Understanding Iraq’s Militia

Iraq’s militia groups have been around for many years. However, their presence and indeed, their power, has recently become more evident, which in turn has been a severe setback for Iraq’s democracy. The most powerful militia groups have successfully been able to infiltrate parliament, preventing a good governance of the country. They have been able to silence any of their critics through the formation of pressure groups, as well as posing as a threat to the ongoing anti-government protests. Their network of influence in Iraq must be curbed if a true state of democracy is to be seen in the country.

After the fall of Daesh in Iraq, the militia groups were able to capitalise on the absence of stability in Iraq, filling the vacuum that Daesh left behind. They have now become a threat from within, a roadblock to Iraq’s democratic future.

Militia organisations are by no means unique to Iraq. They exist on a global scale and often arise in times of crises; they often fight on behalf of or as part of a state’s government. In Iraq, the origins of some of these militia groups can be traced back to 1933, during the rule of King Faisal I. During the time of Saddam Hussein, Arab and Kurdish militia groups were created to combat local forces outside of his control. By contrast, State-backed militia included the Ja’ish al-Shabi, or People’s Army, a paramilitary organisation composed of civilian volunteers to protect the Ba’ath government against internal opposition. The 2003 fall of Saddam spawned an insurgency conducted by militia groups, which lasted until 2011, when the American forces were officially ‘withdrawn’ from Iraq.

Once Daesh took over Mosul in June 2014, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani issued a ‘fatwa’ calling for Iraqis to volunteer and join forces in the fight against Daesh. Collectively the groups involved were known as The Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), also known as Al-Hashd Al-Sha’bi, comprising of roughly forty of Iraq’s militia groups (given official recognition as a force by the Iraq government on 15 June 2014). The PMF comprise “a spectrum of actors”; predominantly Shiite, but also Sunni, Christian and Turkmen. Because of the PMF’s role in defeating Daesh in Iraq, they were officially incorporated as an independent unit into Iraq’s security services in 2016.

Within the heterogenous umbrella of the PMF, the Badr Organisation (Brigade), Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and the Peace Companies (also known as the Peace Brigades, and formerly known as the Mahdi Army) have fought as counterinsurgents. Three of the leaders of these militia in 2014 also made up those within the overall chain of command of the PMF; Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the former commander of Kata’ib Hezbollah (later assassinated by America); Qais al-Khazali, commander of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq; and Hadi al-Amiri, the chief of the Badr Organisation. These four militia groups are currently the largest players on the militia field in Iraq, and understanding their background and motives is important when looking at the way forward for democracy in Iraq.

Although the PMF was formally accountable to the Prime Minister in Iraq, the real commander was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and his assassination in January 2020 brought uncertainty to the future of the PMF. Many have called for the dismantling of the unit, due to the fractious relationships within the group itself since the assassination, and due to the division it has caused in Iraq. As aforementioned, there are a range of militia groups within the PMF, and many have remained loyal to each of their factions rather than the State. Indeed, many of the calls for the abolition of the PMF have come from the US, whose forces have endured many attacks over the past few months at the hands of the PMF and other allegedly pro-Iran militia. However, the dismantling of the PMF is much easier said than done, with groups such as Kata’ib Hezbollah remaining armed and well-funded, and the PMF having a great impact on politics in Iraq.

The Badr Organisation (also known as the Badr Brigade) is one of Iraq’s most powerful “pro-Iran” Shiite militia groups, headed by Chief Commander, Hadi al-Amiri. The group was originally formed in 1982 by Iraqi exiles to fight against Saddam Hussein, and at that time, was supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Badr Organisation is now an official political party in Iraq and leads the second largest political bloc in the Iraq parliament. The group is incredibly powerful, with control of the Interior Ministry and an influence across all of Iraq’s politics. The Badr Organisation still benefits from the support of Tehran, and has an estimated 50,000 fighters in its ranks.

Perhaps the most prominent militia currently, Kata’ib Hezbollah, was formed in 2006, by military commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. This militia group is closely associated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and is another one of the most prominent Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq. As aforementioned, their former founder and military commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was assassinated in a US airstrike in January 2020, alongside Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani. Currently, the group is being led by Ahmad al-Hamidawi.

Kata’ib Hezbollah have been involved in many recent attacks against US forces. They have become the Iranian proxy fighting the US within Iraq, as their group ideological belief includes an aspiration to defend Iran’s interests against their ‘enemies’. The organisation has also been accused of several grave crimes, such as the killing of 24 protestors in December 2019 and the capture and torture of many more, in demonstrations against Iran’s involvement in Iraq’s politics. More recently, Kata’ib Hezbollah were behind the July 6th assassination of Hisham al Hishimi, who was critical of the militia group. Hisham al Hishimi had also pledged his support for the current Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who had sent Iraq’s forces to raid Kata’ib Hezbollah bases in June 2020; his killing may have been to send a message to al-Kadhimi. 

