SHARQAT/TAL AFAR, Iraq — A burst of bullets, fired by Daesh members who are sheltered on the Tigris River eastern bank, suddenly hits the defensive positions of the local brigade in the town of Sharqat. They are positioned 260 kilometres northwest of Baghdad and 80 kilometres south of Mosul.
Crouched behind 50-centimetre high sandbags on the opposite bank of the river, a mere 500 metres away from the enemy, Wahida Mohamed yells at her men: "No light weapons, only heavy ones." At the same time, she presses a radio against the black hijab covering her ear to communicate with the Iraqi Air Force.
Better known as Um Hanadi, the 39-year-old woman joined the paramilitary forces of Hashd al Shaabi shortly after Daesh proclaimed an Islamic caliphate in the country. With her husband, she founded the brigade known as the "Martyrs of Sharqat".
"I created this brigade with my second husband to fight the terrorists. My husband was then killed by Daesh in early 2016," Um Hanadi says.
"That day," she adds, "he asked me to protect the military compound we had recently recaptured from Daesh, and went on to the front line. He died there and I still regret that I didn't follow him," surrendering momentarily to her emotions as a tear slides down her cheek.
Since his death, she is the sole commander of the 70 men who make up the brigade.
Um Hanadi became a celebrity in the region, renowned not for her humanity but for her ferocity towards the enemy, after pictures showing her holding the freshly severed heads of Daesh members went viral on social media.
"I've also cooked them," she tells TRT World. "I did it to show them that I do not respect them as human beings."
While the militiamen point and shoot at the enemy with PKT machine guns, an Iraqi army helicopter drops a bomb on the Daesh position. A column of smoke rises towards the sun-filled sky, silencing all the men on the frontline. But not their commander.
"Don't leave your positions!" Um Hanadi shouts firmly.
In Salaheddin province, Sharqat fell under Daesh's control in June 2014, along with nearly one-third of the country. There were fears that Baghdad would be the next to fall. With US support, the Iraqi army freed the town last September. It was a prelude to the offensive on the group's de facto capital, in eastern Mosul. Since then, Iraqi coalition forces have moved on to the last main Daesh bastion in the country, and her brigade has remained in control of the territory. Civilians, meanwhile, have gradually returned from camps where they have been displaced during the offensive.
Holding a nine-millimetre Beretta handgun in a holster under her left arm, she tells me to look at her mobile phone, which she holds in her other hand. She slides through many pictures of dead children: some are lying in puddles of blood, while others are still in their beds. The night before, Daesh commandos had snuck into the northern suburbs, slaughtering seven people as they lay sleeping in their homes.
"They crossed the river at night and then fled," she explains.
Her past life
In her previous life, Um Hanadi worked for the interior ministry — even during the previous regime of Saddam Hussein. Her first husband had been a colleague of hers there, but he was killed by militia shortly after the collapse of the regime, she believes. Her two brothers and father, all police officers while Saddam was in power, were also all targeted and killed by hardline groups in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq. (TRT World was unable to independently verify the details of the killing of her family members).
"Once we called them ‘Al Qaeda' and today ‘Daesh,' but they are all terrorists," the woman tells TRT World.
What is Hashd al Shaabi?
Hashd al Shaabi, which means Popular Force in Arabic and is also known as the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), was officially formed by the Iraqi interior ministry in mid-2014 to deal with the emerging threat posed by Daesh. However, it was originally set up as the Popular Mobilisation Committee (PMC) in 2003 by Iraq's then-prime minister Nouri al Maliki to absorb the various Shia forces of the Al Badr Organisation, established in 1982 as the Iran-officered military wing of the Iran-based Shia Islamic Party.
Today, Hashd al Shaabi is led by Jamal Jaafar Mohammed, better known by his nom de guerre Abu Mahdi al Mohandis, a former Al Badr commander accused of having masterminded the attack on the US Embassy in Kuwait in 1983. He is also regarded as the right-hand man of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard-affiliated Quds Force. The complex umbrella group includes at least 60,000 fighters, and is fraught with internal divisions.
