Hassan, a Kurdish resident of Iraqi city, tells The Media Line: ‘I want to return, but I’m afraid’
Kovan Hassan fled the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014, when Islamic State came, going to Duhok, in the Kurdistan region.
His hometown was liberated in 2017 but he has not returned. He fears the Iran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi militias, which now control the city.
“I have friends the Hashd took and I have no idea where they are,” Hassan told The Media Line. “The government doesn’t know. Nobody knows.”
The Hashd, also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, are militias that the highest Shia Muslim authority in the country, Sayyid Ali al-Sistani, established through a 2014 religious edict to fight ISIS. Their members are mostly Shia Muslims, but Christians, Yazidis, Sunnis, Shabaks and other religious and ethnic groups are represented as well.
On January 22, Hassan and dozens of others gathered outside the massive United Nations compound in the city of Erbil to demand that the Hashd leave Mosul, which is important to the militias and their backer, Iran, for strategic and symbolic reasons. More people would have protested but for fear of a crackdown.
In the Kurdistan region, Kurdish Peshmerga forces guarded an anti-Hashd protest that received coverage in the Kurdish media. Some placards there said “No to the out-of-control Hashd militias,” while others noted that the protesters were from the Shabak ethno-religious minority group. Some Shabaks, who identify as Shi’ites, serve in one of the Hashd brigades.
The Hashd played a crucial role in defeating ISIS. In a report issued last August, the US Defense Department described them as having had a “net positive effect” on anti-ISIS operations, but also said that some of its groups were “geared toward protecting Iranian interests in Iraq.”
A mix of groups run security in federal Iraqi territory, including the national police and the army. In Mosul, however, the Hashd are the most visible force, controlling numerous checkpoints throughout the city. They also run the entry point into Nineveh Province – where Mosul is located – from the Kurdistan region.
While Baghdad and parts of the mostly Shi’ite South have been embroiled in massive anti-government demonstrations since October, Mosul, which is mostly Sunni, has experienced only limited protests, mostly at the local university.
The city was largely decimated by American, Iraqi and other allied forces during the campaign to defeat ISIS. Parts of it are still in ruins.
Hassan, who is from Mosul’s Kurdish community, said he wants the federal government to take control from the militias.
“We demand federal government control, not the Hashd,” he said. “The most important thing is security.”
He is scared to return to Mosul in general, let alone protest there.
“I want to return to Mosul, but I’m afraid,” he stated.
Hassan says the Hashd took his friends for ransom.
“They want money, but people don’t have it,” Hassan said. “It’s all a business.”
Within greater Mosul, some critics of the Hashd are afraid to actively oppose them, according to an activist who declined to give his name.
“There are no laws, so I’m afraid,” he told The Media Line. “Hashd is the judge, and without laws they can kill you.”
Mosul is clearly important to the Hashd. They regularly tweet about their anti-ISIS operations there and elsewhere in Nineveh Province. Many of the tweets point out that their operations are conducted in coordination with the Iraqi army.
The city is highly symbolic. It was by far the largest city ISIS came to control in Iraq and Syria. But there are strategic reasons as well.
Iran has access to Syria and Lebanon only through western Iraq. The Kurdistan region has a presence of US troops, and its leaders’ historical ties to Iran are not as strong as those of Iraqi politicians such as outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi.
Iraqi Kurdistan also borders Kurdish-controlled parts of Syria, where the pro-Tehran Syrian government has limited access, while the rest of western Iraq borders Jordan or Saudi Arabia, both of which are in the US orbit.
Mosul, therefore, is key to Iranian ground access to Syria and to Hizbullah in Lebanon.
In January, an activist from Mosul known as “Mosul Eye” tweeted that a Hashd-controlled firm had begun organizing excursions to Syria from the Iraqi city.
Iraqi Kurdistan still plays host to thousands of displaced people from Mosul, who currently live in camps near Erbil. Some went back to Mosul after ISIS left, only to return to the camps.
Perhaps the biggest issue for critics of the Hashd militias is the perception of demographic change in Mosul and Nineveh Province. Christian communities east of Mosul allege that members of the Shabak community are preventing them from going home.
A recent Arabic-language article on the Iraqi Christian news site ankawa.com claimed that the Shabak community was to blame for attacks against Christian women in the area. The article, headlined “Out with ISIS and in with the Shabak,” said that most Shabaks who had been displaced by ISIS were now able to return home, while Christians were not.
“Their neighborhoods are still empty, looking like a barren desert,” the article said.
The January protest against Hashd rule was small and therefore unlikely to pressure the militias, or the Iraqi government, the way the mass protests in Baghdad and the South have been. Mosul thus will remain part of Iran’s sphere of influence, at least for the time being.