Power in perspective: insights into Iraq’s Al Hashd al Sha’abi – lessons for peacemaking

Power in perspective: insights into Iraq’s Al Hashd al Sha’abi – lessons for peacemaking

“It is not enough to win a war; it is more important to organise the peace.” Aristotle


Dialectiq has recently been exploring the underlying power dynamics shaping Iraq’s current political processes. We found power is interconnected, but not in equal measure ­– that groups exhibit different dimensions of strengths and vulnerabilities. By improving our understanding of peoples’ attitude, their levels of power and their relationships, we found we could identify entry points for engaging those stakeholders that have the legitimacy and motivation to support political dialogue. As we develop Dialectiq we’re discovering new ways to improve peacemakers’ ability to continually learn and adapt their interventions as they navigate the complex process of political deal making.

Over the last few months Dialectiq has been collaborating with Clingendael (a leading international affairs think tank) to develop a series of policy briefs analysing changes in the complex interplay between 7 Hashd groups in Iraq. Together we have been using Dialectiq’s analytical framework and online visual platform to uncover new insights into the distribution of power, relationships and attitudes of seven Hashd groups towards the Iraqi government and the effect on the nature of the Iraqi state in the near future[1].

The collaboration is a great illustration of how Dialectiq’s form of granular and dynamic analysis can provide new ways for peacemakers to pinpoint potential sources of instability and identify entry points for supporting dialogue.

Who are the Hashd?

Al-Hashd al-Sha’abi (Popular Mobilization Forces) is an umbrella term for approximately 50 Iraqi armed groups. Al Hashd, comprising mainly Shia Muslim groups and a few Sunni Muslim, Christian, and Yazidi ones, are revered for having effectively defended the country against Islamic State (IS). As the threat of IS in Iraq declines, several Hashd groups are voicing their intention to translate their military dominance into political power. Many analysts view the Hashd as a collective risk to stability. Yet further analysis of the sub-alliances forming between different Hashd groups reveals potential opportunities that could contribute to more stable institutions in Iraq.

Unravelling the underlying power dynamics of the Hashd[2]

Stakeholders can be analysed through many different lenses: a focus on violence will reveal a stakeholder’s attitude towards violence, how shifts in power can increase the risk of violence, or the effect different relationships have on levels of violence. On the other hand, a focus on stability shifts the emphasis to consider each stakeholder’s incentives for supporting stability, how much power each group has to support or undermine stable systems, and how divergent interests or values can be reconciled to support more stable outcomes.

The objective for Clingendael’s policy briefs was to explore how Hashd dynamics affect the future stability of the Iraqi state. Once the objective was defined Clingendael selected seven key sub-groups within the Hashd, and then tracked power, relations and attitudes across 3 data periods (Jan-Sept 2017, Feb-May 2018, Aug-Nov 2018) (see full methodology here). Firstly each stakeholder was studied in terms of whether they had a positive or negative attitude towards state institutions, and whether their interests or values drove this. Secondly we examined each groups’ power to affect the future stability of the Iraqi state. We set parameters for different sources of power and ways to exert it: coercive/military, political, economic/financial, socio/religious and territorial. Finally we explored the effect of a particular group’s relationships with other stakeholders on the future stability of the Iraqi state. We measured relations between Hashd groups according to active animosity / compatible or incompatible interests / compatible or incompatible values.

Using Dialectiq’s unique visualisations we were able to generate a set of visual stakeholder maps that can be updated on an on-going basis, and so help build a dynamic story of the context.

Figure 1: Overview of the power base, relationship with other groups and attitude towards the Iraqi government of selected Hashd groups (first half of 2017).

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Building a picture of the Hashd[1]

The findings start to build a picture of the relative power of each sub-group and the factors driving their behaviour. For example, we found that the Hashd are a highly heterogonous group, and different sub-groups exhibit a range of attitudes towards Iraqi state institutions, driven by multiple factors such as: allegiances to other groups, ideological views, and level of engagement with state institutions. So far three key insights have emerged:

  1. Alliances have formed between different Hashd groups. Figure 1 above shows a thick triangular relationship between the Badr Corps, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah indicating strong and positive intergroup relationships between groups seen as pro-Iran. Meanwhile on the right of Figure 1 we find a trapezoid of the Abbas Combat Division, the Tribal Mobilization Forces, Saraya al-Salam, the Iraqi army and the Iraqi federal police (IFP). These three Hashd groups have weak relationships with each other, but all have relatively strong relationships with the Iraqi army and IFP, creating an indirect connection between the three groups.


  1. Power is interconnected, but not in equal measure. We found that whilst some Hashd groups have established political power, which has led to increased economic power, this did not necessary translate into greater socio/religious power. For example, the Badr Corps’ control of the Ministry of the Interior has increased its influence over the allocation of state funding for the Hashd – i.e. their coercive/military power. Yet their social/religious legitimacy amongst the population in areas controlled by certain Hashd groups has not necessarily increased alongside their political, economic and military force. The implication is that agreements between power holders, for example Hashd groups and Iraqi state institutions, will not automatically translate into popular support.


  1. All Hashd groups exhibit weak forms of power. The analysis found that each Hashd group’s power base has at least one significant weakness, which others could try to exploit. For example, the pro-Iran Shi’a Hashd groups have lower levels of socio/religious legitimacy than more nationalist Shi’a Hashd groups, but higher levels of economic/ financial power. To gain both social and military power, pro-Iran groups have been using their political networks to undermine certain Sunni and Christian Hashd groups with high levels of military force, whilst simultaneously building agreements with other Sunni, Christian, Yazidi and Turkmen groups that exhibit limited means of violence but high levels of social/religious legitimacy. The implication is that any prospective agreement between Pro-Iran Shi’a Hashd groups and Iraqi state institutions could lead to fractures between different Sunni and Christian Hashd groups, impacting levels of violence.


