Parade of Kata’ib Hizballah fighters. Photo Credit: Geopolitics News
As the U.S. threatens to close its embassy in Baghdad, questions loom over the long-term status of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The PMF possess enough influence and firepower to prevent meaningful action by the Iraqi state to undermine them. Their independence from the official security apparatus of the Iraqi government remains a threat to Iraqi sovereignty as well as a key mechanism for Iran to exert influence in Iraq. Nevertheless, divisions within the component organizations of the PMF leave opportunities for Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi to undermine the influence of the Iranian-backed units within the PMF.
A Popular Fight
The PMF arose out of the chaos that followed ISIS’s 2014 advance. Faced with the rapid collapse of areas in the north, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shi’a cleric in Iraq, released a fatwa calling on Iraqis to take up arms against ISIS and to protect the country.[i] Some militias were formed as a response to this call, but the fatwa also provided cover for the expansion of preexisting Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, such as Kata’ib Hizballah (KH), the Badr Organization, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq (AAH). After the fatwa, not only could they pursue their activities overtly, but they could even receive government recognition and support for their activities.[ii] The resulting militias played an important role in the fight against ISIS and were legalized by the government, although under a newly created Popular Mobilization Commission (PMC) rather than through the official military.[iii]
With the success against ISIS came widespread popular approval, even in some Sunni areas.[iv] Quick to take advantage, many PMF leaders turned to electoral politics. In the 2018 elections, these PMF leaders created political wings and ran candidates for the Iraqi Council of Representatives, where they became the two largest parties in parliament.[v] Once entrenched in the government, the problem of reducing the power of the PMF and incorporating them within the state security apparatus became elusive.
The desire to curb the PMF and integrate them within the official state security forces is not new. Both Haider al-Abadi and Adil Abdul-Mahdi, Kadhimi’s predecessors, failed in their attempts to do so due to the pushback from PMF-linked political parties, the PMF’s mobilization of a sympathetic population, and warnings from Iran.[vi] This presents a daunting precedent for Iraqi leaders who want to rein in the militias. Nevertheless, this task is also an important priority for Kadhimi. Facing increased international pressure, such as the US threat to close its embassy and a recent attack on British embassy staff, Kadhimi has committed to weakening the Iranian-backed elements within the PMF, which observers blame for the attacks.[vii]
Divisions, Death, and Dissent
Despite the Shi’a predominance, the PMF are a heterogenous group that include Sunnis, Christians, Turkmen, and other ethnic and religious groups. Nonetheless, the largest and most powerful components of the PMF are factions backed by Iran.
These factions have come to dominate the PMC and have the benefit of connections to many militia groups that predate the battle against ISIS. These militias often receive direct support from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the forms of equipment and training.[viii] However, there is internal competition among the Iranian-backed factions. For instance, Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada was created by a former Badr Organization member who became a leader in KH before splintering to form his own group.[ix] Similarly, there has been outright fighting between the Badr Organization against AAH and other Iranian-aligned Turkmen over control of lucrative territory in eastern Iraq.[x] Moreover, other Iranian-aligned factions’ suppression of a couple smaller PMF groups for signs of disloyalty has highlighted the fickleness of the Iranian-backed coalition.[xi]
Aside from the Iranian-linked forces, the PMF also contains several units loyal to Ayatollah al-Sistani, commonly referred to as atabat units due to their connection to defending holy Shi’a shrines in Najaf, Karabala, and Kadhimiya. These units, at Ayatollah al-Sistani’s behest, have been supportive of disbanding or becoming a part of the official security forces of Iraq and have been hostile to Iran’s influence within the PMC. Outside of the atabat, a few other smaller units also follow Ayatollah al-Sistani’s guidance and might follow suit with the atabat forces.[xii]
A third faction exists in the Saraya al-Salam, a rebuilding of Muqtada al-Sadr’s notorious Mahdi Army after its disbandment in 2008. The Sadrist faction has flirted with Iranian support before, although usually to gain resources rather than to further Iranian aims. In fact, the Sadrist movement appeals to Iraqi nationalists and has often been in opposition to the Iranian-backed forces over Iran’s long-term influence in Iraq.[xiii] The Sadrists were the most supportive of the protests that engulfed Iraq from late 2019 to early 2020, and they protected protestors for several months before al-Sadr turned against them.[xiv] This illustrates not just the Sadrist movement’s nationalism but also the frequency with which al-Sadr changes between promoting Iraqi nationalism and seeking Iranian support.
