In October, the multi-force operation to capture Mosul from the Islamic State (IS) was launched. The operation is supported by the Iraqi Security Forces, the predominately ethnic Kurdish Peshmerga forces mobilized by the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG), the predominately sectarian Shia militias of the Hashd Shaabi (PMU-Popular Mobilization Unit) network, local Moslawi and Ninewah-based Sunni Arab militias, and militias mobilized from Ninewah’s ethnic and sectarian minorities (Al-Jazeera [Doha], October 27; Al-Arabiyya [Dubai], October 22). Additionally, the complex operation, which involves an estimated 94,000-100,000 fighters, is supported by the U.S.-led Coalition, Iran, and Turkey (Al-Jazeera [Doha], October 30; CNN, October 17; El-Bashayer [Cairo], October 17).
The current and future role of the Hashd Shaabi in the Mosul operation is a source of great controversy (Daily Sabah [Istanbul], October 31; Anadolu Agency [Ankara], October 24). Reports indicate that the powerful Iraqi Shia cleric and political leader Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr has begun a concerted effort to unify the Shia militias within the Hashd Shaabi network. He is pushing for them to better coordinate with each other, to refrain from entering Mosul and prevent the risk of inflaming Sunni and Shia tensions in Iraq and, through the unity of the Hashd Shaabi, to more effectively confront growing Turkish influence on the ground in northern Iraq (Al-Hayat, October 25; Sky New Arabia [Abu Dhabi], October 17).
Shortly before the initiation of the Mosul campaign, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi publicly supported the continued institutionalization of the Hashd Shaabi as an official branch of the Iraqi security forces (PressTV [Tehran], July 28). The Hashd Shaabi, which former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki asserts was created as Iraqi internal security forces modeled after the Iranian basij, have been formally recognized by the government in Baghdad as an official component of the Iraqi security forces since February 2016 (Al-Jazeera [Doha], October 20; AhulB ayt News Agency, August 17, 2015). The institutionalization of the Hashd Shaabi is controversial within Iraq as the militia network is primarily composed of Shia militias, many of which are linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its expeditionary Quds Force (Foreign Policy, September 18, 2014).
The Iraqi government, as it continues the process of institutionalizing the Hashd Shaabi, risks the further alienation of the majority Sunni communities from which IS has drawn its strength. Two of the most powerful Hashd Shaabi leaders are Shaykh Adnan al-Shahmani, the head of Kata’ib al-Risali (Missionaries’ Brigades), and Hassan Raadi al-Sari (a.k.a. Abu Samir), the leader of the Hashd Shaabi organization Saraya al-Jihad (Jihad Brigade) and the secretary general of the Shia Islamist sociopolitical organization Harakat al-Jihad wa al-Bina’ (Movement for Jihad and Development). Both of these Hashd Shaabi leaders are members of the Iraqi parliament and are considered to be enablers of the growing influence of the IRGC within the Hashd Shaabi network (Foreign Policy, September 18, 2014). Through their influence within the Iraqi government and Iraq’s security services, their organizations are becoming increasingly powerful sociopolitical and armed actors within the Iraqi Shia community.
Shaykh Adnan al-Shahmani
Shaykh al-Shahmani, 50, was a student and active supporter of Sayyid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr – based in the southern city of Najaf, al-Sadr was one of the most prominent and politically active Iraqi Shia clerics of the 20th century (YouTube, January 13, 2014; Afaq [Baghdad], March 7, 2008). Trained to be a judge of the sharia in the hawza (Shia seminary) of Najaf, Shaykh al-Shahmani worked as a judge in Sayyid Muhammad al-Sadr’s organization in the city for a significant part of his career before the destruction of the Saddam Hussein government in 2003 (Al-Tayyar Al-Risali; YouTube, June 28; Afaq [Baghdad], March 7, 2008). After Sayyid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr was assassinated by the Saddam Hussein government’s security services in 1999, Shaykh al-Shahmani continued to work for Sadr’s organization under the leadership of Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr, the son and successor to Sayyid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (YouTube, June 28; YouTube, January 13, 2014; Afaq [Baghdad], March 7, 2008).
Although linked to the IRGC and the broader Iraqi Shia militia network that is allied with the Islamic Republic of Iran, Kata’ib al-Risali celebrates Shaykh al-Shahmani as a political statesman, a cleric and military commander, and as a worthy heir to the legacy of Sayyid Muhammad al-Sadr (Al-Tayyar Al-Risali; Resalyoon, August 7). Sayyid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr is frequently presented as the spiritual leader of Kata’ib al-Risali, and the members of the organization, referred to as al-Risalioun, as the custodians of his legacy in Iraq. Shaykh al-Shahmani himself actively promotes this narrative. He seeks to demonstrate the heritage of resistance activism within his organization and to better position it as a legitimate sociopolitical and military movement worthy of the support of the Iraqi Shia population, which is Kata’ib al-Risali’s primary constituency (Resalyoon, August 7; YouTube, June 28; YouTube, September 25, 2015; YouTube, January 13, 2014). Al-Shahmani continues to serve as the chief administrator of several civil society organizations and charities that were founded by and are associated with Sayyid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr’s sociopolitical movement (YouTube, January 13, 2014; Facebook).