What do these insights mean for peacemakers?

Achieving peaceful change involves promoting dialogue, negotiations, and building agreements between those with power and those without, and those resistant to change with those supportive of it. At Dialectiq we believe this societal transformation process involves changing peoples’ attitude, their levels of power and their relationships.

The insights above demonstrate we can cultivate evidence-driven, longitudinal data on different groups’ attitudes, power, compatible/incompatible interests and values. As we move forward this type of analysis can be extended beyond elite groups to formal/informal institutions, individuals, or private and civil society organisations. For peacemakers supporting political change processes Dialectiq provides a means to systematically identify entry points for engaging those stakeholders with the attitude, power and legitimacy to support dialogue around areas of common interests and values. As we develop the Dialectiq platform further our aim is to work with peacemakers to engage more effectively with the complex process of political deal making in the following ways:

  1. Track ‘holding power’

‘Holding power’ is defined as a stakeholder’s ability to pursue their interests. This power may be based on organisational capacity, political power, including patronage networks, control over valuable resources, social power, the ability to mobilise constituents and the capacity to mobilise violence[2]. Tracking holding power firstly provides an indication of how long elites can hold out in conflict against the state or other elites, and secondly can help peacemakers deduce whether elites are able to enforce decisions independently or whether their position is dependent on meeting the needs of their constituents.

Dialectiq’s ability to track different dimensions of elite authority (military, political, or economic power) means users can better understand elite ability to hold out in conflict. This analysis also allows users to assess whether elites have the power to enforce decisions on their own by examining their political and economic capacities or whether they are legitimate representatives of their constituents by tracking their social and territorial power.

Users can then develop a more informed understanding of the risks associated with changes in power dynamics, and assess the likelihood of an agreement between elites being accepted amongst their constituents. 

  1. Distinguish between ‘divisible and indivisible’ conflict

 ‘Divisible’ conflicts are those where competing interests and grievances revolve around contestation over access to resources, political rights and rent-sharing arrangements. In contrast, ‘indivisible’ conflicts are over territory, secession, or cultural politics where issues of ethnicity or identity have hardened into deep social divisions[3]. Divisible conflicts offer greater scope for dialogue and compromise whilst it is much harder to accommodate the polarised characteristics of ‘indivisible’ conflicts through transactional bargaining processes.

Building on Dialectiq’s relationship approach (see blog), users can examine a wide range of vertical (amongst elite) and horizontal relationships (between elites and the societal groups). The analysis allows relationships to be broken down according to compatible or incompatible values (equivalent to indivisible conflicts) and interests (equivalent to divisible conflicts). This means users can identify relationships with low levels of compatible values and interests ­– for example Kataib Hezbollah and Sinjar Resistance Units have a lower likelihood of stabilising than the relationship between Kataib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq which exhibits higher levels of compatible values and interests.

With an improved understanding of the risks associated with transforming relationships, peacemakers can identify relations that pose a threat to stability (high levels of animosity) but also exhibit a high likelihood of transformation (low levels of incompatible values and high levels of compatible interests). Peacemakers can then target these relationships to support a dialogue process that shifts the parameters of negotiations along shared economic, political or social goals.

  1. Effectively engage with the underlying configurations of power

 Peacemakers typically perceive themselves as external to conflict dynamics, and often struggle to assess their own position within the political process and their influence on the underlying power dynamics. With Dialectiq, peacemakers can visually place themselves in the stakeholder mapping exercise. This allows them to assess their own areas of contention with other stakeholders and identify those with a positive attitude towards their peacemaking outcomes. At the same time, Dialectiq can help users identify those with the power (economic, political or social) to shift the parameters of negotiation and improve the legitimacy of the peacemaking process.

Peacemakers are therefore better placed to assess the risks of engaging specific stakeholders, understand their proclivity for shared peace and stability outcomes, and identify their relevance to the dialogue process – for example stakeholders with high levels of political power may increase the legitimacy of an agreement amongst other political actors.

  1. Strengthen the capacity to share, learn and adapt

Although the need for in depth political economy analysis is widely recognised, policymakers and practitioners still find it difficult to translate this into action. This may be due to internal constraints, such as a lack of experts or mechanisms to gather information as circumstances change rapidly. This inability to adapt strategies as power dynamics shift impedes the development of more contextually attuned approaches[4].

The online Dialectiq platform gives peacemakers the capacity to share analysis with others in an easily accessible format, including local actors, and have at hand longitudinal data on shifts in attitude, power and relations over time. This allows for the development of participatory, inclusive and timely analysis – by incorporating different perspectives the analysis is also more likely to be relevant, understood, used and updated. This provides peacemakers with a shared and comprehensive knowledge base from which to design more practical and politically attuned strategies that can adapt as the political landscape evolves. Over time, this contextually specific analysis can be used to expose blind spots or untapped sources of power (for example, women’s rights organisations) that can challenge power and transform relationships.

By providing a platform to continually share, learn and adapt, Dialectiq can support peacemakers to navigate the complex process of political deal making and uncover opportunities for practically building locally driven peaceful solutions.

[1] Please note detail of the analysis can be found at https://www.clingendael.org/publication/iraqs-al-hashd-al-shaabi-four-key-insights#

[2] Khan, M. 2010. Political Settlements and the Governance of Growth-Enhancing Institution

[3] The concept of ‘divisible’ and ‘indivisible’ conflicts is found in the work of Albert Hirschman. See: Hirschman, A. (2013). The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton Classics

[4] Cheng, Goodhand, and Meehan, Ibid.