The Peace Brigades are a revival of the former Mahdi Army, which was formed and led by Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, in 2003 and disbanded in 2008. In 2014, the group reformed to create the Peace Brigades. The Mahdi Army were part of the Shiite uprising against US forces in Iraq, until Muqtada al-Sadr called for a ceasefire and the disbandment of the group. Muqtada al-Sadr is an incredibly influential figure in Iraq; for many, he is seen as a symbol of resistance to foreign occupation. Most recently, al-Sadr criticised attacks on foreign missions in Iraq, and called on the perpetrators to cease these attacks. Despite his ties with Iran, he was against Iran’s involvement in Iraq’s politics. This position seemed to change after the assassination of Soleimani in January. His position has also shifted in response to the anti-government protests; what he once supported and provided aid to, he condemned. His erratic U-turns are not unknown, however, after his recent changes in position, he may be losing his influence in Iraq.

Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq is another prominent “pro-Iran” Shiite militia group, who have claimed responsibility for over 6,000 attacks on US and Coalition forces in Iraq. They were formed by Qais al-Khazali in 2006. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq has been described as another violent Iran proxy in Iraq and estimates in 2014 stated the militia group was receiving up to $2 million USD per month from Tehran. The militia group has been accused of many heinous crimes in Iraq, including abductions, forced disappearances and the torture of Sunni Iraqis. In December 2019, the group was thought to have murdered nine protestors during the anti-government protests. Alongside Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq is an incredibly strong and well-armed group, and one that still has a tight grip on Iraq.

The pressure on Mustafa al-Kadhimi to tackle these militia forces is mounting. Not only does the continued presence of strong, armed militia pose a serious threat to next year’s early elections, currently still planned for June 2021 (but likely to be postponed), attacks by militia groups also may lead to the closure of the US Embassy in Baghdad. There are a plethora of issues that these actions could exacerbate, such as the current economic and political crises facing Iraq. Furthermore, the continued prevalence of “pro-Iran” militia groups in Iraq also means the continuation of the profound influence that Iran has over Iraq’s security and politics. Kata’ib Hezbollah, along with other militia groups, stated last week that the attacks against US forces would stop, but only if the Iraq government will present a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops.

The Iraq government has now pledged to the US forces that they will take further measures against the militia organisations, however, it is still unclear what these acts will entail; direct confrontation with the militia groups may well result in further death and instability in Iraq. In such a volatile environment, the road to peace and free democracy in Iraq is not a simple one. It requires good governance, action, and a true balance of interests.

Is the US Embassy shutting down in Iraq?

Tensions are rising in Iraq this week, due to the Trump administration threat to close the US embassy. US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, claimed that this action was being considered due to the threat of attack on both US troops and the embassy from Iran-backed militias. Recent weeks have seen an increase in rocket launches near and at the embassy. Pompeo warned Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadimi that if the Iraq government did not take more action against these forces and crackdown on the powerful militias then the embassy would close.

Iraq Foreign Minister, Fuad Hussein, said this week that closing the US Embassy in Iraq would be “disastrous”. He claimed that the departure of the US embassy may prompt other embassy withdrawals from Iraq.

The US has already ordered a partial evacuation of the embassy, and several reports have claimed that diplomats have been told to prepare to withdraw completely. For now, it is a waiting game to see what actions the Iraq government will take, but it is expected that these actions will be announced imminently, due to an apparent ten-day timeframe that the US administration gave to Iraq’s leaders almost one week ago.

At this point in time, it is unclear whether the intention behind the threat to close the US embassy in Iraq is to place pressure on the Iraq government to strengthen their action against the militias, or whether it is part of a grand plan to begin lessening post-war US presence in Iraq. The US had already planned to cut its military footprint by half in Iraq in September.

With just weeks to go until the US Presidential elections, this action opens up the possibility of military action between the US and the Iran-backed militia groups.

Iraq’s Democracy: The ‘Upcoming’ 2021 Elections

It is almost a year since mass anti-government protests erupted in Iraq, demanding a dismantling of Iraq’s political system, a system which has been marred by corruption and dogged with instability for years. These protests are ongoing, although demonstrations have lessened since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The protests have resulted in the unfortunate deaths of approximately 700 of the protestors as well as over 20,000 injured, to date.

