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In the arid desert south of Tal Afar, members of Hash’d al-Sha’bi, which comprises nearly 60 predominately Shiite paramilitary units, have set up operations in this barren region outside of Mosul. Since last October, the group, also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), has severed the Islamic State’s (ISIS’) supply routes to Syria using only their Jeeps, Hummers, and light tank weaponry, and in December, drove ISIS from the area.
When I arrived in early May, I witnessed a Jeep of militiamen tearing across the flat, dry expanse. As the truck streamed past the molehills of earth lining the various checkpoints, it churned up a cloud of dust. At the time, the Iraqi Army’s 9th Armored Division, the Federal Police, and the elite, U.S.-trained Rapid Response Units had surrounded the Old City of Mosul from all sides and the defeat of the militants seemed imminent.
Although this federation of fighters had largely remained dormant in the siege on the city, it fought many of the battles outside the Kurdistan region and was key to the victories of the Iraqi security forces against ISIS. In November, the Iraqi Parliament formally recognized Hash’d al-Sha’bi for its service, incorporating the militias into the Iraqi army through a bill supported by 208 of the parliament’s 327 members. But as the fighting winds down, the PMF is facing another rather complicated battle, this time over its legitimacy and its place in the country’s post-ISIS future. Since half of the units fought against U.S.-led coalition forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the PMF has been dogged by allegations of war crimes and human rights violations.
In the most recent instance, according to a Human Rights Watch report first obtained by Foreign Affairs, one of the PMF brigades, the Liwa Ali al-Akhbar, may have arbitrarily detained and abused civilians over the course of interrogations meant to uncover whether the residents of newly liberated areas had ties to ISIS. As I later learned, only four miles south of where I had come to greet al-Akhbar, there were at least 130 men detained at the Tal Abta Janubia primary school. Before they were set free, many were beaten with a thick metal cable—and in one case, to death.
Although the PMF’s profile has received a boost in recent years, as its soldiers helped capture the cities of Anbar, Diyala, Tikrit, and Baiji, before joining the offensive for Mosul, the group was accused of committing atrocities, specifically against Sunni civilians. Reported violations include extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, beatings, looting, and the recruitment of child soldiers. Since it was incorporated into the Iraq army, many analysts and politicians and local civilians have worried that the largely Shiite militia would hamper the fight for Mosul, as it had in Fallujah in 2016 by abusing the city’s largely Sunni population. Images and video footage show PMF and Iraqi army soldiers committing extrajudicial killings and roadside executions, dragging the bodies of detainees through the streets, and in one instance dropping a suspected ISIS fighter from a tower. As the thinking goes, ISIS fighters could point to such footage and other atrocities committed by the PMF to recruit more Sunnis.
The PMF, however, had not been tasked with joining the force to restore order to Mosul. The Iraqi Joint Command outlined the group’s initial role in Mosul: it would be stationed outside the city “in areas and villages which would be safe, and away from the contact point with the enemy,” Lieutenant General Abdul-Amir Yarallah, commander for the Nineveh Operations, told local media in January. Only this spring did Hash’d al-Sha’bi join the battle in Mosul in a more integrated way.
The U.S. State Department noted in a March update that the central government in Baghdad had “announced investigations into reports of PMF abuses, but results of the investigations or convictions were often not publicly available.” Staff from the Iraqi court overseeing the investigations have said they have only had one trial so far.
Although there are a number of designated state-sponsored terrorists groups operating in the battle of Mosul—such as the Badr Organization, the Lebanese Hezbollah, and various Sadrist groups—that have purportedly committed war crimes and heinous acts against Sunni villagers and draw support from Iran, al-Akhbar was one with few blemishes until now.
“When compared to the Iranian-backed groups, [al-Akhbar is] a markedly better force as far as how they have managed themselves,” Phillip Smyth, an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me. “They’ve pushed a more Iraqi nationalist and cross-sectarian view, and I think that speaks to their abilities and to where they stand in this broader political situation.”
Smyth raises a crucial point: the fundamental differences in ideology among Shiite militias in Iraq and the difficulty this creates when determining which part of the 100,000-strong militia committed the atrocities. Those who follow the fatwa of Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, like the al-Akhbar brigade, are not regarded as Iranian or political proxies as the hardliners who follow Ruhollah Khomeini, the former supreme leader of Iran and leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Sometimes this ideological split among the various PMF groups creates tensions and competition, which means that when atrocities arise, those from one group will claim that another group had committed the crimes, or simply deny the accusations outright. These claims are complicated even further by the fact that the PMF also includes Sunnis, Christians, and Yazidis.
