The Militias in Iraq, From Popular Mobilization to Political Interference

The Popular Mobilization Units or Hashd al-Shaabi, formed in 2014 following a fatwa by grand ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, played a major role in countering the expansion of the Islamic State in Iraq. As the Islamic State was officially defeated last December, the future of the PMU is subject to many debates. An examination of the genesis of this force and its relationship with the Iraqi State is essential to foresee what Iraq may look like following the parliamentary elections in May.

The Sectarian divisions in Iraq were brazenly instrumentalized by Saddam Hussein, the American administration and today, Iran. This process exacerbated tension between Sunni and Shia Arabs, the two main communities of Iraq, who were caught up in the rivalries between regional and international powers in the Middle East. As their rivalry grew, Iraqi institutions weakened, which led to the advent of an Islamic caliphate occupying more than a third of the Iraqi territory. In this context, given the debacle of the Iraqi forces facing the islamists, the grand ayatollah al-Sistani pronounced his fatwa1 on June 13,, 2014. This announcement occurred a few days after the fall of Mosul and one day after the camp Speicher massacre, where more than 1600 Shiites were executed by jihadists. Consequently, several Shia militias answered the call, and thousands of volunteers enrolled in related factions simultaneously.

Among the main units exists the Badr Organization (the oldest, founded in 1982 and currently led by Hadi al-Ameri), Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Khorassan brigades, the Hezbollah al-Nujaba Movement and the Hezbollah Brigades (the two latter factions distinct from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement although sharing a similar ideology). These militias are some of the most powerful military forces within the Hashd al-Shaabi and rely on Iran’s military apparatus for their training and funding. They also share a “Khomeynist” ideology due to their allegiance to the Iranian religious authorities and their ambition to impose the Iranian political system in Iraq. In doing so, they draw their inspiration from twelver’s Shia jurisprudence, Velayat e-Faqih. Iranian influence is rendered even more obvious due to the involvement of Qassem Soleimani, senior military officer of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, who directly supervises the military operations of several Shiite militias on the ground in Syria and Iraq in their fight against the Islamic State.

These forces are followed by organizations such as the Abbas Division and Ali al-Akhbar Brigade, both affiliated to Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani. They receive funding, arms and training from Iraqi forces. On this note, they are also multi-confessional as they include between 15 to 20 percent Sunni fighters within their ranks. Other units include those close to Imam Muqtada al-Sadr, whose main faction is the Peace Brigade (Saraya al-Salam). The Sadrist movement is characterized by its quietist ideology and its ambition to strengthen central power and Iraqi institutions, as well as including other minorities of the country. This range of militias gives us an overview of the ideological discrepancies between different groups composing the Popular Mobilization Units: from its pro-Iranian elements to the Sadrist movement, there are contradictory visions facing each other, sometimes leading to direct confrontation.

The Challenge of Iraq’s National Unity

Aware that the Hashd did not sufficiently represent other communities of the country, Iraqi authorities encouraged several non-Shia militias to join the coalition. Those militias include the Babylon Brigades—a Christian militia—the Niniwa Guard, the Salaheddin Brigade and the Tribal Mobilization Forces—all Sunni militias. We also find factions representing smaller minorities such as Yezidis (Sinjar Resistance Units) or Shabak (Liwa al-Shabak). In total, the Popular Mobilization Units are composed of roughly 90,000 active combatants between the different factions.2

Despite numerous violations of human rights, and even war crimes, the combat efficiency of the Hashd al-Shaabi has pushed the International Coalition, led by the United States (or the Combined Joint Task Force), to train, arm and fund several militias in parallel with their effort to restructure the Iraqi army. Taking advantage of the political and military void, the Popular Mobilization Units soon became the strongest force on the ground opposing the jihadists, which raised some serious questions regarding their relationship to the State. Indeed, in a Weberian definition, the State should keep the monopoly of use of force. A paramilitary organization composed of several factions, some of them having transnational ambitions, risks threatening the unity and cohesion of the Iraqi State, which has already been seriously eroded by the instability prevailing since the U.S. invasion. The sectarian identity of these groups, along with their ambiguous relationship with Iran, has since raised concerns among experts observing the situation.

Notwithstanding, the election of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, in September 2014 has allowed the country’s institutions to strengthen and has challenged the prognosis that foresaw the implosion of Iraq or redefinition of Middle Eastern borders. By a decree in 2016 that integrated the Hashd al-Shaabi within the army, al-Abadi affirmed his dedication to take the lead and turn Iraq’s military campaign against ISIS into a national struggle, distancing the risk of an inter-confessional war. Despite this official allegiance, some units, including those who collaborate closely with Iran, have shown their intention to remain independent and have tried by all means to emancipate themselves from the government’s tutelage.

