How Iraq’s Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi turned into an Iranian foreign policy instrument

A security guard stands next to placards denouncing Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi as Iraqi Kurds attend a demonstration outside the US consulate in Irbil in 2017. (AFP/File)
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Updated 15 June 2021

How Iraq’s Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi turned into an Iranian foreign policy instrument

  • Conglomeration of predominantly Shiite militias was first formed in June 2014 to defend Iraq against Daesh
  • Given its investments in its proxy networks, Iran is unlikely to relinquish control over Hashd, analysts say

IRBIL, IRAQI KURDISTAN: It is seven years since their yellow flag first appeared in the campaign against Daesh, the extremist group which seized swathes of northern Iraq and eastern Syria. After Daesh captured large parts of northern Iraq, including Mosul, in 2014, the fighters of Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces, won the admiration of many Iraqis for heeding Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani’s call to arms.

Since then, the umbrella organization of mainly Shiite militias has, however, adopted a more sinister cause. Last month, a convoy of Hashd fighters mounted a show of strength in Baghdad’s Green Zone, the center of Iraq’s political life, and forced the country’s elected leaders to release Qassim Musleh, a Hashd commander close to Iran who had been arrested in the western Anbar province.

Musleh has a reputation as a brutal operator. In late 2019, thousands of mainly young Iraqis took to the center of Baghdad to protest against systemic corruption and Iran’s influence over their country’s affairs.

After days of protests, snipers believed to be from Hashd units took to nearby rooftops and killed dozens of people. Musleh and his Iranian sponsors are thought to have been instrumental in ordering the killings. His recent arrest was in connection with the May 9 murder of Ihab Al-Wazni, a prominent activist in the southern shrine city of Karbala.

“Many Iraqi activists have been speaking out against Iran-backed militias’ ability to operate outside the boundaries of the law, and it makes sense that the militias would then seek to silence anyone working to constrain their positions of power,” Emily Hawthorne, a Middle East and North Africa analyst for Strator — a RANE Company, told Arab News.

Kyle Orton, an independent Middle East researcher, believes Iranian-controlled militias in Iraq were behind the worst atrocities against anti-corruption protesters. “The Hashd is fairly clearly more powerful than the Iraqi security forces, both in its ability to control the social and street-level space, and the political sphere, with its control of key ministries and its effective veto-wielding bloc in parliament,” he told Arab News.

The Hashd was first formed in June 2014 to defend Iraq against Daesh after that group conquered Mosul.

In 2018, about 30 militias under the Al-Hashd-Al-Shaabi umbrella were formally included in — and paid by — the Iraqi security forces. It has a significant presence in the Iraq parliament through the Fateh coalition, which has more than 40 seats in the 329-seat assembly.

On the ground, Hashd units have repeatedly targeted Ain Al-Asad airbase in Anbar and even Irbil International Airport in Iraqi Kurdistan, both of which host US troops and personnel. The US embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone has also been repeatedly targeted.




Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi fighters gather around the Tal Afar airport, west of Mosul, as they and Iraqi forces backed by local militia and a US-led coalition advanced in driving Daesh from the city in August 2017. (AFP/File)

While most of these attacks were with short-range rockets, the more recent ones have been carried out using explosive-laden attack drones, underscoring the evolving capabilities of such groups.

“The motivations for these operations are a confluence of issues,” Joel Wing, author of the “Musings on Iraq” blog, told Arab News. “Both the Hashd brigades and Iran want the US military out of Iraq. It would be a great victory for them if that happened.”

For Iran, proxy attacks by Iraqi militias are a way for it “to pressure the US over its (Iran’s) nuclear program and sanctions.”

The array of units under the Hashd umbrella is bewildering. There are militias loyal to Al-Sistani, widely viewed as a figure of moderation and an opponent of overseas interference in Iraq. There are even tribal defense units, the so-called Sunni Hashd.

These groups exist to make the organization seem more diverse and legitimate, both domestically and internationally. “The reality is this is a ‘popular front’ tactic. All these groups are dependent and subordinate to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC),” Orton said.

Behind an elaborate facade of names and acronyms, Iran is sponsoring an array of more effective paramilitary groups, according to the analysts. “The most powerful brigades within the Hashd are all pro-Iran,” Wing said, identifying them as the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah.




Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, head of the Kataib Hezbollah, was killed beside Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani at Baghdad’s international airport. (AFP/File)

Iranian policy in Iraq has, however, had its share of setbacks. In January 2020, the US killed Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force, the IRGC’s overseas arm, in a drone strike. Soleimani was the architect of Iranian policy in Iraq and elsewhere across the Middle East, from Lebanon to Syria and Yemen.