This factionalism within the PMF—between Iranian-backed units, al-Sistani loyalists, and Sadrist forces—has required a careful hand to manage internal tensions. Until their death in a US airstrike in January 2020, this was adeptly performed by Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy chief of the PMC. Without clear successors, the resultant vacuum created a challenge for Iran to maintain its influence. Soleimani had led much of Iran’s coalition-building in-person in Iraq and had built up years of trust with local militia leaders. Al-Muhandis, a former member of Iraq’s parliament, was able to catalyze political support and dominate the PMC.[xv]
Since the drone strike, these divisions have been laid bare. Many of the pro-Iranian bloc units, such as KH, the Badr Organization, and AAH, have attempted to assume the position of Iran’s favored militia. While not seeking Iran’s approval, al-Sadr and the Saraya al-Salaam have also been active in expanding their influence in the wake of al-Muhandis’s death.[xvi] Other adverse consequences for Iran from al-Muhandis’s death include a loss of institutional knowledge and familiarity with loyalist groups within the PMF, a failure for KH to maintain its pre-eminent position in the PMF, and a difficulty in coordinating PMF messaging and opposition to Kadhimi’s appointment as prime minister.[xvii]
A clear demonstration of these challenges was the Iranian bloc’s attempt to appoint Abu Fadak al-Mohammedawi as the next deputy chief of the PMC. A member of KH who had previous ties to the Badr Organization, Abu Fadak already served as a compromise candidate between the various pro-Iranian factions. Yet, when he was named, the atabat units quickly distanced themselves from him, undermining his chances and leaving the position unfilled.[xviii]
Kadhimi’s Actions against the Factions
Since becoming prime minister in May, Kadhimi has attempted to crack down on the PMF by subjugating their use of force to state authority and targeting their extra-legal operations. So far, this task has eluded the prime minister. Indicative of this was the raid on several KH members in late June after repeated rocket attacks on the US Embassy catalyzed Kadhimi to order their arrest.[xix] In response, KH mobilized several vehicles and fighters and surrounded the prime minister’s residence in the Green Zone in Baghdad. Faced with this show of force, almost all the KH members were released over the next few days.[xx]
Adding to the difficulty of Kadhimi’s situation is the impending US withdrawal from Iraq. Currently, the US forces help bolster the Iraqi military’s capabilities and could be an effective partner in any confrontation with the PMF. [xxi] Following a US pullout, Kadhimi will have less military backing available, but the issue of Iranian-backed militias will remain: Iran’s long-term interest in maintaining friendly substate actors in Iraq, as seen by their support to militias after the US invasion and their support to other militias in Lebanon and Syria, means the US withdrawal will not lessen the issue. Given the recent struggles of Kadhimi in asserting force against KH, this concern over capability might become more acute following the withdrawal.
Nevertheless, there are some positive signs for Kadhimi that reining in the militias might be possible. The divisions within the PMF offer an opening for integrating them into the armed forces. Over the summer, the four atabat units withdrew from the PMC and have since been directed by the prime minister’s office. Subjecting the units to greater state control has, for the last few months, been undermining the religious legitimacy al-Sistani’s fatwa conferred on the PMF. For example, several leaders of the pro-Iranian factions have met with representatives of al-Sistani to try to have the atabat return, to no avail.[xxii] Al-Sistani’s recent comments calling for further integration into the state and control of the militias’ extra-legal activities show his continued interest in enhancing state sovereignty and reducing the PMF’s extrajudicial role.[xxiii] Given al-Sistani’s status as Iraq’s leading cleric and the role that his fatwa has played in boosting the PMF, this implies that it is possible for Kadhimi to achieve religious legitimation for his actions and therefore weaken recruitment and funding for the PMF and swing popular sentiment in his favor. [xxiv]
Another promising area for Kadhimi involves popular concerns over Iran’s influence in Iraq. The protests in 2019-2020 manifested anti-Iranian sentiment and nationalism in the chants, leaders, and targeted buildings.[xxv] Despite the close religious and economic ties between Iran and Iraq, most Iraqis, and even most Shi’a Iraqis, view Iran as a negative influence on Iraqi politics.[xxvi] This provide encouraging signs to Kahdimi that nationalism could be used as a shibboleth with which to delegitimize the Iranian-backed PMF units and rally public opinion against the PMF.
