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Tensions Follow Iraqi Government Decision to Withdraw the Hashd Al-Shaabi from the Nineveh Plain

Updated: Jan 30

A member of the 'Hashd al-Shebek' with a Badr patch at a checkpoint in April 2017

MECRA's Iraq reporter recently carried out a reporting trip into the Nineveh (Ninawa) area, speaking to officials and commanders and gauging the mood on the ground among civilians caught up in the latest crisis. His interviews, below, and report from this increasingly important part of Iraq paint a picture of recent developments.

In early August, 2019, significant protests broke out in Iraq’s Nineveh Province, against the backdrop of Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi’s July 1 decree ordering the integrating of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) or Hashd al-Shaabi into the Iraqi armed forces, and prohibiting ‘unauthorized activities’.

The decree was intended to curb the maintenance of unauthorized bases, prisons and checkpoints by the militias of the PMU. The latter are seen as moneymaking enterprises by the militias. Abdul Mahdi’s decree asserts that ‘the existence of any armed faction operating secretly or openly outside these instructions is forbidden, and is to be considered outside the law and accordingly prosecuted.”

Efforts to place the PMU groups in Nineveh under Iraqi state control are ongoing. As long ago as August 2, 2018, then Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi signed executive order 1388. This required the removal of PMU forces from Mosul city and the Nineveh Plains, and transfer of PMU forces in Nineveh to the operational and administrative control of the Iraqi Army-led Nineveh Operations Command. But this order was never implemented. The current protests are intended to ensure that the latest decree will similarly go unheeded.

Specifically, the protests centered on orders for the redeployment of Brigade 30 (Liwa al-Shebek) of the PMU. The brigade recruits from among the Shebek minority, an ethnic group native to the Nineveh area who are of Shia religious affiliation. During the protests members of the Shebek minority blocked the main Mosul-Erbil road, cutting off an economic and security artery that links Mosul to the capital of the Kurdistan autonomous region. A second PMU Brigade, the 50th, (Ktaeb Babiliyun) is also seeking to resist the implementation of the prime minister’s decision. This brigade is recruited partly from among Christians native to the Nineveh area, and partly from mainly Shia Iraqis from other parts of the country.

A member of a local PMU unit and a PMU flag.

Brigade 30 have established a headquarters in the traditionally Christian town of Bartella close to Mosul city. Local Christians assert that the activities of the Brigade are preventing the return of Christian refugees to this area. Brigade 50’s relations with local leaders is also strained.

The situation at present remains unresolved. A recent study characterized this matter as an important test case for the Iraqi government’s efforts at ensuring its own authority over all armed elements in the country, and integrating them under its control.

An article published on August 15 at the al-Ain website placed this issue in a larger, concerning context. The article, by Dilshad al-Dawali, depicted an extensive infrastructure in the Nineveh area controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Al-Dawali quoted Muzahim al-Hwait, spokesman for Arab tribes in the disputed areas between Erbil and Baghdad: "There are more than five large military bases belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Nineveh Plain region, along with the Brigade 30 militia led by Waad Mahmoud Al-Qado and the 50th Brigade, led by Rayan al-Chaldani, there are officers from the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards' wing, Iranian missile experts and members of the Lebanese Hezbollah militia…There is an official office of Iranian leader Ali Khamenei in the Nineveh Plain, run by a leader in the PMU named Sheikh Hassan Shabaky, and assisted by Qusay Abbas, a commander of the Shebek militia and a deputy in the Iraqi Council of Representatives.

The purpose of this office, according to al-Hwait, is to "oversee secret prisons in the Nineveh plain, where the militias imprison thousands of innocent Iraqis who are subjected to various forms of torture by Iranian militias and officers, as well as manage the recruitment of children and youth in militia ranks and oversee the command of military bases," A network of Iranian private recruitment organizations under the guise of providing independent humanitarian assistance have also been established in the area, he said.

An un-named senior official in the Iraqi Army's Nineveh Operations Command also quoted in this article highlighted the storage and assembly of rockets in the Nineveh Plain. "The transfer of missiles, their parts and platforms has been going on from Iran to the Nineveh Plain through Kirkuk province for months. A large number of surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles of various types at special depots located within the bases of the Popular Mobilization Militia, in addition to the presence of IED factories in the town of Bartella and other sites to assemble the missiles and transport them to Syria. " The official stressed that all these operations are taking place under the direct supervision of Iranian officers and engineers.

A map of the situation in Nineveh in August 2019

Interview with Saad Mahmoud Ahmed al-Qado (Abo Ali) chief executive of Hashd Al-Shaabi checkpoints in Nineveh Plains.

There is no a formal decision regarding withdrawing the Hashd Al-Shaabi in the Nineveh Plains. There is just media rumors. We didn't receive any official order of the Hashd Al-Shaabi. There was an oral order to leave the check points to the control of the local police.