Tellingly, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, head of the Kataib Hezbollah, was killed beside Soleimani as they were being driven from Baghdad’s international airport.

In May, Reuters reported that Iran had changed its strategy vis-a-vis its militia proxies. Instead of relying on the larger established groups, Tehran has started to form small elite groups that are more loyal and better trained to do its bidding in the region.

“This shift in strategy grants both Iran and established groups like Kataib Hezbollah plausible deniability whenever a smaller, likely linked group conducts an attack. It is indicative of a desire to protect the political position in Baghdad that a well-known group like Kataib Hezbollah enjoys,” Hawthorne, the Stratfor analyst, told Arab News.

Both Wing and Orton believe that the shift to smaller units masks a commitment to continued domination via plausible deniability. “Today, it’s unclear whether Iran is attempting to regain control of these factions or simply backing all the new front groups that Hashd brigades have created, to deny responsibility for attacks upon US targets in Iraq,” Wing said.

Soleimani’s death may well have caused Iran’s different power centers to experiment with divergent interests and objectives. The power centers range from the Quds Force, which organizes and trains Tehran’s proxy militias across the Middle East, to the Iranian foreign ministry.

“It has been reported that they don’t all agree on how to use their Iraqi allies,” Wing told Arab News. “The Hashd brigades were also competing with each other for a period to try to show which one was the leader of the resistance within Iraq, and the attacks were part of that.”

Orton sees Iran as adopting the same model in Iraq as it did in Lebanon in the 1980s, when it split Hezbollah from Amal, previously the dominant Shiite militia in the country. “The use of ‘new’ pseudo-groups or fronts, where they exist — some are entirely imaginary, existing solely online to claim recent attacks — is just the latest iteration of this effort to embed the Islamic Revolution in local conditions.”

That effort appears to be back on track following Soleimani’s killing. Hashd seems to be succeeding in spreading its control over broad areas of the northern Middle East. Musleh, the man at the center of the latest clashes between the militia and central government in Baghdad, is head of the Hashd in Anbar, traditionally a Sunni stronghold.

Hashd fighters have taken part in battles in neighboring Syria to help Iran prop up the Assad regime in Damascus. Hashd groups also proved instrumental in Iran’s ability to move weapons overland across Iraq into Syria.

Groups such as Kataib Hezbollah control important border points with Syria in both Anbar and Nineveh in northern Iraq, in addition to their own smuggling routes. “They are able to move men and material back and forth at will,” Wing told Arab News, referring to the paramilitary forces.

That said, Iran has been forced to change tactics in response to risks from the Israeli Air Force. Instead of shipping missiles through Iraq to its militia proxies in Syria, it has begun delivering smaller pieces of equipment along with advisers. These are much less detectable.

Given all that it has invested in these networks, the analysts are skeptical that Iran will relinquish control over them, even if it means a comprehensive nuclear deal with the US and Western powers that includes extensive sanctions relief for its economy.

“Iran will never ‘cut off’ any of the Iraqi militias, Hezbollah or the Houthis, because it cannot; they are integral, organic parts of the revolution,” Orton told Arab News.

“Any proposal in the nuclear negotiations for Iran to in some way trade its ‘proxies’ is a non-starter as such.”

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Twitter: @pauliddon

 

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British navy group: Hijackers have left vessel off UAE coast

