This report views the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces, PMF) as having played an intrinsic role in the provision of security in Iraq since the dramatic rise of the Islamic State (IS). However, through the lens of nationalism it analyses the negative role the PMF may play once IS is defeated. The report therefore presents suggestions to deal with the perceived threat of the PMF in the short to medium term.
The various groups within the PMF essentially represent a number of subnationalisms, which to a different extent act as competition to the state. The leaders of the various militias use their own particular brand of nationalism in their attempts to gain and maintain power and in doing so they dilute any prospect of national unity or loyalty to the state. Through providing security they act as competition to the Iraqi army which directly impacts on the perception of the state and is used by members of the PMF for political gain. The multiple competing subnationalisms in Iraq do little for the fostering of Iraqi unity or the functioning of Iraq as a state, and are likely to result in the continuation of violent conflict. Therefore, dealing with the challenges surrounding the PMF will be one of the most pressing issues in Iraq following the defeat of IS.
The ultimate solution to this problem would be the incorporation of these forces through demobilisation and integration into the conventional ISF. Having one inclusive army, police force and border patrol operating under unified command structures and accountable to civil bodies of oversight is not only an important symbol in aiding national reconciliation and promoting cooperation between different communities, it is also a primary prerequisite for the effectiveness of the security sector as a whole. However, the current situation on the ground, in terms of security, reconciliation, and political will, precludes an aggressive, straight-forward pursuit of this objective. This necessitates an initial phase in which significant progress in these areas is made before incorporation of most PMF units can realistically take place.
The government of Prime Minister Abadi needs to use its time following IS’ defeat to build a solid political platform based on shared citizenship, unity and reform. This platform has to include serious reforms in the areas of security and national reconciliation. At the same time, an assistance programme will have to be set up for individual militia members wishing to either integrate into the ISF or make the transition from fighter to civilian immediately following IS’ defeat. This joint process will allow for the gradual dissolution of the PMF as the functioning of the Iraqi state improves, cooperation and unity is advanced, and the army grows in strength. During this time the government can stop colluding with the PMF and begin incorporating, containing, and eventually suppressing the various groups within the PMF based on the level of loyalty to the state that the group holds. Only then can a comprehensive demobilisation and reintegration programme based on formal agreements with all militias be launched as an ultimate solution to Iraq’s problem with militias and subnationalisms. It is crucial that this programme is adapted to fit the local context and that the government of Iraq can exert primary control over it. Accordingly, some conventional standards of DDR programming may have to be deviated from in order for this programme to be successful.
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About MERI: The Middle East Research Institute is Iraq’s leading policy-research institute and think tank. It is an independent, entirely grant-funded not-for-profit organisation, based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region. Its mission is to contribute to the process of nation-building, state-building and democratisation via engagement, research, analysis and policy debates.
MERI’s main objectives include promoting and developing human rights, good governance, the rule of law and social and economic prosperity. MERI conduct high impact, high quality research (including purpose-based field work) and has published extensively in areas of: human rights, government reform, international politics, national security, ISIS, refugees, IDPs, minority rights (Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, Shabaks, Sabi mandeans), Baghdad-Erbil relations, Hashd Al-Shabi, Peshmarga, violence against women, civil society. MERI engages policy- and decision-makers, the civil society and general public via publication, focused group discussions and conferences (MERI Forum).