BAGHDAD’S NEXT CHALLENGE: THE POPULAR MOBILISATION FORCES

BAGHDAD’S NEXT CHALLENGE: THE POPULAR MOBILISATION FORCES

The Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) was created in 2014 in the wake of the Islamic State’s sweeping offensive in Iraq and the collapse of regular Iraqi security forces. Though the Islamic State has been largely deprived from its territorial conquest, the militias, and those aligned with Iran in particular, are reluctant to put down their weapons and return to civilian life. This article explores the implications for the reconstruction of the Iraqi state and its ability to balance between US and Iranian influence.

 

 

By Pierre-Louis BOCZMAK, associate member of the Jeunes IHEDN’s Middle East and Arab World Study Committee.

 

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Les Jeunes de l’IHEDN.

 

 

 

In October 2019, Iraq was rocked by a wave of violent nationwide protests against corruption, the lack of job opportunities and public services. Thousands were injured and more than 500 killed. Strikingly, the protesters also burned down the offices of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), known as al-Hashd ash-Shaʿabi in Arabic, in Najaf and Amara[1]. Those events epitomise the broader challenges the PMF poses to the Iraqi government as it hopes to achieve a lasting peace after more than fifteen years of war and instability. The PMF is an umbrella organisation composed of dozens of predominantly Shi’a militias, many with close ties to Iran, that took up arms against ISIS in June 2014 after Iraq’s regular armed forces collapsed. Though ISIS lost its last chunk of territory in Syria in March 2019, few militiamen have put down their weapons and returned to civilian life. Yet, if the central Iraqi government is to strengthen its control over its territory and avoid being caught in the cross-fire of the US-Iran confrontation, it will have to keep the PMF in check. In this respect, the real challenge for Baghdad lies within the pro-Iran factions of the PMF. Indeed, as long as Iran pursues its regional ambitions and its standoff with the US continues, it is unlikely to relinquish this strategic foothold in Iraq.

 

 

Where it all started

To understand the influence armed militias that make up the PMF currently wield in Iraq, one needs to return to the 2003 US invasion and toppling of Iraq’s long-standing dictator, Saddam Hussein. Weeks after defeating Iraq, Paul Bremer, then leader of the Coalition Provisional Authority, issued the fateful orders of disbanding the Iraqi army together with excluding Ba’ath party members from the government[2]. This created a power vacuum that thousands of combat-experienced, unemployed and frustrated Sunni men would be quick to exploit – an insurgency led by al-Qaeda had begun. Shi’a militia groups emerged rapidly in response to the insurgency, some to fight the Sunni insurgents alongside the Iraqi government and the US, some targeting the US occupying forces. Tensions were exacerbated by the sectarian politics of the Shi’a Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (2006-2014) who sought to take revenge for decades of oppression under Saddam’s regime. Yet, the “Sunni Awakening” that began in early 2005 was a turning point in achieving relative stability in Iraq as large swaths of the tribal Sunni populations turned their back on the insurgents and fought alongside US troops and Iraqi security forces[3]. In late 2007 the US deemed the situation stable enough to begin a drawdown of its forces which would be completed by December 2011.

This precarious peace would be shattered shortly after the US departure with the number of security incidents picking up again. The principal explanation for this rapid deterioration is the continued marginalisation of the Sunnis by al-Maliki’s government, who sought to further entrench its position after the US withdrawal[4]. These grievances were reinforced by the Sunni tribal leaders’ unfulfilled expectations of rehabilitation after their counter-insurgency efforts during the Sunni Awakening[5]. At the same time, Syria was experiencing a popular revolution, with the state losing control of its territory and the Syrian-Iraqi border becoming porous. The situation was ripe when ISIS began its lightening 2014 offensive in Iraq.

 

 

 

Opening the PMF black box

Tens of thousands answered Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani’s fatwa and joined the fight against ISIS after the collapse of the Iraqi security forces at Mosul in June 2014. While the PMF were recognised almost immediately as a major force in Iraq, it is only in 2016 that the parliament passed a bill to grant them a quasi-governmental legal status as part of the Iraqi security forces, eligible to a state salary and subject to military laws and codes of conduct[6]. Despite US pressures, most of the PMF brigades still operate today under a separate chain of command from the regular armed forces, with the PMF Commission reporting directly to the Prime Minister[7]. Though pre-dominantly made up of Shi’a militias, the PMF is not a monolithic entity that only answers to Iranian interests. Derzsi-Horváth, Gaston and Saleh thus identify four main sub-categories of militias: the largest, well-funded and experienced pro-Iran Shi’a militias; other Shi’a militias that are not fully or not aligned with Iran, Sunni militias, and militias led by minorities such as Shi’a Turkmen and Yazidi Christians[8]. The Kurdish Security Forces and the PKK are not considered part of the PMF.