In November 2019, Iraq’s former Prime Minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, resigned as a result of the ongoing protests. The Next Century Foundation welcomed Iraq’s new Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who came to power in May 2020. On 31st July 2020, Prime Minister al-Kadhimi called for early elections on 6th June 2021, as opposed to the existing due date of May 2022. Al-Kadhimi stated that “everything will be done to protect and ensure the success of these polls” and the United Nations praised the idea of early elections, arguing that they would “promote greater stability and democracy” in Iraq, something that has arguably been in short supply in Iraq’s most recent parliamentary elections.

Early elections were one of the demands called for by Iraq’s protestors, as well as the creation of a government of technocrats. However, the demonstrations were not the only driving force behind al-Kadhimi’s decision to call for early elections. Iraq has been plagued with a dire economic crisis as a result of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic which resulted in international oil prices collapsing. Iraq’s economy draws ninety percent of its budget from oil revenues and the pandemic has increased the fragility of both Iraq’s economy and government. Alongside this, Iraq is facing energy, health and public service crises and the need for a functional and efficient Iraq government is becoming ever more imperative. Indeed, al-Kadhimi is also facing severe opposition from pro-Iran militia groups, such as Kataib Hezbollah. These groups hold a strong presence on the streets. Over the years, they have entrenched themselves within the state.

The early elections have seemingly garnered support in almost all of the political blocs. Mohammed al-Halbousi, Speaker of Parliament, has even claimed to advocate elections earlier than the June 2021 date, but this is unlikely to happen. The most notable endorsement has come from the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has backed al-Kadhimi’s plans and urged the government to follow through with early elections, stating that the snap elections are “not an end in and of itself, but a means of leading Iraq out of its current conundrum that is caused by political, economic, health, and services shortcomings”. These are the most powerful remarks al-Sistani has made on Iraq’s governance since 2003 and with them, al-Kadhimi has received the backing of the highest religious authority in Iraq. Since al-Sistani’s speech on 13 September 2020, the militia have been silent on the matter. This does not negate al-Kadhimi’s need to control the militia, indeed, it puts further pressure on him to attempt to control these groups.

Despite general support for snap elections, the Electoral Law, Independent High Electoral Commission and Iraqi Federal Supreme Court are themselves a “trilateral threat” to the June 2021 elections.

On 24 December 2019, prior to the announcement of early elections, a new draft electoral law was voted in. This electoral law was passed in response to pressure from the anti-government protests, with Shiite parliamentary blocs adopting the draft to the satisfaction of protestors and to the disquiet of the Kurdish blocs and some Sunni powers. The draft electoral law proposes a shift from proportional representation within governorates (the method that has been in place since 2005) to individual candidacy in smaller electoral constituencies. Votes will be counted electronically. The Kurdish blocs believe this method would deprive them of votes in mixed areas where the Kurds constitute a minority and the Sunni powers have voiced concern about electronic counting and the fear that this could be rigged.

The Office of the Speaker of Parliament has not to sent this draft electoral law to the President for ratification, due to continuing debates within the Iraqi Parliament on certain components of the law, such as the actual constituency boundaries. The absence of this action casts doubts on whether the new electoral law will even be in place in time for the early elections, which perpetuates the same lack of true democratic freedom for Iraq’s citizens that manifested itself within the last election. Many of the political blocs now agree that they passed the draft law because of the pressure from protestors.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party appears to be the only political bloc still voicing opposition to the timing of the early elections on the basis that the electoral law is not yet confirmed. They have accused al-Kadhimi of only calling the elections to please the protestors and to gain their support, rather than enacting them as a solution to the real issues facing Iraq. However, if no new electoral law is passed in time for the snap elections, then the 2021 elections will hold no significant weight. 

The Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) presents its own issues. On 15 December 2019, the Law of the IHEC was adopted, which approved the formation of the Board of Commissioners from among a draw of independent judges. However, debates about reform are continuing, and protestors have lobbied for only retired judges to sit on the Commission as opposed to serving judges. This is to ensure that no influence from political parties infiltrates through to the IHEC. The uncertainty surrounding the make-up of the offices of the IHEC hinders preparations for the early elections, casting another shadow on the hope for fair and independent elections in June 2021.

The Next Century Foundation has submitted a written statement to the 45th Session of the UN Human Rights Council to urge the elected representatives of the Republic of Iraq to take all necessary action to follow the guidance of the IHEC prior to the upcoming elections, and to cooperate closely with the IHEC on all matters related to the elections. The UN expressed their support for early elections after meeting with the IHEC in early September and has confirmed they will be overseeing the elections in order to ensure the elections are run in a free, transparent and fair way. It remains critical that the composition of the IHEC is confirmed soon.

