Iraqi Shia paramilitaries conduct drills near Saudi borders: Newspaper

Al-Hashd al-Shaabi fighters near Mosul.

Anbar ( Shia militias operating under Popular Mobilization Units (al-Hashd al-Shaabi) are conducting military exercises near Iraq’s borders with Saudi Arabia, a newspaper has reported as the kingdom escalates its criticisms of the Iran-backed forces.

The drills, the first of their kind, started late Friday and early Saturday in the unruly desert of Anbar, Interior Ministry officials told London-based The New Arab newspaper.

“Fighters from Hezbollah al-Nojabaa, Asaeb Ahlul Haq, Hezbollah in Iraq, Sayyed al-Shohadaa and Badr Organization are running military drills at the town of al-Nakhib, exercising the use of rockets, cannons and mortar launchers,” the source said. Explaining the choice of that region, the official said it is vast enough to provide the wide range of rocket launching that spares material or human losses.

“Armed troops engaging in the drills moved to the southwest of the country, 100 kilometers from the borders with Saudi Arabia,” the source said.

Defending the activity, Sallam al-Khayyani, a colonel at the Iraqi army’s 1st division, said “any military drill in the spacious desert of Anbar reinforces security in the province.” He added that al-Hashd al-Shaabi had become “an official military body….and hence nobody can call it a militia”. He argued that al-Hashd had previously arrested Islamic State members in that region, adding that Iraqi security forces cannot police Iraqi desert areas alone as they form a third of the country’s area.

In December 2016, Iraqi President Fuad Masum approved a law passed by parliament in November that turned al-Hashd al-Shaabi from a paramilitary to national force.The passing of the long-debated bill came amid intense objections from Sunni groups within the parliament who feared the law would grant the militia unchecked powers, and therefore stoke sectarian tensions.

Al-Hashd al-Shaabi was formed by a decree from Iraq’s top Shia clergy to combat the Islamic State militants who took over many regions of Iraq in 2014. The militia is currently engaged in fighting against ISIS on the side of the Iraqi government forces, but its involvement in the liberation of areas inhabited by Sunnis has aroused international fears especially among Sunni powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as well as from the United Nations.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister recently warned that the existence of al-Hashd al-Shaabi cannot ensure the unity of Iraq, labeling it a sectarian body. His comments drew defensive responses from the Iraqi government.

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