The threat of ISIS in Iraq has largely subsided, and the country is left in a complicated state. During the conflict, the ISIS threat virtually neutralized the Iraqi army and forced the populace to turn their reliance towards the array of Shiite militias that arose to fill the security gap. Now, the Shiite militias have emerged as the dominant military force surpassing even the authority of the government.
In 2014, the so-called Islamic State took over about one-third of Iraq’s territory, including Mosul, the country’s second-largest city. At the time, there was a genuine fear that the predominantly Sunni fighters of the Islamic State were close to capturing Baghdad. National security forces were in no position to subdue the threat. Since 2003, the Iraqi government has faced ups and downs in its attempt to rebuild its security apparatus following the near collapse of Iraq as a unitary state. The disbanding of the army has affected the government’s ability to claim a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Since then, the fundamental theme has been the relationship between Iraq’s central government and the substate or non-state military actors.
When the war against the Islamic State began in 2014, Iraq’s security apparatus collapsed leading many volunteer fighters to join paramilitaries rather than the weakened military or police forces. These substate forces were grouped under an umbrella organization called the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), or al-Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have volunteered for military service. The group includes over 60,000 fighters. Others estimate that the number ranges from 60,000 to 140,000 fighters (http://carnegie-mec.org/).
Popular Mobilization Forces/Units/Committee (PMF/PMU/PMC) is an Iraqi state-sponsored umbrella organization composed of some 40 groups, almost exclusively Shiite. The People’s Mobilization Forces was formed for deployment against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The organization was formed by uniting existing forces under the “People’s Mobilization Committee” of the Iraqi Ministry of Interior in June 2014. The PMF was formed by the Iraqi government on 15 June 2014 after Marja’ Ali al-Sistani’s fatwa on “righteous jihad” on 13 June. The fatwa called for defending Baghdad and to participate in the counter-offensive against the Islamic State, following the Fall of Mosul on 10 June 2014. The Popular Mobilization Forces consist of both new volunteers and pre-existing forces. These forces have been grouped within the umbrella organization formerly under the control of the Ministry of Interior Popular Mobilization Units directorate. Among these forces are the Peace Companies, previously known as the Mahdi Army, Kata’ib Hezbollah, Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, Kata’ib al-Imam Ali, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organization (www.alhashdalshaabi.com/).
Many who perceived the PMF to be a security asset and a savior in the struggle against the Islamic State in 2014, when the Iraqi army was in shambles, now view it as more of a liability and menace to the country’s political and security status quo. Following the battle to retake Mosul, Iraq faces key challenges involving the PMF that will profoundly shape the country’s future. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reports, for example, have accused it of committing war crimes. Moreover, to many critics, the PMF symbolizes Iranian and Shia efforts to exercise supremacy over Iraq.
Tehran has had a clear hand in coordinating with the PMF leadership, which frequently meets and consults with Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Even Muqtada al-Sadr, whose paramilitary unit falls under the PMF, has referred to the PMF as al-militiat al-waqiha (the Imprudent Militias). Clerics from the Najaf Hawza (the Najaf Seminary), including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is Iraq’s leading Shia religious leader, also criticize the monopolistic conduct of certain PMF leaders, particularly Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis (carnegie).
Known widely by his nom de guerre Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes is Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, the leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), an Iranian-sponsored Shiite militia operating primarily in Iraq. In addition to acting as the leader of KH, Ibrahimi serves as Iraq’s deputy national security advisor and the deputy commander of the Haashid Shaabi, the umbrella group of anti-ISIS Shiite militias also called Iraq’s popular mobilization forces (PMF). According to Iraqi Major-General Jumaa Enad, Ibrahimi today is also realistically and operationally the leader of the PMF.
Muen al-Kadimi, deputy leader of another Shiite militia in Iraq, the Badr Organization, confirmed that Ibrahimi is one of the highest-level commanders in the PMF, saying that Ibrahimi signs off on things. He is also a former member of the Iraqi parliament. Ibrahimi has for years been linked to a series of deadly crimes. In 2007, a Kuwaiti court sentenced Ibrahimi to death in absentia for his involvement in the 1983 U.S. and French embassy bombings in Kuwait, attacks that killed six and injured nearly 90 others. Ibrahimi has also been linked to the 1985 assassination attempt of Kuwait’s Emir.