Updated 04 August 2021

British navy group: Hijackers have left vessel off UAE coast

FUJAIRAH, UAE: The hijackers who captured a vessel off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf of Oman departed the targeted ship on Wednesday, the British navy reported, as recorded radio traffic appeared to reveal a crew member onboard saying Iranian gunmen had stormed the asphalt tanker.
The incident — described by the British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations the night before as a “potential hijack” — revived fears of an escalation in Mideast waters and ended with as much mystery as it began.
Hints of what unfolded on the Panama-flagged asphalt tanker, called Asphalt Princess, began to emerge with the maritime radio recording, obtained by commodities pricing firm Argus Media and shared with The Associated Press. In the audio, a crew member can be heard telling the Emirati coast guard that five or six armed Iranians had boarded the tanker.
“Iranian people are onboard with ammunition,” the crew member says. “We are … now, drifting. We cannot tell you exact our ETA to (get to) Sohar,” the port in Oman listed on the vessel’s tracker as its destination. It was not clear whether the crew members, whom he identified as Indian and Indonesian, were in immediate danger.
No one took responsibility for the brief seizure, which underscored mounting tensions as Iran and the United States seek a resolution to their standoff over Tehran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
Apparently responding to the incident, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh on Tuesday denied that Iran played any role. He described the recent maritime attacks in the Arabian Gulf as “completely suspicious.”
Over the past years, the rising tensions have played out in the waters of the Arabian Gulf, where just last week a drone attack on an oil tanker linked to an Israeli billionaire off the coast of Oman killed two crew members. The West blamed Iran for the raid, which marked the first known fatal assault in the years-long shadow war targeting vessels in Mideast waters. Iran denied involvement.
Late on Tuesday, the intruders boarded the Asphalt Princess sailing off the coast of Fujairah, authorities said. The official news agency of Oman’s military said it received reports that the Asphalt Princess had been hijacked and immediately dispatched Royal Air Force maritime patrol aircraft and naval vessels “to contribute to securing international waters.”
In the recorded radio traffic, when the Emirati coast guard asks the crew member what the Iranian gunmen were doing onboard, he says he “cannot understand the (Iranians),” his voice muffled, before trying to hand over the radio to someone else. The call then cuts off.
Possible signs of trouble began to emerge that evening when six oil tankers off the coast of Fujairah announced around the same time via their Automatic Identification System trackers that they were “not under command,” according to MarineTraffic.com. That typically means a vessel has lost power and can no longer steer.
Satellite-tracking data for the Asphalt Princess had showed it gradually heading toward Iranian waters off the port of Jask early Wednesday, according to MarineTraffic.com. Hours later, however, it stopped and changed course toward Oman, just before the British navy group declared the hijackers had departed and the vessel was now “safe.”
In an analysis, maritime intelligence firm Dryad Global described the seizure of the Asphalt Princess as the latest Iranian response to outside pressures, economic conflicts and other grievances.
“Iran has consistently shown that in conducting this kind of operation, it is calculated in doing so, both by targeting vessels directly connected with ongoing disputes and (vessels) operating within the ‘grey space’ of legitimacy,” which may be involved in illicit trade, Dryad Global said.
The owner of the Asphalt Princess, listed as Emirati free zone-based Glory International, could not immediately be reached for comment.
The US military’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet and the British Defense Ministry also did not respond to requests for comment. The Emirati government did not immediately acknowledge the incident.
The Gulf of Oman sits near the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Arabian Gulf through which a fifth of all traded oil passes. Fujairah, on the UAE’s eastern coast, is a main port in the region for ships to take on new oil cargo, pick up supplies or trade out crew.
For the past two years, after then-President Donald Trump withdrew the US from Iran’s nuclear deal and imposed crushing sanctions, the waters off Fujairah have witnessed a series of explosions and hijackings. The US Navy has blamed Iran for a series of limpet mine attacks on vessels that damaged tankers.
In the summer of 2019, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard troops detained a British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, near the Strait of Hormuz. Last year, an oil tanker sought by the US for allegedly circumventing sanctions on Iran was hijacked off the Emirati coast and later ended up in Iran, though Tehran never acknowledged the incident.
And in January, armed Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops stormed a South Korean tanker and forced the ship to change course and travel to Iran. While Iran claimed it detained the ship over pollution concerns, it appeared to link the seizure to negotiations over billions of dollars in Iranian assets frozen in South Korean banks.

Iran court sentences German woman to decade in jail: daughter

Updated 04 August 2021

Iran court sentences German woman to decade in jail: daughter

  • Taghavi was arrested at her Tehran apartment on Oct. 16 after years fighting for human rights in Iran
  • Taghavi suffers from pre-existing conditions including high blood pressure and diabetes

BERLIN: A German-Iranian woman held in Iran has been given a decade-long jail term by an Iran court for participating in an outlawed group, her daughter said Wednesday.

Nahid Taghavi, 66, was given “ten years for membership in an illegal group” and “eight months for propaganda against the regime,” said her daughter Mariam Claren.

Taghavi was arrested at her Tehran apartment on Oct. 16 after years fighting for human rights in Iran, in particular for women’s rights and freedom of expression, according to the rights group IGFM.

According to Claren, Taghavi has been held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where she contracted Covid-19 last month.

Claren has repeatedly flagged up warnings about her mother’s health, saying that she suffers from pre-existing conditions including high blood pressure and diabetes.

Germany’s foreign ministry said in October that it was aware of the arrest of a German-Iranian woman in Iran, but did not name the detained citizen.

Frank Schwabe, who is the spokesman on human rights issues for the Social Democrats, condemned the verdict.

“The charges are baseless and the verdict a farce,” he wrote on Twitter.


