On April 8, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi traveled to the Habbaniya military base in east Anbar for a follow-up to the liberation of Tikrit. Speaking with excessive triumphalism about “the complete liberation of Salahuddin” from the Islamic State (IS), Abadi said, “Now we turn to the west.” However, the Islamic State soon responded with a counteroffensive that overran two military outposts in eastern Anbar and almost expelled the government entirely from Ramadi, Anbar’s provincial capital.
The political fallout for Abadi was considerable, and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki—and his two allies the Badr Organization and Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH)—took the opportunity to push back against his increasing authority over the Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashd). In Baghdad, protests broke out targeting Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi, a Sunni ally of Abadi’s. Protesters claimed Obeidi’s incompetence led to the death of 140 Iraqi soldiers who had been besieged at the military base of Nazim al-Tharthar for several days, fifty of whom were executed in cold blood after they ran out of ammunition. Maliki, Hadi al-Ameri of the Badr, and Qais al-Khazali of AAH also took to sympathetic TV channels (al-Ahad, Afaq, and Al-Ghadeer), criticizing Abadi’s restraining of the Hashd and demanding that the group take over responsibility for security from the army.
Abadi’s premature triumphalism, the perceived mishandling of the Anbar offensive, and the ensuing media firestorm reflect his tenuous relationship with the Hashd. When founded in June 2014, the Hashd was initially just an umbrella for preexisting militias, most but not all of them backed by Iran. After becoming prime minister last September, Abadi coexisted with them, maintaining a thin veneer of state authority. But January’s budget law gave him significant leverage in the form of control over their salaries—at least those who do not belong to militias funded by Iran. Then in early March the cabinet passed a decree formally bringing the Hashd under the prime minister as commander-in-chief.
Additionally, Abadi was moving to de-sectarianize the Hashd by bringing Sunnis into it. One purpose of the April 8 event in Habbaniya was to induct recruits to an Anbari Hashd brigade based there. In a powerful image, Abadi personally handed out rifles to Sunni tribesmen volunteering to join Hashd. At the same time, Abadi was holding back Shia militias from engaging in Ramadi, making it clear he intended to recruit more Sunnis. On April 25, at a Shia memorial, Abadi spoke of the Hashd as a state institution under his authority that would include Iraqis from all backgrounds, including Sunnis. Given the Hashd’s popularity in the Shia street, Abadi could not attack it; instead, he would transform it.
Threatened by Abadi’s plan, Badr and AAH have seemingly been aiming at a kind of “soft coup” that would allow the militias to reassert security dominance. Ameri declared to local media, “We will enter Anbar and will not allow anyone to prevent us, as long as honorable Anbaris call for us.” Indeed, some Anbari leaders had grown so desperate that they were calling for Shia militias’ help, although others continued to insist on arming Anbari tribesmen instead. Maliki, speaking to AAH’s channel, argued that Iraq should adopt 1980s Iran as a model and rely on irregular Shia forces instead of the army. This is especially notable as it came before the Tharthar “massacre,” and presaged arguments by AAH that the Hashd should take over security from the army.
The campaign had the government on the defensive for a few days. Defense Minister Obeidi gave a press conference and interviews denying negligence. On April 28, Abadi himself appeared before parliament and offered to step down, saying with a smile, “If parliament wants to remove the head of government, or the entire government,” they were welcome to it. But, he emphasized, authority to change the government lay with parliament, and he warned against “clashes in the streets”—an unmistakable reference to the fact that the campaign against him was driven by militias and that what they were attempting was in fact a coup.
Obeidi also cast doubt on the initial reports of the events of Nazim al-Tharthar—a military outpost that fell twice in two weeks to the IS offensive in Anbar. He claimed that reports of 140 deaths were unfounded and that only 25 bodies had been recovered, some of them from the enemy. Given that these numbers are unconfirmed, it is not clear that a massacre did take place at Tharthar. And while IS routinely publishes videos of its massacres, the videos it released from Tharthar only show it making off with government equipment and the bodies of a couple of soldiers, who appear to have gone down in combat.
While the fall of an outpost near the capital does make the government look weak, this incident does not appear to have been a mass killing. The “Tharthar massacre” narrative may be Maliki’s last gasp at power—he controls the loyalty of no more than about a quarter of parliament’s 183 Shia MPs (or about an eighth of the 328 total MPs). The State of Law Coalition, to which both Maliki and Abadi belong, is deeply divided, and every faction outside of it is intensely anti-Maliki. Most of the media that Shia Iraqis watch—including state television—predominately features commentary by Abadi’s backers rather than Maliki’s.
It was never likely that Maliki would return to power through a militia putsch. Iran’s militia strategy since 2003 has always focused on building up power gradually, as taking power by force which would alienate ordinary Shia. The Interior Ministry dominates security in the capital, but Abadi has protected himself against Interior Minister Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban by giving him two deputies who appear to be loyal to the prime minister. And while officers at the unit command level were appointed under Maliki, there is no reason to think they are loyal to him. If the anti-Abadi protests had reached a critical mass, Iran could have been expected to put its weight behind a government change—but they never did.
Abadi has turned back the Maliki-AAH agenda of having the militias take over, but he still has to build the fighting capacity of the formal security apparatus. On that he commands the support of most Shia factions, especially the Sadrists, who had already marked out a nationalist line supporting state institutions. Following the Tharthar controversy, they encouraged Abadi to simply abolish the Hashd and create a province-based National Guard without waiting for the law establishing it to be passed. But Abadi must also deal with the legacy of a corrupt and ineffective security apparatus, as April’s military debacles made clear.
This article is the second of a series of articles titled “Shia Militias and the Future of the Iraqi State.” Read the first here.