The first group is the most challenging for it is the least likely to accept either demobilisation or reintegration with regular armed forces and it is aligned with Iran’s interests rather than those of the Iraqi government. In addition, Iran-affiliated militias account for about half of the alleged 120 000 members that make up the PMF[9]. The largest in this group are the Badr Organisation, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and Kataib Hezbollah. Those militias are influential in the PMF Commission, heavily funded and equipped by Iran, and experienced[10]. A smaller unit which was formed more recently in 2013, Saraya al-Khorasani, has reportedly been used as the main conduit through which Iran supplies and funds its proxies in Iraq[11].

While under half the size of the pro-Iran factions with about 25,000 fighters, nationalist Shi’a militias that do not answer directly to Tehran play an important role of mediation between the various actors involved in Iraq[12]. Created after al-Sistani’s fatwa in 2014, they have been known to coordinate closely with Iraqi security forces in the fight against ISIS. The most important one is Saraya as-Salam founded by Moqtada al-Sadr, an influential Shi’a cleric in Iraq. It is today threatening to split away from the PMF in protest of Iranian influence[13].

The Sunni groups were slower to mobilise against ISIS due to their continued marginalisation after they helped Baghdad defeat al-Qaeda. They were mostly formed under the Tribal Mobilisation Forces appellation, itself part of the PMF, and were funded and equipped by the US in an attempt to counter Iranian influence over the PMF. These militias have been active in territories retaken from ISIS to prevent a resurgence of the terrorist organisation there[14].

 

 

Here to stay

The most obvious challenge the PMF present to the Iraqi state is the contesting of its monopoly over the use of legitimate violence. Iraq has attained a precarious stability after defeating ISIS, if it is to maintain internal order its security forces need a single chain of command that will provide much-needed oversight and increase combat effectiveness[15]. Crucially, the Iraqi government must be able to rely on security forces that work towards its goals and have the national interest at heart. On that basis, armed militias acting on behalf of Iranian interests pose a real problem. So long as they operate, It is difficult to envisage how the Iraqi state could provide security to its population, a precondition to economic development and political stability.

The pro-Iran PMF also pose challenges in the economic realm as they engage in mafia-like behaviour that undermines the rule of law, corrupts public officials and intimidates businesses. In doing so they compromise the economic recovery of the country. In 2016, when the fight against ISIS was still under way, they were reports that militias around Basra were busy extorting shop keepers for protection rather than being on the frontline[16]. In Jalawla, Northern Diyala, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq is known to have set up checkpoints on strategic roads across the city to levy taxes on vehicles, earning an estimated USD 300 000 daily[17]. At a higher level, the PMF have sought to displace the Iraqi state in sectors that it traditionally controlled, such as engineering and construction companies or land and sea ports[18]management. Finally, the PMF have even preyed on the state’s crown jewel: its oil industry. In Baiji, a Sunni city north of Baghdad that was almost entirely destroyed during the fight, Kataib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq have looted Iraq’s largest oil refinery and reportedly sold its equipment to Iran for a profit[19].

The PMF have also sought to consolidate and institutionalise their newly-acquired power after the fighting against ISIS ended. In the 2018 elections, the Badr Organisation and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq merged their respective political arms to form the Fatah Alliance and won 48 seats, representing the second-largest bloc in parliament. It was influential in selecting the recently ousted Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi, former member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a powerful Shi’a political party that operated in exile from Iran until 2003[20]. In addition to the nomination of a friendly Prime Minister, the pro-Iran militias have managed to secure a tight grip over the interior ministry, in charge of police and intelligence work. Until October 2018, the Minister of Interior was no other than Qasim al-Araji, a senior leader of the Badr Organisation. Yet, the most telling manifestation of PMF influence on Iraqi politics is perhaps the USD 2.15 billion the PMF Council, itself mostly made up of pro-Iran militias leaders, secured in the 2019 budget – three times the budget of the Counter-Terrorism Service and that of the Water Resources ministry, at a time where Iraq is going through an existential water crisis[21]. This reveals an important political achievement of the PMF, that of being recognised as part of the Iraqi security forces while escaping government oversight[22].

