Several hundred demonstrators have been gunned down by paramilitary elements since mass protests erupted in the fall of 2019. Militias are accustomed to routinely getting away with murder. However, in a break with precedent, Tharallah’s headquarters were subsequently raided by security forces and their leader, Yousif Al-Musawi, arrested.
The fact that a raid against the headquarters of an Iran-backed militia was one of the first moves taken by new Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi could be interpreted as a significant gesture of intent. Al-Kadhimi declared that “those who spill Iraqi blood will not rest.” He also liberated large numbers of Iraqis detained during the protests.
But let’s keep matters in perspective: Some other smaller “rogue” militias, such as the Abu-Al-Fadl Al-Abbas Brigade, have, over the past couple of years, had their offices closed down and leaders arrested — accused of the same criminal activities that larger militant factions from Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi engage in with impunity. The principal militias arguably profit from the squashing of their smaller rivals, offering exclusive control over neighborhood territories for extorting businesses, terrorizing locals and running narcotics, prostitution and oil-smuggling rackets.
Al-Kadhimi was previously the director of national intelligence, known for his cozy ties with the US. He holds British citizenship and was formerly a journalist and human rights activist. The prime minister has won praise for his speed in putting a Cabinet together and the technocratic flavor of his appointments. Observers were reassured by the appointment of experienced figures like Finance Minister Ali Allawi and Gen. Abdel-Wahab Al-Saadi as head of the counterterrorism service.
However, Iran-aligned elements accuse him of green-lighting the US attack that killed Iranian Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani and paramilitary overlord Abu-Mahdi Al-Muhandis in January. Al-Muhandis’ Kata’ib Hezbollah militia described Al-Kadhimi’s nomination as tantamount to a “war against Iraqis,” suggesting that the prime minister should be “behind bars.”
Lebanese Hezbollah-affiliated cleric Ali Kourani, meanwhile, accused Al-Kadhimi of plotting with the US to disband Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi. Other Hashd elements are temporarily giving him the benefit of the doubt. Militia leader Qais Al-Khazali previously accused Al-Kadhimi of killing Soleimani and spying for the Americans, but then emerged with conditions under which he would accept his candidacy — including (of course) steadfast support for the Hashd.
In a catastrophic economic climate, Al-Kadhimi is faced with the unenviable task of slashing salaries, laying off employees, cutting subsidies and imposing taxes. According to one source: “Iraq is like a racing car that has been neglected and repeatedly wrecked. Al-Kadhimi is not the racing car driver. He’s the tow truck driver.” The Hashd’s readiness to allow Al-Kadhimi’s appointment may be premised on the awareness that nobody could navigate Iraq through the coming tumultuous year and emerge without their reputation destroyed.
Iraqi oil revenues plunged from $7.1 billion in April 2019 to $1.4 billion in April 2020 and are set to fall further given OPEC’s production cuts. The government requires about $4 billion per month just to pay state employees. Two full months of oil income would be required to cover the $2.16 billion annual budget of Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi.
The budgetary cake may have shrunk from lavish chocolate gateau to a plain cupcake, but paramilitary warlords would rather burn down heaven and earth than see their portions reduced. As one regional expert told me: “Because the pie is getting smaller, their appetite is getting bigger.” The same source speculated as to whether Al-Kadhimi’s control over the budget could allow him to gradually “suffocate” the Hashd through squeezing their resources. Iraq’s UN envoy affirmed that the government’s priority was “restricting weapons to state hands” and consolidating Iraqi sovereignty. We’ll see what happens.
In Iraq and Lebanon, the Hashd and Hezbollah will fight tooth and nail to ensure they aren’t impacted by budget cuts; including corrupt revenue sources and their foot soldiers on the state payroll. In this fraught political environment, there are fears that militias are again resorting to assassinations and violence to confront all challengers. Following the deaths or disappearances of a string of figures associated with the protest movement, lawyer and activist Daoud Al-Hamdani was assassinated in Diyala in recent days.
One pledge Al-Kadhimi may deliver on is preparing the ground for early elections, as promised to protesters — offering a glimmer of hope for Iraq. In 2018, the Iran-aligned paramilitary Fatah list won a dismal 48 out of 329 seats, but was able to play a dominant role amid a deeply fractured parliament. Recent protests throughout Shiite regions focused anger against these militias, which frequently responded with deadly force, making it almost a certainty that fewer Shiite voters would now cast ballots for pro-Iran sectarian elements. Fresh elections could, therefore, benefit moderate Shiite factions and liberal cross-sectarian forces — if these entities get their act together.
Just like Hezbollah, the Hashd has displayed immense skill in infiltrating and corrupting every level of every governing department. Disentangling and dismantling the Hashd octopus will take years — brigade by brigade — perhaps starting with smaller criminal entities like Tharallah, but ultimately moving on to the bigger beasts. There couldn’t be a better time to start than now, when the state coffers physically can’t afford to pay these parasites, which are preying upon the Iraqi body politic.
Al-Kadhimi’s tenure represents a window of opportunity for the Arab world and the West to re-engage with Iraq and empower moderate elements that could squeeze out the sectarian, Iran-allied factions in forthcoming elections.
Only Iraqis can win their country back. The protesters’ demands must be translated into a governing agenda that guarantees that Iraq’s vast wealth isn’t squandered on paramilitancy and advancing its Iranian neighbor’s hostile regional ambitions. Starving and desperate citizens require leaders who inspire genuine hope and can recultivate national pride — irrespective of tribe, ethnicity or sect — by putting Iraqi identity first.
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