Early elections would bring some promise and hope for a future Iraq government that is not ridden with political fragmentation, as well as an opportunity for Iraq’s citizens to express their own self-determination and free will through a democratic vote. However, the likelihood of free, equal and fair elections taking place on 6 June 2021 is minimal, largely due to the issues with the electoral law and the IHEC. Over the years, the faith that Iraq’s citizens once had in living in democracy has been eroded, with voter turnout of only 40% in the 2018 elections. The 2021 elections could be Iraq’s final chance to demonstrate its commitment to democracy.

UN Oral Intervention: Britain’s treatment of Older Persons

The following has been prepared by Next Century Foundation Research Officers Lauretta Garrard and Lara Miriam Ibrahim for submission by the Next Century Foundation as a statement to the 45th session of the UN Human Rights Council:

The Next Century Foundation is deeply concerned by the treatment of older persons during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The UK government has failed in their duty of care to prioritise the wellbeing of vulnerable older persons.

The lack of significant levels of COVID-19 testing in the initial stages of the outbreak, together with the inadequate supplies of Personal Protective Equipment and the lack of coherent guidance for care home providers and staff has led to an unnecessarily high death toll for care home residents, who have made up 40% of all registered COVID-19 related deaths in the UK. The UK government has failed to make adequate provision to prevent the recurrence of such circumstances and has not taken concrete steps to hold care providers accountable who continue to fail to follow existing guidance.

This failure to protect the human rights of older people perpetuates a disturbing phenomenon of neglecting the health of older people in Britain. The UK government must look beyond rationing adequate treatment of older persons in order to meet financial constraints and should instead protect the human rights of those at greatest clinical risk.

We strongly urge member states of the United Nations to demonstrate their continued commitment to the promotion of the human rights of older persons. We hold the UK government accountable for both past and present human rights abuses in regard to its most vulnerable citizens. We urge them to adopt effective measures to monitor the treatment of older persons. Measures adopted should include providing sufficient Personal Protective Equipment and regular testing for care home staff and residents ahead of a likely second wave of the COVID-19 outbreak (something the UK government claims to do but in which it has failed to deliver).

An Update on HRH Princess Basmah’s Current Situation

*An update on Princess Basmah’s Current Situation and a respectful plea to HRH Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for Princess Basmah to be discharged as quickly as possible.*

In June 2020, the Next Century Foundation appealed to HRH Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to release HRH Princess Basmah bint Saud and her daughter, Suhoud, from custody. This is a renewed, respectful plea for her release.

In order to provide brief context, HRH Princess Basmah was arrested in March 2019, along with her loyal and devoted 28-year old daughter. On this occasion, eight armed men took her into custody when she wanted to leave the country. Princess Basmah intended to go to Switzerland for medical treatment, however, she was suspected of fleeing Saudi Arabia.

At first, the state security accused her of procuring a false passport, but these charges were dropped quickly – now it is unclear why she is detained. Since March 2019, Princess Basmah has not been seen in public. She is held in the Al-Ha’ir prison (Riyadh) which is normally used for Jihadis in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The Next Century Foundation reported that in April 2020 that Princess Basmah’s office had tweeted a statement to ask HRH Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (her cousin) for mercy:

“I am currently being arbitrarily held at Al-Ha’ir prison without […] charges against my person. My health is deteriorating to an extent […] that could lead to my death. I have not received medical care or even response to the letters I dispatched from jail to the Royal Court. I was abducted without an explanation together with one of my daughters and thrown into prison. I am beseeching my uncle […] and my cousin […] to review my case, and to release me as I have done no wrong. My current health status is very critical.”

These tweets were taken down, as well as her website, and on 17 May 2020 Princess Basmah’s media office tweeted again to say:

“The direct and indirect weekly communications from Princess Basmah bint Saud with her family have been cut off completely since the tweet on April 17th, 2020. We have not received any information about her deteriorating health or legal status.”

Princess Basmah and her daughter were unfortunately not released during Ramadan despite these pleas. In addition, they have had no contact with relatives or any of the outside world since April 2020, marking five months since any updates on Princess Basmah’s critical health condition.

Other famous prisoners who are also thought to be in Al-Ha’ir prison such as Salman al-Awdah and Loujain Al-Hathloul have not been in communication with anyone outside of the prison since May and June, respectively. This has become incredibly concerning.

The Next Century Foundation respectfully pleas to HRH Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to discharge HRH Princess Basmah bint Saud and her daughter, Suhoud, and allow them access to communications with the outside world.

HRH Princess Basmah represents little or no real threat to the status quo in Saudi Arabia. A revision of her case would undoubtedly be a kind gesture. Indeed, viewed from a Western perspective, she could be regarded as a credit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.