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Hashed al-Shaabi: controversial force on Iraq's front lines

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Iraqi forces and paramilitary fighters from the Hashed al-Shaabi advance towards the Islamic State group's stronghold of Hawija on October 4, 2017, during an operation to recapture the town from the jihadists

Iraqi forces and paramilitary fighters from the Hashed al-Shaabi advance towards the Islamic State group's stronghold of Hawija on October 4, 2017, during an operation to recapture the town from the jihadists (AFP Photo/Ahmad al-Rubaye)

Baghdad (AFP) - A vital force that helped defeat the Islamic State group, or a dangerous tool of Iran?

Fighters from Iraq's Hashed al-Shaabi have been a controversial irregular element battling on the country's front lines.

The organisation formed in 2014 after the country's most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urged citizens to take up arms against IS jihadists who had swept aside government forces and seized much of northern Iraq.

Bringing together a dizzying array of paramilitary groups under the command of Iraq's prime minister, the Hashed played a key role in battles against IS.

But the Shiite-dominated alliance remains deeply divisive and has been accused of a string of abuses.

Following Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's declaration of victory on Saturday in the country's three-year war against IS, how his government deals with the Hashed fighters is a major issue.

- Martyrs or puppets? -

Known in English as the Popular Mobilisation Units, the various forces within the Hashed can field between 60,000 and 140,000 fighters.

Iraq's parliament classes it as a state force operating within the country's constitution.

While it includes some Christian and Sunni Muslim forces, the umbrella group is dominated by powerful Shiite militias such as Kataeb Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr organisation.

"To many, these martyrs have given up their lives in defence of their country," the Carnegie Middle East Center said in an April report.

But "to many critics, the (Hashed) symbolises Iranian and Shiite efforts to exercise supremacy over Iraq."

It said that while the group is riven with internal rivalries, leaders have regularly met with Qassem Suleimani, the powerful commander of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards' foreign operations division.

That connection was made public in July, when the Hashed's number two Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis appeared on Iranian TV speaking Farsi and pledging allegiance to Suleimani.

- 'Part of the problem' -

As the Hashed battled across Iraq to seize territory from IS, they were frequently accused of carrying out brutal abuses.

Residents of Sunni-dominated towns that had fallen under jihadist control often feared their arrival.

As US-backed Iraqi forces regrouped and strengthened after their catastrophic collapse in the face of IS in 2014, the Hashed were increasingly sidelined.

They were kept away from the gruelling battle for IS bastion Mosul and focused instead on the smaller town of Tal Afar.

As the fight to oust IS from territories it seized in 2014 drew to a close, the group's initial purpose appeared to be in question.

"The (Hashed) is now as much part of the problem as part of the solution," Carnegie wrote.

"Many who perceived the (Hashed) to be a security asset and a saviour in the struggle against (IS) in 2014, when the Iraqi army was in shambles, now view it as more of a liability and menace."

Calls have been growing from the West for the Hashed to disband, with French President Emmanuel Macron recently calling for "a gradual demilitarisation" of the group and for all militias in Iraq to be "dismantled".

That sparked allegations of interference from senior Iraqi officials, including Vice President Nuri al-Maliki who said no other country could "impose its will on the Iraqi government".