Ibrahimi believes in establishing a Shiite theocracy and considers himself to be a representative of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei according to Iraqi lawmaker Mishaan Jbouri. He reportedly serves as an adviser and “right-hand man” to Iran’s military envoy to Iraq, the IRGC-Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani. For years, he worked alongside Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Badr Organization (previously called the Badr Corps).
After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Ibrahimi helped smuggle in a certain kind of improvised explosive device (IED) known as explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) from Iran into Iraq. EFPs were the primary killer of U.S. troops in Iraq from 2003 to 2011 (https://www.counterextremism.com/).
Two factors played a significant role in building the militia power. One-third of Iraq was occupied at the time. Iraq president Maliki found the state’s large bureaucracy inefficient, given its mandate under a sectarian quota system (muhasasa ta’ifiya), which included members from all major Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni political parties. Having loyal Shia militias, rather than the shaky cross-ethnic makeup of the Iraqi army, seemed a much more reliable way to secure a tighter command and control structure.
Immediately after the Iraqi army’s collapse in June 2014, Maliki signed an official decree to form the Commission for the Popular Mobilization Forces (Hay’at al-Hashd al-Shaabi). The state’s inability to cope with the Islamic State threat led many to rely on the paramilitaries.
Another domestic factor that legitimized the paramilitaries was Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s wajib al-kifai fatwa, which his most senior clerical representative, Abdul Mehdi el-Karbalai, conveyed in June 2014. Paradoxically, the legitimization this fatwa furnished was an unintended consequence of Sistani’s order, which had called on all Iraqi citizens to volunteer to join the “security forces.” This was a direct reference to the army and federal police, rather than the seven militias that had been operating alongside Maliki’s government. Sistani’s interference had made the PMF a sacred institution in the eyes of the Iraqi population.
Maliki and his allies pursued a wide-ranging campaign to recruit volunteers through hundreds of centers and offices. This recruitment was predicated on a smear campaign against the very Iraqi army that they had created—the same army that the fatwa had supposedly demanded the volunteers’ join. For Maliki and his supporters, the fatwa allowed the original seven paramilitaries, along with other groups created thereafter, to emerge from clandestine or semi-clandestine anonymity. It gave them legitimacy, which gave them access to the public through their own radio and television networks, as well as Facebook and Twitter accounts; these groups now had their own legitimate names, logos, and publically displayed photographs. In short, Maliki used Sistani’s fatwa to give official sanction to these groups for the first time and allowed them to operate out in the open with full state funding.
The PMF groups maintain broad popularity among Iraqi society. The paramilitary outfits are particularly popular among the country’s Shia population. An August 2015 poll claims that 99 percent of Shia respondents support the use of the PMF to fight the Islamic State. Up to 75 percent of men between eighteen and thirty years old living in Shia-majority provinces had signed up to enlist in the PMF by the spring of 2016. Volunteers flocked from all of Iraq’s Shia provinces to enlist, the PMF recruited roughly ten times more volunteers than the Iraqi security forces.
For the emerging volunteers, it was also easier to sign up via political party structures than through the PMF Commission, which was still part of a fledgling state and lacked recruitment offices. In contrast, almost all Shia Islamist parties and even individual clerics or members of parliament had established registration centers. Because the state itself did not have enough offices to register volunteers for the Iraqi army and police forces, volunteers joined paramilitary groups, many of which, including the original seven, enjoyed preexisting recruitment mechanisms.
The PMF, however, is far from a cohesive operation. The PMF contains three distinct factions, based on various subgroups’ respective allegiances to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and Muqtada al-Sadr. It remains possible that the PMF’s fractious makeup—its sundry groups with sundry objectives—may serve as a safety valve to ensure that the organization is not used to take over the state. The groups under Sistani and under Sadr will work to make sure that the PMF’s Maliki-allied leadership does not use the sacredness of the PMF brand to retake the state (carnegie).
One of the most divisive issues amongst the militias is the involvement of Iran. Muqtada al-Sadr, who once led violent campaigns against the US occupation that ended in 2011, has emerged as a nationalist opponent of powerful Shia parties allied with neighboring Iran and as a champion of the poor. Al-Sadr's alliance comprising of communists and secular Iraqis has announced it is fiercely opposed to any foreign interference in Iraq - whether Tehran's or Washington's (www.aljazeera.com/news/).