International conference on Lebanon raises over $357 million

Updated 04 August 2021

International conference on Lebanon raises over $357 million

  • The Aug. 4, 2020 explosion in Beirut port killed at least 214 people
  • About 40 heads of state and government, diplomats and heads of international organizations have taken part in the conference

SAULIEU, France: The French presidency said an international conference on Lebanon has gathered over $357 million in aid required to meet the country’s humanitarian needs, one year after the massive explosion at Beirut’s port.
Wednesday’s virtual conference, co-hosted by France and the United Nations, was meant to show support for the Lebanese people, French President Emmanuel Macron said.
France will provide 100 million euros ($118.6 million) in the coming months, Macron said. Paris will also send 500,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines for the country.
President Joe Biden, who addressed the conference in a video message, pledged to give $100 million in new humanitarian assistance.
About 40 heads of state and government, diplomats and heads of international organizations have taken part in the conference, according to Macron’s office. Participants included Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, King Abdullah II of Jordan and European Council President Charles Michel.
Lebanon’s current humanitarian needs have been estimated by the UN to be at least $357 million. Aid will focus on food, schools, the health sector and clean water supply, Macron’s office said.
Wednesday’s event was also meant to mount pressure on Lebanese leaders to form a new government able to implement reforms and start rebuilding the country.
Lebanon is going through the worst economic and financial crisis of its modern history, and a political stalemate that has kept the country without a functioning government for a full year.
Biden said that “no amount of outside assistance will ever be enough, if Lebanon’s own leaders do not commit to do the hard but necessary work of reforming the economy and combating corruption. That’s essential, and has to start now.”
Lebanese politicians have only made the situation ”worse by placing their individual and political interests above the Lebanese people’s interests,” Macron criticized. “Lebanon definitely deserves better.”
Macron said that humanitarian aid promised Wednesday will be unconditional.
However, he warned that “there will be no blank check to the Lebanese political system because it is defaulting. ... Lebanese leaders seem to opt for the deterioration (of the situation). I regret it. I think it’s a historical and moral error.”
Michel, the European Council President, stressed that the EU adopted a few days ago a “sanctions framework ... to target those in Lebanon who obstruct efforts to end the political crisis. We obviously hope that we will not be obliged to activate it.”
Macron, who went to Beirut twice since the explosion at the port, has led international efforts to try to help the former French protectorate by providing emergency aid. Last year’s conference on Lebanon, organized in the wake of the explosion, raised about 280 million euros ($332 million).
According to the UN, over half of Lebanese people now live in poverty, one in three Lebanese suffer from food insecurity and nearly 4 million people are at risk of not accessing safe water.


Rocket fire from Lebanon prompts Israeli shelling: Army

Updated 04 August 2021

Rocket fire from Lebanon prompts Israeli shelling: Army

  • The military said in a statement the alerts sounded in at least three communities near the border with Lebanon

JERUSALEM: Rocket fire from Lebanon hit northern Israel on Wednesday prompting retaliatory shelling, the army said, as tensions rise between Israel and arch foe Iran.

“Three rockets were fired from Lebanon into Israeli territory,” the army said in a statement, adding that one had fallen short of the border.

“In response... artillery forces fired into Lebanese territory.”

Rocket warning sirens sounded in northern Israel near the Lebanese border, the Israeli military said.

There were no immediate reports of damage or casualties. The military said in a statement the alerts sounded in at least three communities near the border with Lebanon.

The border has been mostly quiet since Israel fought a 2006 war against Hezbollah guerrillas, who have sway in southern Lebanon and advanced rockets.

But small Palestinian factions in Lebanon have fired sporadically on Israel in the past, and two rockets were launched at Israel on July 20, causing no damage or injuries. Israel responded to that incident with artillery fire.

 


Pope Francis back to full-time work with call for Lebanon aid

Updated 04 August 2021

Pope Francis back to full-time work with call for Lebanon aid

  • ‘Today I appeal to the international community to help Lebanon along the path to resurrection through concrete gestures, not just words’

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis returned to work full-time on Wednesday following a colon operation, urging the international community to help a struggling Lebanon.
The 84-year-old took time to bless children and pose for selfies in the Vatican at the weekly general audience one month to the day after the delicate operation, which saw him hospitalized for over a week.
“Today I appeal to the international community to help Lebanon along the path to resurrection through concrete gestures, not just words,” Francis said.
Lebanon was Wednesday marking a year since a cataclysmic explosion ravaged Beirut, killing at least 214 people in its worst peace-time disaster, when the country’s economy was already in tatters.
The spiralling economic crisis has been branded by the World Bank as one of the planet’s worst since the mid-19th century. Lebanon has also had to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.
Francis said he hoped an international conference co-hosted by France and the UN on the day of the anniversary to raise humanitarian aid proves “productive.”
According to the Vatican News portal, the general audience marked the resumption of normal activities for the pope, who underwent planned surgery for inflammation of the colon at Rome’s Gemelli University Hospital on July 4.
Francis, who had previously been in fairly good health, had been taking it easy since the operation although he led the Sunday Angelus prayers both from hospital and from the Vatican window on his return.

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