The Iraqi conflict was triggered by the 2003 US invasion. Iraqi Shia, long sidelined under Saddam, came to increasingly dominate Iraq's political life, with US backing. Sunni were marginalised, and many former Ba'athists took up arms to fight the occupation.
In a country where sectarianism between Sunni and Shia has become so prevalent, Um Hanadi is unusual in how she perceives Iraq's recent history.
"I am a Sunni. But before that, I am an Iraqi nationalist," Um Hanadi told TRT World, pointing to the emblem of the Iraqi army's intelligence department pinned on her black uniform.
"I am not like our politicians in Baghdad who discuss politics sitting on their armchairs. When Daesh emerged, only Al Sistani took action," she argues, referring to the "Sufficiency Jihad" fatwa that the Iraqi top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, issued on June 2014 to call on volunteers to fight Daesh.
"In Hashd al Shaabi there are Sunnis, Shia, Christians, Yazidis, Assyrians, Turkmen and even Kurds. Because beyond our religious differences, we are one hand against Daesh," she adds.
At this point, Mohamed Abdul Aziz, one of her two personal bodyguards, intervenes: "I am also a Sunni and Hashd al Shaabi was the only chance I had to fight Daesh, after the Iraqi Army refused me." (Aziz had attempted to join the Iraqi Army to fight Daesh, but was turned down).
But when questioned about his military rank, Aziz appears confused, and Um Hanadi prompts him: "You are the head of the mobile force."
In March 2015, Hashd al Shaabi played a decisive role in the recapture of Tikrit, the capital of the Salaheddin governorate, where they fought alongside governorate forces. But in the aftermath of the battle, militias affiliated with Hashd al Shaabi committed atrocities against local Sunni people, Human Rights Watch reported.
Belkis Wille, the Senior Researcher of Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Iraq, told TRT World that in the aftermath of the battle to take Fallujah from Daesh, Hashd al Shaabi held and tortured about 600 men. Hundreds of others went missing in the areas under the militia's control.
"Although Hashd al Shaabi today includes also Sunni and Christian members, their Shia units still committed violations against Sunni population" Wille says.
HRW even called Prime Minister Haider al Abadi to prevent Hashd al Shaabi from participating in the operation to recapture Mosul, in order to avoid other abuses on Sunni population, Wille confirms.
Because of the atrocities committed in Fallujah, Hashd al Shaabi forces were prevented by the Iraqi and US forces from joining the offensive on Mosul, which started in November 2016. Other paramilitary forces, such as the Quick Response Unit and Federal Police participating the operation to liberate Mosul, are also accused of committing violations against the local population.
While the eastern side of the city was freed after a month of fighting, in western Mosul the federal police and Iraqi Special Forces (ISF) are still struggling to dislodge the several thousand Daesh men who remain barricaded there. The headquarters of the Golden Division, the ISF counterterrorism unit, is located in Al Mammoun, southwest of Mosul.
On the yellow-painted veranda, General Sami al Aradi, head of military operations in western Mosul, stands in front of a map of the city which covers the entire main wall, trying to spot the area where two Daesh car bombs exploded a few hours earlier. Aradi reveals to TRT World that the army had just liberated the area of Yarmouk Two as his men rush to update the new holding positions on the map on their digital tablets.
Sitting as he sips his mint tea, the ISF general commander, Major General Abdul Ghani al Asadi, replies to the criticisms over the high number of civilians killed by coalition air strikes: "The offensive is proceeding slowly because Daesh is using civilians as human shields."
Western Mosul is a ghost town. Because of the risk of sniper fire and car bombs, ISF troops drive around the city only in the relative safety provided by US-made Humvees. Hidden in the attic of an unfinished building in the Yarmouk One neighbourhood, a sniper spots a Daesh member one block away. He takes aim, but soon lifts his finger off the trigger of his KPT machine gun.