Toward this end, the nationalism espoused by the Sadrist movement is helpful, albeit uncertain given al-Sadr’s proclivity to change ideology. Since the deaths of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, there have been signs indicating that al-Sadr has tried to mend some bridges with Iran.[xxvii] Nevertheless, al-Sadr still appears willing to push back against the Iranian-backed forces. For instance, a string of killings in Basra targeting local activists with ties to Kadhimi and al-Sadr seems potentially linked to KH.[xxviii] Similarly, when the U.S. threatened to close its embassy in Baghdad, al-Sadr called for an investigation into the attacks against the diplomatic staff, which have likely been committed by Iranian-backed PMF.[xxix] For Kadhimi, using this nationalism and cooperating with al-Sadr is another potential strategy for a long-term crackdown on the Iranian-backed militias.
The PMF represent a significant challenge to Iraqi sovereignty and to the authority of the central government. While the Kadhimi government has indicated a desire to integrate the PMF into the armed forces, it is doubtful that the state has the capabilities for such a crackdown on the Iranian-backed factions, especially given the pending US withdrawal. Nevertheless, recent developments in terms of the PMF’s declining religious legitimacy and rising Iraqi nationalism offer signs that further assertions of government power over the PMF might become feasible. While such government efforts will be difficult, they imply that Kadhimi might be able to achieve greater success than his predecessors.
[i] Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalai, “ما ورد في خطبة الجمعة لممثل المرجعية الدينية العليا في كربلاء المقدسة الشيخ عبد المهدي الكربلائي” Sistani.org, June 13, 2014, https://www.sistani.org/arabic/archive/24918/.
[ii] Garrett Nada and Mattisan Rowan, “Part 2: Pro-Iran Militias in Iraq,” USIP, March 13, 2020, https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2018/apr/26/part-2-pro-iran-militias-iraq.
[iii] Al-Sumaria News, “مستشار الامن الوطني: المالكي امر بتشكيل مديرية الحشد الشعبي لتنظيم تدفق المتطوعين” Al-Sumaria News, June 16, 2014, https://www.alsumaria.tv/news/103224/مستشار-الامن-الوطني-المالكي-امر-بتشكيل-م/ar.
[iv] Scott Peterson, “Iraq’s Shiite Militias Try to Convert Military Victory into Political Power,” CS Monitor, April 27, 2018, https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2018/0427/Iraq-s-Shiite-militias-try-to-convert-military-victory-into-political-power.
[v] Raed Ahmed, “A Year After the Defeat of ISIS in Iraq, What Has Changed?” MEI, January 9, 2019, https://www.mei.edu/publications/year-after-defeat-isis-iraq-what-has-changed.
[vi] For discussion of Al-Abadi’s efforts, see Renad Mansour, “More Than Militias: Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces Are Here to Stay,” War on the Rocks, April 3, 2018, https://warontherocks.com/2018/04/more-than-militias-iraqs-popular-mobilization-forces-are-here-to-stay/; for Abdul-Mahdi’s, see Talmiz Ahmad, “Future of PMU Complicates Iraqi Politics,” Arab News, August 22, 2019, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1543756.
[vii] Louisa Loveluck et al., “U.S. Tells Iraq It’s Planning to Pull Out of Baghdad Embassy,” Washington Post, September 27, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/us-embassy-withdrawal-baghdad-iraq/2020/09/27/9c222de8-00ca-11eb-8879-7663b816bfa5_story.html.
[viii] Erica Gaston and András Derzsi-Horváth, Iraq After ISIL: Sub-State Actors, Local Forces, and the Micro-Politics of Control, (Berlin: GPPi, 2018), https://www.gppi.net/media/Gaston_Derzsi-Horvath_Iraq_After_ISIL_180830_132652.pdf.
[ix] Phillip Smyth, “Appendix 2: Understanding the Organizations Deployed to Syria” in The Shiite Jihad in Syria and Its Regional Effects (Washington, D.C.: Washington Institute, 2015), p. 2, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/PF138Appendices/PF138_Appendix_2.pdf.
[x] Michael Knights, “Iran’s Expanding Militia Army in Iraq: The New Special Groups,” CTC Sentinel 12:7 (2019), https://ctc.usma.edu/irans-expanding-militia-army-iraq-new-special-groups/.
[xi] Phillip Smyth, “Making Sense of Iraq’s PMF Arrests,” WINEP, Policywatch 3114, April 26, 2019, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/making-sense-of-the-arrests-within-iraqs-pmf.
[xii] Renad Mansour and Faleh Jabar, The Popular Mobilization Forces and Iraq’s Future (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment, 2017), https://carnegie-mec.org/2017/04/28/popular-mobilization-forces-and-iraq-s-future-pub-68810.
[xiii] Mapping Militant Organizations, “Mahdi Army,” Stanford University, last modified May 2019, https://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/mappingmilitants/profiles/mahdi-army.
