons, drugs, laundered funds and counterfeit goods peddled by these militants. Assad mafiosi, Hezbollah and the Hashd collude to drown Jordan, the GCC and other Arab states in tons of narcotics. What the world fails to acknowledge is that these are not scattered, miscellaneous activities but part of a wider strategy by Iran and its proxies to dominate the region and cause rival states to dissolve into civil chaos.
Arab states consequently must respond at the highest levels with a holistic and ambitious strategy for countering this regionwide threat. They must ensure that outcomes of elections in Iraq and Lebanon are respected and government institutions are given the necessary capabilities to extend their powers throughout these nations, so that out-of-control paramilitary factions can’t dominate the resulting vacuum. The Iraqi government meanwhile must crack down against programs of cultural, social and ideological brainwashing perpetrated by these paramilitary forces.
Nations cannot be truly sovereign if they do not monopolize the use of force throughout their territories. When Hezbollah wields the means to drag Lebanon into war with Israel, or the Hashd controls large segments of the Iraqi economy, there is little hope for the survival of these states as coherent nations.
Furious local-level tensions between Nineveh’s complex patchwork of ethnicities and sects are replicated at the national level as Tehran plays Sunni, Kurdish and Shiite factions off against each other.
It little bothers Iran that the ripping apart of Iraq’s social fabric and the undermining of its democratic institutions will surely at some point tip the country back into civil conflict and state collapse.
Indeed, Tehran may even be banking on this ruinous outcome, in the belief that such chaos could be exploited to enable its proxies to permanently erase the Arab identity of these shattered states, and establish its supremacy over the rubble that remains.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.