On May 12, the U.S. Department of State released its annual report on International Religious Freedom. Though the report drew media attention for calling out abuses of religious freedom from geopolitical rivals to the United States, including Russia and China, what received less attention was the section detailing ongoing abuses in the areas of northern Iraq currently under the control of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Specifically, the 30th Brigade of the PMF, led by Waad Qado, was repeatedly referenced as an oppressive force in the areas it occupies (state.gov, May 12).
Qado, a.k.a. Abu Jaafar al-Shabaki, and his PMF brigade have frequently been cited for carrying out human rights abuses, with the militant leader being sanctioned by the U.S. government for this reason on July 18, 2019 (treasury.gov, July 18, 2019). The 30th Brigade’s presence in the Nineveh Plains of Iraq, which lies to the east and northeast of Mosul, continues to cause tension with local citizens and is delaying the reconstruction of the area following the Islamic State’s (IS) occupation and the subsequent campaign against the terrorist group.
Little is known of Qado’s background before the formation of the 30th Brigade, which is also known as Liwa al-Shabak. The brigade was organized by the Badr Organization—one of the largest and most influential groups within the PMF umbrella—and formally announced its founding on November 23, 2014. Upon their founding, the group was estimated to include approximately 500 fighters, who took part in operations against IS in northern Iraq. The group swelled from 1,000 to as many as 1,500 fighters after the 30th Brigade and the PMF began their occupation of the region (Jihadology, January 15, 2015; Mideast Center, October 5). The Badr Organization created the group, under the PMF umbrella, by recruiting Shia Shabaks, an ethnic minority from the Nineveh Plains region that speak a dialect of Kurdish. The 30th Brigade continues today to act as an auxiliary force to large Shia PMF militias, namely the Badr Organization. Once the 30th Brigade moved into the Nineveh Plains in 2017, they began recruiting local Shabaks to assist in sweep up operations against IS and provide security to the area (Al Jazeera, May 8).
The 30th Brigade controls most of the Nineveh Plains, with their forces based in the formerly Christian-majority city of Batella. The PMF 50th Brigade also occupies a portion of the plains. The 30th’s forces are also concentrated in Hamdaniah, Telkaif, and Bashiqa (Al Jazeera, May 8). Many of the local Christians fled the area during IS’ advance, and have largely not yet returned due to the militia group’s predatory practices. As recorded in the State Department’s recent report, members of the 30th Brigade have been recorded as harassing the local Christian minority, and accuses the militia of making “demographic changes by facilitating and giving permission to Arab and Shabak Shia to move into Christian areas in the [Nineveh] Plain, while Christians refused to return to the area because they feared these forces” (state.gov, May 12).
Furthermore, Qado’s 30th Brigade remains in control of the main trade highway connecting Mosul and Erbil, providing them a lucrative source of income through illegal checkpoints, from which they collect highway tolls and bribes. Despite orders from then-Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to vacate the area in August 2018, the PMF continues to operate in the region. The prior Iraqi Prime Minister, Abdil Abdul-Mahdi, also attempted to end unauthorized security operations and economic activities by PMF militias in Mosul and the Nineveh Plains in 2019, without success. (Kurdistan24, August 6, 2019).
The region overseen by the 30th Brigade has been a hotspot in tensions within Iraq. On September 30, 2020, six rockets were fired at the international airport in Erbil, in the Kurdistan Region from the Nineveh Plain area controlled by the brigade. The airport is used by American and coalition forces, as well as by commercial flights (Mideast Center, October 5). Kurdish officials claimed that PMF forces were responsible for the attack. A senior commander within the 30th Brigade stated that the rocket launcher used in the attack was found 1,200 meters from a PMF checkpoint, in an area that is a no-man’s land between PMF and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. However, Kurdish officials have stated that the rockets were launched from an area between Sheikh Amir and Tarjala villages, which is firmly in territory controlled by the brigade (Rudaw, October 10, 2020).
On April 14, a rocket attack on a Turkish military base in the Bashiqa region near Mosul killed a Turkish soldier (Al Jazeera, May 8). Turkish media was quick to point the finger at the PMF, quoting the deputy governor of Ninevah, Rafaat Smo, who stated, “The missile launch pads that targeted the Turkish military base were found between the areas of Shalalat and Baaweza in the territory of the Hashd [PMF] Brigade 30” (The Jerusalem Post, April 18).
On the same day as the attack on the Turkish base, a drone filled with TNT attacked a U.S. base in Erbil. The attack was claimed by a largely unknown organization, al-Sabiqoon, which is believed to be an Iranian-backed militia that was created to give the PMF deniability in attacks on American bases. Potentially in retaliation for the drone attack, the 30th Brigade, occupying the border region near the Kurdistan Region, experienced an assault by Kurdish Peshmerga forces the next day, April 15. Peshmerga forces launched a guided missile and fired a short barrage of small-arms fire on the brigade’s position (The National News, April 15).
The Nineveh region, largely occupied by the 30th Brigade, remains at the center of tensions between the United States, Turkey and Iran. As recent incidents have shown, the Shabak militia units are on the frontlines of tensions in the region. The territory they occupy has emerged as a source of attacks on U.S. and Turkish positions—even though the attacks are likely to be carried out by other groups less obviously linked to Iran. Likewise, the 30th Brigade faces the risk of being the target of future retaliatory strikes by organizations or states attempting to inflict punishment on the PMF for their irregular attacks.
In the middle of all of this is the brigade’s mysterious leader, Waad Qado. Backed by Iran and originally sponsored by the Iranian-backed Badr Organization, he is overseeing human rights abuses against local Christians, and likely attempting to change the demographics in Nineveh for the gains of the Shia Shabak who make up his fighting force. Waad Qado is the PMF and Iran’s man on the ground in Nineveh, as his forces continue to occupy a pivotal position that could be the site of future crises between the Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government, Turkey, Iran and the United States.