Brigade 30 is here and its soldiers are from the area and they know the area very well. Therefore, it's better for these (Brigade 30) soldiers to stay here to protect it as it's their right, in the same way that the (Kurdish) Peshmerga has a right to protect Dohuk and Erbil with soldiers from these areas. So the same thing is implemented here for Brigade 30 as it contains Arab, Turkmen, and Shebeks as they have more right on this area as long they are from this area.

From 2005-2014 when this area was under Peshmerga control there was much torture and killing. After Mosul has been controlled by Islamic State the Peshmerga withdrew late in the night without warning people. (Does he mean the pesh tortured and killed people?) Unfortunately, thousands of people died. Women ere raped, children and men killed, people separated from their families. Without the mercy of God there would have been massacres in these areas.

Posters show Iranian influence and also Badr’s Hadi al-Amiri.

There was no decision in terms of withdrawing from this area, but there was an oral, unofficial order for exchanging the check points. After, this order the people from this area came out from all minorities and ethnicities not only in the Nineveh plain but also inside Mosul city itself to protest. They all participated in one of the biggest demonstrations against this decision which talked about withdrawal of the Hashd Al-Shaabi in this area and exchanging of the check points. Brigade 30 of Hashd Al-Shaabi defeated Islamic state in this area, and they positively impact on the ground here and in the city of Mosul.

All Nineveh Plain is controlled by the Hashd Al-Shaabi, coordinated with Brigade 50 of the NPU (Nineveh Plains Protection Units), the Christian Hashd Al-Shaabi in Hamdaniya (Qaraqush). There is no threat of IS in the area, but only (the threat of) the outside agenda that works outside of Iraq try to divide Iraq - this is the biggest threat but with God’s help they will not succeed in their attempts. That, because Iraqi people became well aware of these agenda, they will all perish within time. Hashd Al-shabi is here and it will remain here with the order of PM and the order of the ministry of defense.

There are no other groups by any other names, there are only the people from this area and it is called Brigade 30 of the Hashd Al-Shaabi (Liwa 30). All Hashd al-Shaabi are under the high commission of Hashd Al-Shaabi which is under the direct order of the Prime Minister of Iraq.

This commission is a military institute established officially by law with an order by the Iraqi parliament and under the discipline of and by order of the Iraqi government.

We have joint commander operation of Mosul we are coordinate with them, they coordinate with the government and we are working with them. We don't have direct coordination with coalition forces. The Iraqi government has coordination with them and we are working with the Iraqi government. We are as military sector we don’t have any relationship with or coordination with the coalition forces. We only coordinate with the Iraqi government. We get orders from the PM, based on these orders we move and we implement orders.

There are some attempts by some Iraqi parliament members to get rid of the Hashd Al-Shaabi, to change the Hashd Al-shabi uniform and flag and so on, but it's just an opinion or idea - nothing else. The Hashd Al-shabi flag represents a call and a path that many people died for and it became deep in the heart of people. It will not be changed even in the future.

My last message is that the right of the people will be returned sooner or later, and the conspiracy of the enemy - Israel and the western countries - outside and inside will never succeed. We will always remain in victory.

A poster of a ‘martyr’ with Ayatollah Khamenei’s face on it and a member of a local PMU Brigade.

Interviews with IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) in the Khazir camp.

Will the decision regarding withdrawal of Hashd Al-Shaabi help you to return to your home?

First interviewee:

Abo Omar, 42. It’s been two years that I am in Khazir camp. I was in Sinjar city before IS came. The decision from the Iraqi government regarding withdrawal of Hashd Al-Shaabi from Nineveh Plain is a good decision, it will let many people go back to their homes. The reason I am not going back is because our area is destroyed and our area is currently controlled my Hashd Al-Shaabi. There are tensions between the tribes out there and there is not Iraqi or formal military to secure the area - it is mainly controlled by Hashd Al-Shaabi. There are groups of Hashd in Sinjar but I don't know all the names I know there is for example Hashd Yazidi. We prefer the Iraqi army and police to be in our place because there will be rules and principles of law according to which you will be treated but Hashd al-Shaabi is not like that - they just arrest you or torture you based on suspicions. While, if there are Iraqi army or police they have accurate information and they treat suspects based on law - not like Hashd. There are many people who have been mistreated by Hashd Al-Shaabi by for example taking their money. If Hashd Al-shabi withdraw from these area there will be progress toward rebuilding and prosperity.

A checkpoint in Nineveh Plains

Second Interviewee:

Marwan Shiahb, 28. It’s been two years and a half that I am in khazir camp, and I am from Mosul. The main reasons I am not going back is due to the destruction, and security reason.

The Security of Mosul is fragile due to the mixed treatment between Hashd Al-Shabi and Iraqi forces such as the army and police. It will be much better if Hashd Al-Shaabi withdraws from these areas when it comes to procedures. Hashd is not a formal military sector like the Iraqi army, Hashd have weapons and they are not putting any consideration to anyone, whereas the Iraqi army has discipline and military principles to follow and respects the law.