“We’re pretty careful,” said Belkis Wille, the senior Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch, about identifying particular brigades. The organization depends on the accounts of witnesses or victims and their descriptions of identifiers such as badges or banners. But she did note that some brigades, “based on the flavor of the unit and the commander,” are more dedicated to following the laws of war and that in general, “You can’t paint them with one brush stroke.”
Early in the operation, as the Human Rights Watch report notes, the PMF Commission rarely addressed accusations of arbitrary detention, torture, and execution of civilians, but it issued a statement in February denying any violations. Shortly after, the commission told representatives of Human Rights Watch that forces did detain people captured during the fighting, but only for short periods before transferring custody to Iraqi authorities.
Belkis also attributes the fact that the battle for Mosul has seen fewer violations than the fight for Fallujah to commanders knowing that there was a need for oversight and that there would be severe repercussions for criminal behavior. But she also suggested that the PMF’s more marginal role in Mosul has helped.
“In the battle to retake Mosul, we have seen anti-ISIS forces carrying out arbitrary detention, torture, and extrajudicial killings,” she told me. “But from what we can tell, these are still happening less frequently than in previous operations to retake areas from ISIS, particularly the battle of Fallujah.”
Along the path to the base of al-Ahkbar, white flags with the group’s green insignia dotted the molehills of sand in 50-meter intervals. “Welcome to Hash’d Sha’bi land,” my interpreter said as we pulled into the village. “From here on out it’s all military.” The sand-slapped badu nomad encampments had disappeared from view an hour before, replaced by endless desert and single-story, mud and adobe dwellings. It was easy to spot Mosul on the horizon: a singular patch of sky to the northeast, blackened by smoke from the airstrikes.
As we cruised through the checkpoints, my driver shouted, “War media, war media!” at the guards who let us through with a wave. My driver and interpreter had only kind words for the militias. But I had come to visit al-Akhbar about the accusations of war crimes and to hear their side of the story.
“I’m thankful for that question,” said General Shekh Ahmad al-Menshedawi al-Moan, an assistant commander, when I asked him whether he could defend the group against war crime accusations. An aide interjected, frustrated by the issues I had raised, “Have you seen the civilians? Have you seen the people here?” What he meant was, “Take a look around. Do you see anyone tortured here?”
“We don’t come here like militias,” al-Moan said. When the PMF heard Sistani’s 2014 call to arms against ISIS, its members took heed. “Everyone was saying bad things about Hash’d al-Sha’bi,” said al-Moan of when the fight for Mosul began. “They think Hash’d al-Sha’bi does bad things, but we don’t. We have Kurdish, Christian, and Yazidi units among us.”
Yet the PMF’s collective peace can be easily broken when one group splinters off and declares allegiance to either Iraq’s clerics, government, or a different nation state. And while kind words temporarily mend wounds, few members will ever directly come out and address the allegations. As noted earlier, a court setup to oversee the PMF case has only tried and convicted one person for war crimes. Prosecuting such crimes is tough during war, especially against a group as derided and universally loathed as ISIS.
During my time with al-Moan, we spoke a lot about the future of his brigade and the PMF, which was preparing for the final assault on Mosul. We also discussed who supplied and supported their network of fighters (donations from southern Iraq) and whether Hash’d al-Sha’bi is prepared to play a bigger role as it reaches the outskirts of the city. “Hash’d al-Sha’bi are the toughest fighters in the world. We fight until the end and we never give up,” al-Moan said. When I asked him about the future of the PMF after the battle for Mosul is won, he evaded my question by saying that his unit’s allegiance was to Sistani’s fatwa and wherever this call to arms brings them next.
The one consistency in our conversation was the attitude al-Moan suggested his fighters felt toward ISIS, which illuminates their broader feelings toward the treatment of fighters and civilians sympathetic to the militants. “They don’t have human rights, they don’t believe in religion, they only follow their rules,” al-Moan said of ISIS, including sympathizers. “They are destroying everything. They taught people how to kill. We come here just looking for peace.” He added, “Hash’d al-Sha’bi will stay to the end.” Or at least until the fatwa is withdrawn.
Outside, the PMF flag fluttered in front of al-Akhbar’s two-story headquarters. A large white banner with red, black, and green markings, when aged in the sun-beaten desert, could almost be mistaken for a flag of surrender even if the brigade sees itself as playing a bigger role in Mosul post-ISIS.
“It means peace for the civilians,” Abo Roqaua, a member of the brigade, said of the flag. “We can help them.” They may need to answer, however, to the allegations against them first.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of Human Rights Watch's senior Iraq researcher. She is Belkis Wille, not Willie.