[xiv] Louisa Loveluck and Mustafa Salim, “How Powerful Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr Could Snuff Out Iraq’s Mass Street Protests,” Washington Post, March 4, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/how-mercurial-cleric-moqtada-al-sadr-could-snuff-out-iraqs-mass-street-protests/2020/03/03/a9172c56-4dc4-11ea-967b-e074d302c7d4_story.html.
[xv] Michael Knights, “Soleimani is Dead: The Road Ahead for Iranian-Backed Militias in Iraq,” CTC Sentinel 13:1 (2020), https://ctc.usma.edu/soleimani-dead-road-ahead-iranian-backed-militias-iraq/.
[xvi] Michael Knights et al., Honored, Not Contained: The Future of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, (Washington, DC: WINEP, 2020), Policy Brief 163, p. 147, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/PolicyFocus163-KnightsMalikTamimi-v3.pdf.
[xvii] Respectively: Peter Forster et al., “Decapitating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force and the Implication for US policy in Iraq and Beyond,” Small Wars Journal, June 16, 2020, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/decapitating-islamic-revolutionary-guard-corps-quds-force-and-implication-us-policy-iraq; Ranj Alaaldin, “Was Iraq’s Prime Minister Right to Go After an Iranian Proxy?” Brookings, July 1, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/07/01/was-iraqs-prime-minister-right-to-go-after-an-iranian-proxy/; and Farzin Nadimi and Hamdi Malik, “Qaani’s Surprise Visit to Baghdad and the Future of the PMF,” WINEP, April 10, 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/qaanis-surprise-visit-to-baghdad-and-the-future-of-the-pmf.
[xviii] Adil al-Nawab, “خلافات داخل الحشد الشعبي على بديل المهندس: النجف تتحفظ على ’أبو فدك‘” Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, March 13, 2020, https://www.alaraby.co.uk/خلافات-بشأن-خليفة-المهندس-النجف-متحفظة-على-“أبو-فدك”.
[xix] Al-Jazeera “بعد أيام من اعتقال عناصر من حزب الله العراقي.. العبادي: لا مكان لمن يحمل السلاح خارج الدولة” Al-Jazeera, June 29, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.net/news/politics/2020/6/29/بعد-أيام-من-اعتقال-عناصر-من-حزب-الله.
[xxi] Tom Allinson, “Can Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi Stay the Course?, Deutsche Welle, August 21, 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/can-iraqi-prime-minister-mustafa-al-kadhimi-stay-the-course/a-54649541.
[xxii] Hamdi Malik, “The Future of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces,” WINEP, Policywatch 3321, May 28, 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-future-of-iraqs-popular-mobilization-forces.
[xxiii] Ali Mamouri, “Sistani Backs Iraqi Government Crackdown on Outlawed Militias,” al-Monitor, September 14, 2020, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/09/iraq-sistani-early-elections-kadhimi-militias.html.
[xxiv] Soulayma Mardam Bey, “Rupture Consommée en Irak entre l’Ayatollah Sistani et les Milices Pro-Iraniennes,” L’Orient – Le Jour, May 4, 2020, https://www.lorientlejour.com/article/1216675/rupture-consommee-en-irak-entre-layatollah-sistani-et-les-milices-pro-iraniennes.html.
[xxv] Arwa Ibrahim, “Why Are Iraqi Protesters Targeting Iranian Buildings,” Al-Jazeera, November 29, 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/11/29/why-are-iraqi-protesters-targeting-iranian-buildings/.
[xxvi] Munqith Daghir, “The New Three-Dimensional Political Situation in Iraq: An Iraqi Point of View,” IIACSS, May 19, 2020, https://iiacss.org/the-new-three-dimensional-political-situation-in-iraq-an-iraqi-point-of-view/.
[xxvii] Middle East Online, “ميليشيات الصدر آخر أوراق إيران لقمع احتجاجات العراق” Middle East Online, February 3, 2020, https://middle-east-online.com/ميليشيات-الصدر-آخر-أوراق-إيران-لقمع-احتجاجات-العراق.
[xxviii] Suadad al-Salhy, “Power and Protest: Who Rrdered the Killing of Basra’s Activists?” Middle East Eye, September 10, 2020, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/iraq-basra-assassinations-who-ordered-shootings-activists-shahmani-yacoub.
[xxix] David Ignatius, “Just Ahead of the Election, Pompeo Is Pressuring Iraq’s Leader and Raising Tensions with Iran,” Washington Post, September 25, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/09/25/just-ahead-election-pompeo-is-pressuring-iraqs-leader-raising-tensions-with-iran/.