ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Mosul and swathes of Iraq’s Nineveh province have been under the control of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) since the defeat of the Islamic State group (ISIS) in 2017. On Thursday, residents of Tel Adas launched a protest to demand a full PMF withdrawal.
Nineveh, which is home to many of Iraq’s ethnic and religious minorities, was overrun by ISIS in the summer of 2014.
The PMF, also known as Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic, joined the Iraqi Army offensive in 2016-17 to retake Mosul, which had become the de facto capital of the ISIS caliphate.
They also joined in the liberation of the Nineveh Plains and Shingal, where thousands of Yezidis had been massacred and Christians driven into exile.
PMF units, which include many Shiites from Iraq’s southern and central provinces, have remained in Nineveh ever since.
They are viewed by many among the region’s Sunni majority as an occupying army.
Protesters took the street of Tel Adas, a village on the main road between Mosul and the Kurdistan Region city of Duhok, on Thursday. The road was blocked for more than an hour.
“We don’t need Hashd al-Shaabi, as they are no legal forces, they are illegal militias,” protester Ibrahim Abid told Rudaw, calling for the Iraqi Army to resume control.
Amin Nasri, a Kurdish resident of Nineveh, said the Kurdish Peshmerga should also be allowed to return to the disputed areas of Nineveh.
“We are against the presence of Hashd al-Shaabi in our areas and we demand their removal,” Nasri said.
“Hashd are annoying people, as they are even interfering in your business and property.”
Raad Salim, another Nineveh Kurd who helped organize the protest, told Rudaw residents are fed up with the PMF’s alleged crimes and mistreatment of the public.
“Before 2014 the Peshmerga forces were in our areas, and it was very safe,” Salim said.
“However, now the Hashd al-Shaabi militia are disturbing people and preventing the displaced people of Nineveh returning to their hometowns.”
The PMF unit responsible for much of Nineveh is Brigade 30, which is primarily composed of ethnically Shabak residents of eastern Mosul.
The brigade has caused particular controversy. Its leader, Waad Qado, also known as Abu Jaafar al-Shabaki, was sanctioned by the US Treasury Department in July 2019 for alleged corruption and human rights abuses.
Qado’s brigade was accused of taking money from residents of the mixed Christian-Shabak town of Bartella through extortion, illegal arrests, and kidnappings. He is also accused of torture.
Zafeer Kildani, commander of the PMF in Nineveh, told Rudaw on Thursday its fighters had sacrificed their lives for the defeat of ISIS.
“Hashd al-Shaabi fighters are heroes, as they have given blood on this land for the sake of its liberation from ISIS,” Kildani said. “After the Hashd al-Shaabi and Iraqi Army liberated the lands, now they are saying that we are preventing the people of Nineveh returning. We are actually very happy when we see families return to Nineveh.”
The PMFs were created in 2014 following a fatwa, or religious call to action, from Iraq’s highest Shiite religious authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in direct response to the ISIS insurgency.
Although the PMFs have been brought under the umbrella of the official Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), and measures have been taken to fully integrate the units into Iraq’s military apparatus, it continues to act independently.
Many of its units are backed by Iran, which has used them to further its own interests in Iraq. Tensions between Tehran and Washington have led to fears of a proxy war on Iraqi territory.
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said Tuesday that the large number of armed groups in Iraq operating outside the formal command structure is preventing the country from functioning as a normal state.
Responding to a question from Rudaw’s Majeed Gly at the United Nations in New York on Tuesday, UN chief Guterres said it is important to preserve the country’s unity and independence “to allow for Iraq to establish the normal functioning of a state”.
“One of the conditions of a normal functioning state is the monopoly of use of force by the state – by the army and the police that belong to the state,” Guterres told a press briefing.
“What we have now in Iraq is unfortunately a number of militias that sometimes are worse perpetrators of the violations of human rights as we hear, and we have witnessed many of the attacks on peaceful demonstrators in Iraq exactly by militias,” he said.