Iraq force that helped rout Daesh turns to reconstruction

A member of the Hashed Al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces) operates a tractor in the southern city of Basra. Tens of thousands of Iraqis mobilized in 2014 and formed the Hashed Al-Shaabi, a paramilitary umbrella organization set up to fight Daesh (the so-called IS) group, in response to a call by the country's top Shiite authority, Ali Sistani. — AFP

By Sarah Benhaida

AL-QURNAH — Three months ago, Ibrahim Ali was using his digger to smash down defensive embankments built by Daesh (the so-called IS) militants in northern Iraq.

But after years of digging for victory, he and his comrades have now turned their skills to civilian use: gouging out irrigation channels for farmers in the southern province of Basra.

"What I'm doing makes me happy," he said, gelled hair glimmering above his sun-browned face.

In 2014, Ali and tens of thousands of others mobilized against Daesh, in response to a call by Iraq's top Shiite authority, Ali Sistani.

They joined the Hashed Al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Units, a paramilitary umbrella organization set up to fight the Daesh.

Aged 23 at the time, Ali left his parents and his work as a day laborer in the province of Babylon, south of Baghdad.

As he knew how to operate bulldozers and other heavy equipment, he was assigned to the Hashed's engineering corps, with its slogan: "build and fight".

In December, Iraq announced victory over the Sunni extremists of Daesh, but the Shiite-dominated Hashed was not disbanded.

Having proved itself as a formidable force on the battlefield, the coalition has become popular across the country, including among many Sunnis.

It now seeks to become a key political player, putting forward candidates in May elections and playing more of a role in the country's civilian affairs.

'Continuing the fight'

Ali joined other Hashed engineers and drivers heading to Basra — an overwhelmingly Shiite province with more oil resources but poorer infrastructure than any other province.

"We started fighting, now we're building, which is also a way to continue the fight," said Kazem Akram, the engineer in charge of Ibrahim's team in the Al-Qurnah district.

Further east, along the Iranian border, other Hashed teams are clearing mines, while elsewhere their excavators are building or grading roads.

Basra was the first province to see the Hashed launch such projects, but senior officials have said others may be rolled out across the country soon.

"The Hashed has a long-term strategy, relying on its personnel: engineers like me, but also doctors, lawyers, all the professionals who joined it," Akram, a father of three, told AFP.

Mohammad Karim, 24, joined the Hashed in 2015 after graduating as an engineer in Baghdad in 2015.

Unlike many young Iraqis suffering high unemployment, he says he received job offers. But he preferred to enlist in the Hashed.

After more than two years on the front, he is now overseeing the renovation of the edges of a school in Basra, a port city with more than two million residents.

"With the rain, the dirt road was muddy, there was no sewage system and the children had to wade to get to class," he said.

The Hashed has stepped into the breach, agreeing with the municipality to take over the job of rebuilding.

From his workshop in front of the school, Abou Raed, in his 40s and in charge of 11 people, observes the machines in action.

"Basra is Iraq's cash cow: we call it the Mother of Oil, but we don't even get the most basic services," he said.

"The authorities never come here, but the Hashed, which has already spilled its blood for Iraq, is here for us." — AFP