"He is at home with the family and there are children there," he explains. "I can't shoot."
Growing political influence
Although its paramilitary forces cannot be part of the battle for Mosul, Hashd al Shaabi's power continues to grow in Baghdad. Al Badr's founder and leader, Hadri al Amiri, plays an important role in the Iraqi government. Amiri was the minister of transport during the government of ex-prime minister Nouri al Maliki. He was then commander of the Iraqi Army and police in Diyala province in 2015. Last December, Iraqi President Fuad Masum also approved a law placing Hashd al Shaabi under the Iraqi armed forces' control, even though in practise they continue to report directly to the Shia Prime Minister Haider al Abadi. Unlike the army, they are not under the command of either the defence or interior ministries, and are seen by their many critics as being a means for Tehran to exert considerable influence inside Iraq, and to support its political allies.
Over 60 kilometres away from Mosul, Hashd al Shaabi's headquarters is located near the border with Syria and Turkey, close to the town of Tal Afar. In northwest Iraq, Hashd al Shaabi paramilitary forces are leading the fight against Daesh, while ISF and the US follow.
Along the way, the only thing interrupting the landscape of rubble left behind after the fighting last autumn are the checkpoints decorated with flags showing Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and an especially revered figure for Shia.
No civilians are left in the region. They all fled seeking shelter in the camps south of Mosul.
"Daesh fighters still roam the area," says Mohamed, a Hashd al Shaabi member, pointing to the left and right sides of the road while driving to the group's headquarters. He stops in Tal Abth, a village on the road to Tal Afar, where the men have set up a small makeshift cafeteria as an island of sanctuary amidst the surrounding destruction. Some Iranian military officers are drinking tea there, Mohamed notes.
Eighty kilometres further north, near the Tal Ghazal Hospital, and 15 kilometres south of Tal Afar, in the middle of nowhere, a barrier adorned with the green flag with the image of Imam Hussein marks the entrance of the Hashd al Shaabi military compound. A dozen men in camouflage are sitting on the three-seated couches in the hall, while a boy wanders around, offering drinks and chocolates.
"Our battalion numbers around 3000 men," says Zaki Kahya, leader of the 16 Qaim Battalion, which is composed mainly of Iraqi Turkmen. "Not everyone is trained, because we are preoccupied with the fighting."
Kahya, 57, known by his nickname Muratle, is a Shia Turkman who lived in exile in Iran during Saddam's rule.
"We are in the process of restructuring, we will soon acquire the legitimacy as Iraqi Army and the Federal Police," the commander tells TRT World, referring to controversial and hotly-contested efforts to have the Hashd al Shaabi integrated into the official state security institutions.
After taking a short afternoon nap, Mukhtar al Musawi joins the conversation, just as Muratle leaves. The commander of the operation against Daesh in Tal Afar, Musawi speaks frankly with TRT World:
"Tehran is funding this group via Baghdad, of course to gain consensus and over time to infiltrate the whole Iraqi security apparatus. But I do not care of it at the moment as my priority is to get any support to defeat Daesh."
Musawi, a former Al Badr member, was in the Kurdish city of Halabja when Saddam's forces gassed the local population in 1988, after its occupation by Iranian forces. After one of his sons was injured by a bomb set off to kill him in 1996, the United Nations brokered an asylum for him. Since then, he has been living with his family in Europe — until returning to take up arms.
The commander confesses that he doesn't know how long he will stay.
"I returned to Iraq only to protect the lives of innocent civilians from Daesh brutality, but I arrived with a return ticket," he says, stretching his neck in the heat of the rays of sunshine pouring through the window.
Speaking with disarming frankness, Musawi sadly concludes: "Our fighters, like Um Hanadi, unfortunately are not fully aware about the political game behind our group. Some of them do not even know the meaning of the word Hashd al Shaabi."