Beyond the social tensions resulting from the PMF political and economic activities, Shi’a militias have perpetuated the abuses against Sunni populations that have been a constant feature of Iraqi life since the fall of Saddam, and explain in large part the appeal of al-Qaeda and later ISIS for Sunni Iraqis. There is for instance evidence that Kataib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq have been preventing Sunni farmers from the town of Qaim to return to their 1,500 farms on ‘security’ grounds. In reality, Qaim’s proximity with the Syrian border makes it a strategic location for those Iran-backed militias to move men, equipment and goods[23]. If Iraq wants to achieve a lasting peace, its Shi’a-dominated government and security forces need to come to terms with the fact that Sunni populations must be rehabilitated and reintegrated in Iraqi society. If they are left marginalised again, there is no reason to think that they will refrain from joining terrorist groups once more.

 

 

Baghdad’s predicament

Recent events have shed light on another potentially disastrous consequence of the influence pro-Iran militias have in Iraq, that of making the country the next battlefield for the US-Iran confrontation. Indeed, last January the US assassinated the commander of Iran’s Quds Force[24], Qassem Soleimani, near Baghdad’s airport, together with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy chairman and de facto leader of the PMF[25]. This targeted killing was the culmination of a confrontation between the US and Iran that had become increasingly untenable and for which Iraq had often been used as a battlefield. The high-profile character of Soleimani’s killing is revealing of how quickly Iraq can be caught in the escalating tensions between Iran and the US. The fact that al-Muhandis was killed also links directly the activities of the PMF to a risk of interstate war occurring on Iraqi territory. The Iraqi government needs to maintain a close relationship with the US since they have returned to Iraq in 2014 at its request to defeat ISIS, and have provided important training and equipment to the Iraqi security forces. Thus, Baghdad cannot afford to have militias that it recognises as part of its regular security forces so blatantly threaten US interests. Iran knows this too well and is unlikely to stop provoking the US in Iraq if it thinks this could endanger the Washington-Baghdad relationship, opening the door to yet more Iranian influence in Iraq. Indeed, there are legitimate fears that Iran is seeking to entrench its position durably in Iraq. Beside their coercive power, militias aligned with Iran have sought to co-opt local populations by stepping in for the Iraqi state in providing basic public services. For all its faults, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq has for instance opened medical centres and engaged in social and religious activities in the territories it controls[26].

 

 

A way forward?

While it is difficult to argue against the influence of the PMF, and the pro-Iran factions in particular, it is important not to understate its limitations. The first and most obvious one is that the PMF increasingly lack popular support. Since large-scale offensives against ISIS have now come to an end, Iraqis do not understand why the PMF are still armed. Be it in the Shi’a south or in the Sunni areas near the Syrian border and Mosul, we have seen that Iraqis consider the PMF as corrupt and illegitimate as the governing elites. The second limitation to the influence of pro-Iran militias in Iraq is the counterweight other PMF factions represent. When al-Nasseri, the deputy leader of a pro-Iran militia, called for the dissolution of the Iraqi army last year, the PMF Council was quick to distance itself from those comments and support the regular security forces. Moreover, the recent nomination of Mustafa al-Kadhimi as the new Prime Minister of Iraq is a setback for the pro-Iran faction of the PMF as the Fatah Alliance was unable to veto it despite his alleged good relations with the US[27].

Baghdad finds itself between a rock and a hard place as it is clearly in its interest to disband the PMF or integrate them fully into the security forces but can do little against the most reluctant pro-Iran factions. In this context, analysts disagree on the goals the Iraqi government should pursue with pro-Iran factions: some argue that disbanding is the only solution as integrating these groups will only consolidate Iranian influence in the government and the army[28], while others contend that because disbanding is unrealistic, integration should be the goal. As for the means, there is a consensus that Baghdad should use a mix of ‘carrot and stick’ to reign in the militias gradually and avoid an armed confrontation. The Iraqi government has crucial leverage in the budget it allocates to the PMF, it should make it conditional on cooperation and good behaviour, and an audit should be conducted to ensure that salaries are not embezzled by militia leaders. When it can, Baghdad should expose corrupt leaders to undermine their authority with their men[29]. After closing the militias’ economic offices, the government should focus on improving its governance and providing of public services while offering militias the chance to join as junior partners to mitigate their losses[30]. Implementing charters of acceptable conduct with clear objectives that can be monitored could also be beneficial as it would ease social tensions and prepare militiamen for a return to civilian life. Finally, by negotiating first with militias that are not acting as Iranian proxies and convincing them to either disband or integrate regular forces, the government should be able to slowly tilt the balance in its favour. In the meantime, the PMF will continue to undermine the reconstruction of the Iraqi state through their harmful activities as well as by placing it in the midst of a deadly standoff between the US and Iran.