Personally nothing happened to me, but the situation in Mosul changed after Hashd Al-shaabi came in - they are militia. So this is a good decision, because there is not justice here on the ground currently, and Hashd Al-Shaabi are taking people without any reason and kidnapping them. They are taking people and no one knows anything about what happens to those people.

My Last message is to the Iraqi government, we want to go back to our homes - we are really tired.

Buildings damaged in 2017, still left in ruins in August 2019

Third Interviewee

Ali, 30 years old. It's been two years and a half that I am here in the camp of Khazir, the main reason I am not going back is due to the security reasons – such as house searches, and police treatment of us. Also there are no jobs and no place to go back to. Regarding the Iraqi decision about Brigade 30, it will be much better for us to go back to our places easier and faster as well. To be honest with you though even if Hashd Al-Shaabi did withdraw we can’t go back because we will not be able to sleep due to daily security operations in our areas. while I am here I can sleep without worry.

Fourth Interviewee:

Unknown name 35, from Hamam Alil, it’s been two years a half I am here in the camp. The main reason I am not going back it because we don’t have money to rebuild and life in our area. The decision which came by the Iraqi government is a good decision it will make many people go back to their places. Hashd Al-shabi are making it very complicated when it comes to routine and security procedure - too many questions asking where you are going and where you are coming from.

Current challenges in Nineveh Province

After you cross the Iraqi checkpoint from Khazir coming from Erbil you cross three Hashd al-Shaabi checkpoints to get to the gates of Mosul, which is also a PMU checkpoint. There are several brigades in that area between the KRG and Mosul, particularly the 30th and 50th.

The recent protests and inability of the government to get its orders implemented are clearly visible throughout the region. Locals are concerned, noting that the head of intelligence of Iraq is a member of the Hashd, and Qais Khazali of Asaib Ahl al-Haq was linked to the postponement of the Prime Minister’s orders. Hadi al-Amiri is seen as generally supporting the Prime Minister’s decision to withdraw the PMU. But those against it include Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis of Ktaib Hezbollah. Muhandis is closely linked to Iran and the IRGC and has said, “it is my pleasure to fight alongside Iranian fighters.” The role of Iran is clear in what has happened over the last four months, especially the last month.

The whole of Nineveh Plains is festooned with checkpoints and PMU units. From Khazir camp to Qaraqosh and also from Rashadiya and along the road to Dohuk before the Kurdistan Regional Government areas. On the left side of the road going into Bartella you have NPU on one side and there is an area controlled by a Sunni tribal Hashd and then the Shia Shebek units which have checkpoints on the road leading to Qayarrah as well. Only closer to Qayarrah do you run into Iraqi army checkpoints.

The PMU generally says that they are not ready to give up this land. They say they answered the call in 2014 to fight ISIS and came here as part of that holy duty. Although the PMU were supposed to be integrated into the security forces they have their own flags and uniforms and equipment. They don’t register their arms. The different groups that make up the PMU, such as AAH, Badr and KH have different loyalties and concepts, based on who they listen to and whom they represent. So KH may be more closely linked to Iran and take orders from Iran to implement in Iraq, for instance.

The IDPs interviewed for this report say they will not likely go back and the present of the PMU is central to that. They fear being stolen from and tortured.

The results of the trip to Nineveh reinforce the perception that the PMU are infused with a Shi’ite idealism and even if they claim they are nationalist, you don’t see this in their ideology. They work closely with Iran and want a separate Shi’ite identity. They are close to Iran, even the local units, such as the 30th Brigade, which came out of Badr. Badr was active in Tal Afar and these areas; and when they came here, the Shebek members fought ISIS and their leaders were elected to parliament. They control trade and are accused of being linked to the drug trade as well. Prior to this the war there were few drugs in Nineveh, but there is now alcoholism and drug use and the PMU is blamed for being behind it. The path of drug trade is said to come from the Iranian border via Diyala to Salahdin and Qayarrah and then to Mosul, or through Kirkuk road to Nineveh.

The recent tensions in August show a slight division in the PMU between Badr who appeared more willing to accept the prime minister’s decision and KH, including Muhandis and Khazali who were not. Badr ostensibly seeks a neutral position between the two sides to maintain its influence and position and take advantage of this to secure role over trade and security policy.

For now in Nineveh there is an agreement that everything will be coordinated between army and PMU and the PMU will come to dominate more through through its strategy. In Mosul city one sees police and Iraqi forces on the ground, but they can’t interdict the PMU, and there have been clashes between the SWAT teams and PMU who don’t follow their orders and act as if they control the city and government. The PMU have their own intelligence, and armed forces using advanced weapons, and special forces. They arrest people without government oversight. When one source went to a local HQ there was a secret jail there and a lot of people were held.

Local people express fear and there is a culture of not only of fear but of people spying on eachother. From social activists to students and professors, none of them are content with the situation. They want a formal security structure in Nineveh. They want the army to manage security. They wish the militias will return to their bases.

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