Daesh and the Hashd enable each other’s war to dominate Iraq

Daesh and the militants of Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi in Iraq are two sides of the same coin: both wallowing in extreme violence, and exploiting each other’s existence to justify their expansive, extremist agendas. The Hashd’s Iranian masters have also exploited Daesh and Al-Qaeda in their quest for regional supremacy.

Soon after the creation of Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi in 2014 from existing Iran-backed militias, these paramilitary forces pushed Daesh out of the strategic town of Jurf Al-Sakhar. Hashd leader Abu-Mahdi Al-Muhandis oversaw the permanent expulsion of the town’s Sunni residents, and his “Hezbollah Battalions” converted the town into his personal fiefdom — establishing illegal detention and torture camps, and profiting from pilgrimage routes passing near the town, while controlling routes into southern Baghdad.

Hashd leaders are now explicitly agitating to implement the “Jurf Al-Sakhar model” across an extensive area of territory to the north of Baghdad, known as Tarmiyah — one of the few remaining areas where Daesh has been consistently active in recent months. This follows a major Daesh attack against the military in Tarmiyah on Feb. 16.

Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi’s fascination with Tarmiyah isn’t coincidental. It straddles the Euphrates River and the principal northern routes into Baghdad, and so would deliver to the Hashd some of Iraq’s best agricultural lands, pilgrimage routes, and a stranglehold over the capital. Iraq’s major highways are already festooned with illegal Hashd checkpoints, enabling these militias to massively profit from commercial activities, and significantly raising prices for consumers. Hashd factions are today among Iraq’s dominant economic actors across the full spectrum of legal and illegal sectors, rivaling each other for mafia-like dominance over every inch of Iraqi territory.

So the Hashd’s self-serving solution to the Daesh threat is to forcibly expel Tarmiyah’s Sunni residents and monopolize the region. Given that the Hashd and its allies gerrymandered themselves into imposing their choice of government last year, there may be nobody to stop them.

Since it first came into being, Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi has a long record of using Daesh as its personal bogeyman — just as Bashar Assad around 2012 successfully exploited Daesh to divide his enemies and distance the West from the Syrian arena. Daesh continues to be entrenched in regions where the Hashd exerts control, in particular rural areas of Nineveh, Salahuddin, Kirkuk and Diyala provinces.

In a mutual ploy, Daesh has regularly staged indiscriminate attacks in Shiite-majority areas, which the Hashd has followed up with mass purges and campaigns of sectarian cleansing against Sunni civilians. Grotesque figures, such as the Hashd’s Qais Al-Khazali, have routinely used language effectively calling for the genocide of Sunnis. Sectarian purges by these militias under the direction of Prime Minister Nouri Al- Maliki around 2013 played a major part in fueling support for Daesh in facilitating its 2014 takeover of much of the country.

Both sides have a comparable proclivity for extreme violence. Around 2006, Sunni extremists and Shiite death squads waged murderous campaigns of sectarian cleansing throughout Baghdad, slaughtering tens of thousands and causing countless others to flee. In a single incident on July 9, 2006, Shiite militias and local police surrounded Baghdad’s Jihad district and massacred dozens of Sunni citizens — just one of hundreds of such incidents over the years, as these paramilitaries pursued their relentless quest for dominance of Iraq.

The continuing Iran-fueled instability in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere is the incubator that will deliver the next generation of global terrorists

Baria Alamuddin

A recent UN report has determined that Al-Qaeda’s new leader Saif Al-Adl is based in Iran. Tehran has exploited this longstanding presence of Al-Qaeda personnel on its territory to wield control over the global jihad movement. During the 1990s, Al-Qaeda mastered the techniques of mass-casualty bombings learned from Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guards. There is evidence that these parties were jointly complicit in terrorist atrocities, such as a succession of attacks inside Saudi Arabia during the 1990s and 2000s, so it is fitting that this IRGC-Al-Qaeda symbiotic relationship continues to the present day.

Meanwhile, the Hashd’s continuing campaign of terrorism against activists, journalists and rivals is encapsulated by the recent experience of prominent Iraqi environmentalist Jassim Al-Asadi, who was seized and tortured by paramilitaries. Al-Asadi is one of several environmental activists who have been targeted, apparently as a result of government officials and Hashd elements collaborating to neutralize critical voices. With Iran and Iraq facing major water shortages and massive environmental damage, these issues are a matter of life and death for millions, particularly as Tehran has repeatedly exploited its control of Iraq’s power grid and water sources to the detriment of its dysfunctional neighbour.

Human Rights Watch issued an extensive report documenting the killing, detention and torture of hundreds of activists since 2018. This includes dozens who were assassinated in or near their own homes, by paramilitaries who almost certainly will never be brought to justice.

Sara Edan received unwanted death threats from militias, after participating in 2018 protests in Basra. She fled Iraq, but returned in 2019 because her mother had cancer. Despite keeping a low profile and avoiding the protests that year, she and her husband were found shot dead in their own home, a short distance from a police checkpoint. When activist Reham Yaqoub was shot dead in her car in 2020, a police checkpoint next to the location had been vacated shortly before her killing — part of a consistent pattern of paramilitary and police collusion in such incidents.

In 2014, the US administration made the mistake of believing that the Hashd could be wielded as a weapon against Daesh. But Daesh and the Hashd come as a package; they both advance each other’s agenda by fueling instability and sectarian tensions, to consolidate their positions and justify their existence.

Today, the Hashd exercises a total stranglehold over Iraq — alongside parallel entities in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon — yet the global media rarely bothers to mention this group, and it consistently shocks me how many Western foreign policy officials have scarcely any comprehension of what this group is and the threat it poses to the region.   

Just as Hezbollah during the 1980s effectively invented the techniques of modern terrorism, Iran’s proxies throughout the region are a major reason why jihadist terrorism and sectarian hatreds have flourished. The continuing Iran-fueled instability in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere is the incubator that will deliver the next generation of global terrorists.

The world may have long-since abandoned these conflict zones — but the monsters they produced have not abandoned their aspiration to break out and once again menace the world.

• Baria Alamuddin 

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