 

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[1] KARAM, Z. As US tensions with Iran simmer, unrest is boiling over next door. Business Insider. 2019

[2] THOMPSON, M. How Disbanding the Iraqi Army Fueled ISIS. Time. 2015

[3] AL-JABOURI, N. and JENSEN, S. The Iraqi and AQI Roles in the Sunni Awakening. PRISM. 2010

[4] DERZSI-HORVATH, A. and GASTON, E. Fracturing of the State. Global Policy Institute. 2017

[5] GASTON, E. Sunni Tribal Forces. Global Policy Institute. 2017

[6] REUTERS. Iraq’s Shi’ite militias formally inducted into security forces. Reuters. 2018

[7] Ibid.

[8] DERZSI-HORVATH, A., GASTON, E. and SALEH, B. Who’s Who: Quick Facts About Local and Sub-State Forces. Global Public Policy Institute. 2017

[9] Ibid.

[10] MALAS, N. The Militia Commander Beating Back ISIS in Iraq Makes the U.S. Nervous. Wall Street Journal. 2016

[11] DUMAN, B. A New Controversial Actor in Post-ISIS Iraq: Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi. Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies. 2015

[12] DERZSI-HORVATH, A., GASTON, E. and SALEH, B. Who’s Who: Quick Facts About Local and Sub-State Forces. Global Public Policy Institute. 2017

[13] EDWARDS, R. Hashd Al-Shaabi: A House Divided. Rudaw. 2020

[14] EZZEDDINE, N. and VAN VEEN, E. Who’s Afraid of Iraq’s Hashd?. War on the Rocks. 2019

[15] MANSOUR, R. Reining in Iraq’s Paramilitaries Will Just Make Them Stronger. Foreign Policy. 2019

[16] ABDUL-AHAD, G. Basra after the British: division and despair in Iraq’s oil boomtown. The Guardian. 2016

[17] SALEEM, Z., SKELTON, M. and VAN DEN TOORN, C. Security and Governance in the Disputed Territories Under a Fractured GOI: The Case of Northern Diyala. London School of Economics. 2018

[18] AL-NIDAWI, O. The growing economic and political role of Iraq’s PMF.  Middle East Institute. 2019

[19] DERZSI-HORVATH, A., SCHLUZ, M. and NASSER, H. Iraq after ISIL: Baiji. Global Policy Institute. 2017

[20] SALAHEDDIN, S. (2018). Iraq tasks Shiite independent with forming new government. Associated Press. 2018

[21] AL-NIDAWI, O. The growing economic and political role of Iraq’s PMF.  Middle East Institute. 2019

[22] MANSOUR, R. More Than Militias: Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces Are Here to Stay. War on the Rocks. 2018

[23] EL-GHOBASHY, T. and SALIM, M. As Iraq’s Shiite militias expand their reach, concerns about an ISIS revival grow. Washington Post. 2019

[24] The Quds Force is an elite wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, responsible primarily for its foreign operations.

[25] ZRAICK, K. What To Know About The Death Of Iranian General Suleimani. New York Times. 2020

[26] ALAALDIN, R. Iran Used the Hezbollah Model to Dominate Iraq and Syria. New York Times. 2018

[27] AL JAZEERA. Who Is Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s New Prime Minister?. Al Jazeera. 2020

[28] MANSOUR, R. Reining in Iraq’s Paramilitaries Will Just Make Them Stronger. Foreign Policy. 2019

[29] AL-NIDAWI, O. The growing economic and political role of Iraq’s PMF.  Middle East Institute. 2019

[30] EZZEDDINE, N. and VAN VEEN, E. Who’s Afraid of Iraq’s Hashd?. War on the Rocks. 2019

 

Cover picture :  Mahmoud Hosseini, Tasnin News Agency, 2016 (Creative commons)

 

 

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