Muqtada al-Sadr’s Peace Regiments (Saraya al-Salam) were founded right after the notorious June 2014 massacre at Camp Speicher. In effect, this was a rebranding of the JAM (Sadr’s group), which had been suspended in 2008 but had kept many of its cadres, expertise, and social networks intact. They were easily remobilized because Sadr had more experience with paramilitaries than other paramilitary leaders. The Sadrist movement, and by extension its paramilitary, derives legitimacy from its presence on the ground in Iraq before 2003. Unlike many other political parties and military wings, the Sadrists were not part of the diaspora elite that returned to Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The movement has stayed close to ordinary Iraqi citizens rather than the country’s elites. It weds nationalism with homegrown clerical authority from the Sadr family name and is now portraying Muqtada as a theological authority rather than a political leader.
Another PMF faction includes several apolitical paramilitaries that swear allegiance to Sistani. They were formed strictly by Sistani’s fatwa to defend Shia holy sites and lands from the so-called Islamic State. Their priority is to keep Shia areas safe and to obey Sistani’s will—this includes a willingness to eventually disband or be integrated into the Iraqi armed forces. According to several of these groups’ leaders and members, they will disband as soon as the threat of the Islamic State subsides. Their priority is to keep Shia areas safe and to obey Sistani’s will—this includes a willingness to eventually disband or be integrated into the Iraqi armed forces.
However, the most powerful groups in the PMF are those that maintain strong links with Tehran and pledge spiritual allegiance to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. As such, they have been groomed by Iran as reliable political and military allies; therefore, they benefit from greater funding and more supplies from Tehran than other groups in the PMF. This pro-Khamenei group includes a number of relatively small paramilitaries that Iran has created, which serve as proxies for Tehran. In fact, they are arms of Iran’s IRGC and the Iranian foreign intelligence agency, Itilaat. These better-known elements of the pro-Khamenei faction consist of local right-wing Iraqi militant wings that have also become political actors. Their military resources—including heavy armor, drones, and military advisers—all come from Tehran. Their cash and political legitimacy come from Baghdad. These paramilitaries are either full-fledged political parties or in the process of establishing political representation in the lead-up to Iraq’s planned 2018 provincial and parliamentary elections.
For its own part, Iran prefers to keep a strong set of paramilitary allies that could check the Iraqi state if Baghdad ever were to pursue anti-Iran policies. Most groups affiliated with Sistani and Sadr, however, have expressed a willingness to integrate into the state apparatus, or even to disband all paramilitaries. (http://carnegie-mec.org/). Though Sadr has been a critic and deterring factor towards Iranian power encroachment, recent activities presuppose a shift in his position.
In June of this year Iraq's Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr announced a surprise alliance with pro-Iranian political bloc led by Hadi al-Amiri in a bid to form a government after last month's elections resulted in a hung parliament. At a joint press conference with Amiri in the Shia holy city of Najaf, Sadr hailed the formation of a true alliance to accelerate the formation of a national government away from any dogmatism.
Sadr and Amiri are strange bedfellows. Sadr, who once led violent campaigns against the US occupation that ended in 2011, has emerged as a nationalist opponent of powerful Shia parties allied with neighboring Iran and as a champion of the poor. Amiri, a fluent Persian speaker, is Iran's closest ally in Iraq, having spent two years in exile there during the era of former President Saddam Hussein. The Fatah alliance he led in the election was composed of political groups tied to Iran-backed Shia armed groups who helped government forces defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) fighters (//www.aljazeera.com/). This recent alliance assumes a shift in the political alliance. One that is difficult to assess and place into future context.
Even with Sadr and Sistani in positions of great influence in Iraqi politics, it is clear that Iran holds dominating control over Iraq. The recent alliance between the Sadr and Amiri factions is still too new to draw any serious conclusions. However, it does cast concerns about whether Sadr will be a serious deterrent to the country being transformed into a virtual puppet state of Iran.
It is clear the militias will not disband any time soon. The Iraqi Shiite population, like much of the country, still has no confidence and trust in either the state or government security forces. As such, the militias continue to be seen as the better option for protecting the country in its weakened state from the likes of ISIS or the next such group that they anticipate emerging to threaten them. It is highly probably they will remain as the dominate force in Iraq, even superseding the authority of the government.
The image of the United States is not good and any faction that opposes Iran just as strongly opposes US involvement. This limits options for the US if it has any agenda to thwart Iran’s power growth.