Demobilizing the Militias

Al-Abadi’s government was fully aware that the militias might try to overstep their mandate once ISIS was defeated and thus insisted that all groups drop their weapons once victory was announced. He received support from Shiite religious authorities as well as other leaders, including Muqtada al-Sadr. Unfortunately, the militia groups have not complied with his order thus far. Indeed, the victory over ISIS, officially announced on the 9th of December 2017, did not rattle the ambitions of several militias to keep operating freely on the ground, justifying their move by pointing at the presence of ISIS sleeper cells or rise of new terrorist organizations. A spokesperson of the Hashd al-Shaabi, Mr. Abu Mustafa Imami, deputy-commander of the Popular Mobilization Force of the Northern-Iraq frontline, also insisted that only a new fatwa from the Grand Ayatollah could induce the militias to demobilize.3

Besides that, many militias, prior to rendering their military equipment to the government, would like to ensure that they will be able to integrate their soldiers in the regular forces or benefit from pensions for veterans if they decide to go back to a civilian lifestyle. It is certain that a subsequent compensation as well as a serious integration policy must be implemented to prevent a worst-case scenario like the one that led to the civil war following the American invasion of 2003. Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of the militias are the main challenges that await Iraq’s future. To be more effective, they must be followed by a reconciliation policy as well as judicial mechanisms for serious cases of Human Rights infringements. In 2004–2005, the failure of such a process led to the bloody clashes that have affected Iraq in the last twelve years.

A Central Piece in the Iraqi Political Milieu

Pending this outcome, some militias that are supported by powerful political parties keep trying to interfere in the inner politics of the country in order to ensure their survival. This strategy had already been observed before, as when in 2014 for example, a minister of Interior was appointed that served the interests of some militias. Some Popular Mobilization Units are now eyeing the coming parliamentary elections on May 12 of this year. Legally speaking, militias cannot present any candidates, hence many military leaders with political ambitions have resigned in order to participate in the elections. Some have united into an important coalition called the “Mujahiddin Coalition”, later rebranded the Fatah Alliance. It could play an important role in the elections. “PMUs are waiting to see in which direction the wind is going to blow to align themselves with the candidate that has the best chances of representing their interests in parliament” explains Dylan O’Driscoll, expert and researcher at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute.

The temptation is indeed strong for some actors to attempt interfering al-Abadi’s policy of strengthening of government institutions. Within the Prime Minister’s own party, the Da’awa movement, Nuri al-Maliki the former Prime Minister, has the support of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia against his rival. Al-Maliki is considered responsible by many for the exacerbation of intersect tensions that led to the disaster of 2014. He also relies on a vast web of patronage relations characterized by its corruption and sectarian nature. Meanwhile, the Sunnis, disorganized by the fighting that marked the areas where they reside, are calling for a postponement of the elections in order to allow for a return of the IDPs to ensure their votes will be counted. Some of their representatives are calling on al-Abadi to split his party in two in order to join him in a truly multi-sectarian coalition.4

In the last months, political coalitions have formed and fallen at a high rate, sometimes leading to unusual situations: two leaders from the same party are running on two different lists and Shia movements are allying with communists. Recently, Haider al-Abadi’s coalition, this latter having engaged his campaign under the motto of inclusion, State institution strengthening, fighting for justice and against corruption, has paradoxically struck a bargain with the Fatah Alliance, leading to harsh criticism from Muqtada al-Sadr. But this alliance did not last more than three days and shed light on the limits of al-Abadi’s popularity. Beyond intrigues, the main issue is to determine whether the alliance between the militias’ pressure groups and the politicians will facilitate the PMU’s integration within the Iraqi institutions, notably the military one, or whether it will have the opposite outcome, generating further instrumentalization of those institutions by actors under foreign influence.

The Popular Mobilization Forces are henceforth a central piece in the Iraqi political milieu and even more so within the inner rivalries between Shia political figures. The victor of this power struggle will be in position to determine the evolution of post-IS Iraq. That is, if such an afflicted country will perpetuate its communitarian fault lines or will, on the contrary, manage to demobilize its sectarian militias and strengthen its institutions in an inclusive manner. It seems clear that the cessation of foreign interference will be the first step towards such an outcome.

1It should be noted that the training of paramilitary militias, a process that was supported by the Iraqi parliament through a decree introduced by former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is illegitimate according to article 9 of the Iraqi constitution.

2This number was given to us in an interview by Abu Mustafa Imami, deputy-commander of the Popular Mobilization Force of the Northern-Iraq Frontline.

3Interestingly enough, this argument is not unanimously shared amongst the Hashd. Another spokesperson that we interviewed, Mr. Sayyid Ali Hashim, representative of the Hashd al-Shaabi in Tuz Khurmato, insisted that the parliament is the legal body that must decide the fate of his coalition. This is even more surprising as they are both from the same militia, the Badr Organization. They also differ on the danger that the so-called “White Flag” organization might represent (a rebel group that appeared recently in the outskirts of Tuz Khurmato). The former sees it as an existential threat to Iraq’s stability, the latter as an inoffensive organization.

4Interview with Dylan O’Driscoll.