A new report at Middle East Eye last week said that the “Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary umbrella group has doubled in size over the past two years, making it the third-largest force in the country, documents related to Iraq’s draft budget seen by Middle East Eye suggest.” The report claimed that these pro-Iranian militias that became an official state-backed paramilitary force in 2018 now need some 3.56 trillion Iraqi dinars ($2.7 billion).
The Hashd or PMU was raised in 2014 after the fatwa by Ayatollah Ali Sistani, which encouraged young men to defend Baghdad from the ISIS offensive that year. Huge numbers of men eventually flocked to the banners of various units. There were dozens of Hashd brigades, most affiliated with various existing militias. Groups like Badr date back to the 1980s. Some of the groups like Kataib Hezbollah are closely linked to Iran’s IRGC. Some of these groups have threatened Israel over the years, such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s Qais Khazali and the Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba group.
What matters is that groups that had a few thousand men under arms ballooned into 100,000 fighters. Then they strong-armed the Western-backed Abadi government to make them an official force. Then, when Abadi was chucked out of power – having been used by Iran, Qasem Soleimani and the Hashd to frustrate Kurdistan’s independence referendum in 2017 – the Hashd or PMU came to control swaths of the state. This was the Iranian IRGC model, similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, but even more powerful in some ways.
Pro-Iran militias in Iraq and the confusing numbers: "Unknown knowns"
Now the groups apparently want even more money for a shadow army of militias. It’s not clear if these men are all actually under arms or they are ghost units – units on paper – that are used to siphon off and divert Iraq’s limited state resources so that the money can flow to Tehran or to Syria where it is used to threaten US forces and Israel.
Of course, this is a classic Rumsfeld-style “unknown knowns” situation. If the PMU grows to 238,000 fighters, where will these men be used? “However, it is not certain that these numbers accurately reflect the true number of personnel. The Hashd and other wings of the security forces have been suspected of inflating the number of people in their ranks to siphon off state funds for other uses,” the article notes.
In recent years, Iran’s militias in Iraq have often threatened to join any war against Israel in the region. This could be part of Iran’s plan to “unify” the fronts against Israel, in which Iran uses Hamas, PIJ, Hezbollah and others as its frontline against the Jewish state. These are Iran’s potential cannon fodder, paid now from Iraq’s budget. People in Basra can’t get clean water, but Iran’s militias can get all the funding they need. Several years ago, these groups were involved in a crackdown on protesters in Iraq.
There have been allegations that Iran uses them in Iran as well against minority Kurdish communities. Tehran therefore may be building a shadow army in Iraq, or just stealing its resources, or preparing its militias for war against the US and Israel. Iran has already moved drones and missiles to Iraq to these militias. In May 2021, a drone was flown from Iraq targeting Israel.
Iran’s backing for groups like Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza and the West Bank may have a financial tail that leads back to Iraq. After all, if Iran can siphon off millions of dollars from Iraq to its militias, it’s plausible it can divert and redirect that to back PIJ. The overall context is that any expansion in resources for Iraq’s pro-Iranian militias is bad news for Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon and for the region.