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Newly formed Hashd al-Atabat paramilitary aims to counter Iranian influence in Iraq

By Faris al-Omran

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Al-Abbas Combat Division commander Maytham al-Zaidi on September 28 announces at the shrine of Imam al-Abbas in Karbala the establishment of Hashd al-Atabat, which comprises four armed groups affiliated with the religious authority in Najaf. [AliraqNet]

The inclusion of several Shia militias into a paramilitary organisation under the Iraqi army will strengthen the rule of law in Iraq and counter the influence of Iran-backed groups, say observers.

Maytham al-Zaidi, commander of the Al-Abbas Combat Division Shia militia, September 28 announced in Karbala the creation of Hashd al-Atabat (Shrine Units), which is aligned with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shia cleric.

The organisation includes the Al-Abbas Combat Division (the Popular Mobilisation Forces [PMF]'s 26th Brigade) and three other Shia militias -- Liwa Ansar al-Marja'iyya (44th Brigade), Imam Ali Combat Division (2nd Brigade) and Liwa Ali al-Akbar (11th Brigade).

The new unit is "legitimate and legal by virtue of its association with the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, who supports it", al-Zaidi said in a speech in front of throngs of visitors to the shrine of Imam al-Abbas in Karbala.

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Leaders of the armed groups comprising Hashd al-Atabat at a September 28 press conference in Karbala review the contribution of their groups in securing the Arbaeen pilgrimage. [AliraqNet]

The four groups decided last year to join the Iraqi Ministry of Defence, ending their association with the PMF, which includes armed groups that have explicitly declared their loyalty to Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei.

In December, the four groups held a conference in which they objected to the actions of these so-called "loyalist militias", calling them detrimental to the safety of Iraqis, the sovereignty of their country and its national interests.

The PMF was formed to fight the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) in response to al-Sistani's jihad fatwa (Al-Jihad al-Kafai) in 2014.

Rejecting Iran

While Iraqis and the government welcomed the formation of the new umbrella group, the move angered the leaders of the Iran-backed militias, in particular Qais al-Khazaali, leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq.

The differences between the two sides escalated in recent weeks, with Liwa Ansar al-Marja'iyya commander Hamid al-Yasiri harshly lambasting Iraqi militias and armed groups that "owe allegiance to [any country] other than Iraq".

Al-Yasiri in a speech on August 15 accused such groups of "high treason".

He also blamed them for killing Iraqi demonstrators and activists "who were demanding services, sovereignty and loyalty to Iraq and rejecting outside interference in their country's affairs".

Al-Yasiri rejected "the voice of guidance and tutelage coming from outside the borders", in an apparent reference to Khamenei.

He also led a demonstration inside the shrine of Imam Hussein in Karbala denouncing Iran. Hundreds of students at the Najaf seminary joined in the protest, chanting slogans rejecting Iranian interference and the illegal activities of Iran-backed militias.

The establishment of Hashd al-Atabat "is a clear message that this [paramilitary] formation is independent of Iranian decision-making and loyalty, and that it is a key supporter of efforts to consolidate the state and the rule of law," political analyst Ahmed Shawki told Al-Mashareq.

With their recent announcement, the leaders of Hashd al-Atabat have confirmed that they are a combat -- and not a political -- force whose "main mission is to defend the country and help the armed forces defeat terrorism", he said.

The unit is not affected by political interests, positions or loyalties that serve agendas outside Iraq's borders, he noted.

The creation of Hashd al-Atabat further isolates Iran-backed groups and weakens their influence and efforts aimed at turning them into auxiliary forces similar to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), he said.

Abstaining from politics

The announcement of the creation of Hashd al-Atabat came just ahead of Iraq's parliamentary elections, a move that reaffirmed its intention not to engage in politics, in line with al-Sistani's recommendation for the PMF when it was formed.

While Hashd al-Atabat militias stuck to the combat role they were initially created for, and later integrated into the Iraqi army, the pro-Iran loyalist militias established alliances and political movements with which to contest the elections in 2018, and again this year.

The loyalist militias "will remain close to the Iranian regime and are loyal servants of it", political writer Abdul Karim al-Wazzan told Al-Mashareq.

"They are in one boat and co-ordinate among each other," he said, despite reports of Iranian leaders' discontent over the failure of some proxies to comply with their orders and the increase in conflicts between them over wealth and benefits.

But Iraqis continue to denounce the policies of the Iranian regime and the behaviour of its proxies, al-Wazzan added.

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