Before he joined the Sadrist movement, Shaykh al-Shahmani was a member of the Da’wa Party, through which he worked to organize a Shia armed opposition against the Saddam Hussein government (YouTube, June 28; YouTube, September 25, 2015; YouTube, January 13, 2014). Shaykh al-Shahmani was particularly focused on mobilizing for the Shia armed opposition in the central-southeastern governorate of Wasit on the Iraqi-Iranian border (Afaq [Baghdad], March 7, 2008). During the period leading up to the 1991 uprising in southern Iraq against the Saddam Hussein government, Shaykh al-Shahmani was a commander within the IRGC-backed Faylaq Badr (Badr Legion), which was one of the most powerful Iraqi Shia armed opposition organizations against Saddam Hussein (YouTube, June 28; YouTube, September 25, 2015; Facebook).
For these revolutionary activities, he was wanted by the security forces loyal to Saddam Hussein, eventually arrested and then released under a general amnesty in 1992 (YouTube, June 28; YouTube, September 25, 2015). Following his release from prison, he spent several years in exile in Syria prior to the 2003 Coalition invasion of Iraq. Reportedly, he was offered political asylum in North America and Europe during that time period (Al-Tayyar Al-Risali; Sydney Morning Herald, October 23, 2014). While in exile, however, he continued to work toward the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein government as part of the Iraqi Shia armed opposition (Facebook).
Following the defeat of the Saddam Hussein government in 2003, Shaykh al-Shahmani was elected to the Iraqi parliament and became an important member of the Sadrist movement, serving as the official spokesman for the political bloc (Afaq [Baghdad], March 7, 2008; Afaq [Baghdad], October 25, 2007). Although still associated with the Sadrist movement broadly, Shaykh al-Shahmani formed Al-Tayyar Al-Risali (Messengers’ Current) as an independent movement in 2007, which at times has led to tension with the Sadrists under Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr (Al-Hayat, October 25; National Defense University, May 24). In the Iraqi parliament, Shaykh al-Shahmani has served on the Security and Defense Committee and as the chairman of the Iraqi parliament’s powerful Federal Relations Committee. Additionally, he is the head of the Loyalty to the Resistance political bloc (Al-Tayar Al-Risali; YouTube, January 13, 2014; Asharq Al-Awsat, September 29, 2013).
Prior to the formation of the Hashd Shaabi militia system to counter IS, Shaykh al-Shahmani as a member of the Iraqi parliament had controversially called for the formation of sectarian Shia militias to protect Shia communities from Sunnis. Shaykh al-Shahmani also gained notoriety for his active opposition to reports that secret prisons, staffed by Shia militiamen embedded in the Iraqi Security Forces, were active and operated to target other sectarian communities, particularly Sunnis (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty [Baghdad], May 4, 2010).
Since Islamic State captured Mosul in June 2014, Shaykh al-Shahmani, a prominent member of the Iraqi parliament’s Security and Defense Committee, reportedly has been coordinating closely with the Iraqi IRGC operative Jamal Jafaar Muhammad (a.k.a. Abu Muhandis al-Mahdi) to institutionalize the Hashd Shaabi. Also, as a member of parliament, he has led and participated in popular protests in Baghdad against media content critical of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran (Sydney Morning Herald, October 23, 2014; Fars News Agency [Tehran], February 10, 2014).
Under Shaykh al-Shahmani’s leadership, Kata’ib al-Risali has been one of the most significant and influential organizations within the Hashd Shaabi network since its founding in July 2014. This status was acknowledged by none other than General Qassam Soleimani, the powerful commander of the IRGC Quds Force who posed for a famous picture with Shaykh al-Adnani in October 2014 (Twitter, October 24, 2014). Kata’ib Al-Risali forces were a significant component of the operation to seize the strategic town of Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, in February 2016. The armed organization also became infamous for the reported massacre of 17 Sunnis in a town near the central western Iraqi city of Fallujah (YouTube, June 28; Al-Alam [Tehran], March 2).
Hassan Raadi al-Sari
Hassan Raadi al-Sari, 55, is a member of the Iraqi parliament, the secretary general of Harakat al-Jihad wal-Bina’ (Movement for Jihad and Development) and the overall commander of the Hashd Shaabi organization and the Shia militia group Saraya al-Jihad (YouTube, May 9). Saraya al-Jihad, which is currently estimated to have 2,500-4,000 fighters, was formed with al-Sari as its general commander in July 2014, shortly after IS captured Mosul and began an offense aimed at Baghdad and the Shia shrine cities in southern Iraq. Within the Hashd Shaabi network, it has been one of the most active combatants against IS in Iraq (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, August 17; YouTube). The militia group was formed in response to the call by the most powerful Iraqi Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for a volunteer force of Iraqis to mobilize and confront IS after the collapse of the Iraqi Security Forces in Mosul in June 2014 (YouTube, May 2, 2015; YouTube, July 28, 2014).
Although politically connected to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and a personal friend of its leader Sayyid Ammar al-Hakim, al-Sari and his movement recognize Sayyid Ali al-Sistani as their spiritual leader (YouTube, May 2, 2015). Nevertheless, the Saraya al-Jihad militia organization is believed to have close links to the IRGC, and many of the fighters within Saraya al-Jihad recognize the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as their spiritual authority (YouTube, May 2, 2015; YouTube, April 25, 2015). This is a result of the fact that a core component of Saraya al-Jihad is formed by the militia organization Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (Brigades of the Lord of Martyrs), which recognizes Ayatollah Khamenei as its spiritual leader and is a constituent group within the larger Harakat al-Jihad wal-Bina’ organization (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, August 17; YouTube, May 2, 2015). Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada has a long history of combat, beginning as a core component of the Shia armed opposition against Coalition forces, and including participation in intense urban warfare on behalf of the al-Assad government against the Syrian armed opposition in the southern suburbs of Damascus (YouTube, April 25, 2015).
Al-Sari is a native of the south-central Iraqi governorate of Maysan. He studied chemistry at the University of Baghdad and went on to enter the Iraqi military (Al-Rashead, July 21, 2008). After the start of the Iran-Iraq War in 1981, al-Sari defected from the Iraqi military and joined the predominately Shia southern Iraqi resistance movement against the Saddam Hussein government that was centered in the Marshes region (YouTube, May 2, 2015; Al-Rashead, July 21, 2008). It was during that period that he began a friendship with Ammar al-Hakim, who was also an armed opposition fighter against the Saddam Hussein government. This is when his long association with what would become ISCI began (YouTube, May 2, 2015). The Saddam Hussein government considered him enough of a threat to have him arrested in 1988. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1989, only to be released in 1992 in an amnesty ruling that was meant to assuage Iraqi Shia activism against the Saddam Hussein government (YouTube, May 2, 2015; Al-Rashead, July 21, 2008).
After the Saddam Hussein government issued the amnesty that freed him and many of his peers in the Shia armed opposition from prison, al-Sari formed Harakat Hezbollah fil-Iraq (Hezbollah Movement in Iraq) in 1993 (YouTube, May 2, 2015). Al-Sari states, however, that it was unconnected at that time to Lebanese Hezbollah, and over the course of the 1990s he slowly worked to grow and expand this organization, which would be the precursor to the Movement for Jihad and Development (YouTube, May 2, 2015).
Similar to Shaykh al-Shahmani, al-Sari has also used his position as a member of the Iraqi parliament to publicly defend the role of the Hashd Shaabi in the anti-IS campaign in Iraq and the militia network’s long term role within the country’s national security structure (Al-Alam [Tehran], February 21).
In particular, he has tried to portray the Hashd Shaabi as a popular organization drawn from ordinary Iraqis with a national, as opposed to a sectarian, mission (Independent Press Agency [Baghdad], September 8; YouTube, November 14, 2015). He is also strong advocate of the deployment of Hashd Shaabi forces to the Mosul operation. Under his leadership, Saraya al-Jihad is participating in the Hashd Shaabi interdiction force that is deployed west of the city of Mosul (Al-Wehda [Baghdad], October 13; Burath News Agency [Baghdad], October 3). Since the initiation of the operation to seize Mosul from IS, al-Sari has been a consistent presence among the Saraya al-Jihad forces deployed around the city, continuing to present himself as a commander who leads from the front lines (Facebook, October 23).
Shaykh Adnan al-Shahmani and Hassan Raadi al-Sari are similar in profile to many of the most prominent Hashd Shaabi commanders. Like their peers, both men were active in the predominately Shia armed opposition movement against the Saddam Hussein government in the 1980s and 1990s. Also, Shaykh al-Shahmani and al-Sari have maintained the ethos of Islamic resistance that drove them to armed rebellion against Saddam Hussein. They effectively utilize this narrative of resistance to recruit, mobilize and deploy their armed organizations in the campaign against the IS. While both men are increasingly powerful actors in their own right within Iraq’s intra-Shia sociopolitical competition, their organizations also demonstrate the effectiveness of the IRGC to network with and shape the development of the Hashd Shaabi network.
Neither Shaykh al-Shahmani nor Hassan Raadi al-Sari personally follow Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as their spiritual authority, yet their organizations are becoming more strongly interconnected with the Islamic Republic through the IRGC Quds Force and its role in advising and assisting the Hashd Shaabi. Although there is a natural and long running affinity between the Islamic Republic and the Islamic Resistance ideology that is promoted by both Shaykh al-Shahmani and Hassan Raadi al-Sari, neither of these commanders is actively promoting the Islamic Republic’s wilayat al-faqih as the rightful form of governance in Iraq. This dynamic demonstrates the complexity of the socio-politics of identity within the Hashd Shaabi network, and the potentially violent looming competition among the groups within this network over the future course of Iraqi Shia socio-politics.