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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / International Relations and Security

In Iraq, the PMF’s day of reckoning approaches

Three years ago, Iraqi Shia leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani declared war on ISIS and called for the formation of militias, collectively known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), to defeat the group.

Today, the military campaign against ISIS is approaching its conclusion. After the battle of Mosul, it is clear that the Islamic State – as a territorial entity at least – will soon be relegated to the annals of history as an existential threat to Iraq. Yet the future is far from secure. The sole basis of unity among the many militias that comprise the PMF was the shared fight against ISIS, and the Iraqi state is ill-equipped to contend with a future in which this precarious unity does not exist.

The greatest challenge to the stability of the Iraqi state south of the Kurdistan region is the decentralization of security. Through the PMF, a state-sanctioned collection of approximately 40 armed militias, the campaign against ISIS gained a military cohesiveness unique in Iraq’s post-2003 history. The necessity of the PMF was driven by the Iraqi Army’s failure to confront existential threats, due to its endemic corruption and incompetence. Furthermore, the army is made up of only 48,000 active soldiers, and the PMF’s additional 60,000 fighters (a conservative estimate) were needed in order to defeat ISIS.

Yet the PMF consists largely of overtly sectarian Shia militias, and this sectarian baggage tainted the enterprise. Moreover, despite the veneer of unity, the PMF remains divided ideologically. Its militias include Iranian proxies, pro-Maliki elements, Sistani loyalists, and the Sadrists, each of which have retained their own political agenda. No single person or group is able to control the force as a whole – including Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the cleric who promulgated the fatwa (religious ruling) that led to the PMF’s formation. The government in Baghdad has found it difficult, if not impossible, to restrain these militias and prevent abuses against civilians. And yet the militias remain immensely powerful, given that they are now indispensable to implement the will of the central government.

Given that Iraq’s Shia are the most influential sectarian group in post-2003 Iraq, why have Shia groups failed to fully integrate into official government and military institutions? Simply put: the existing government institutions have proven woefully insufficient as an outlet for the wide-ranging spectrum of Shia political power, and so since 2003, the militias have remained independent to ensure their representation.

The Iraqi Security Forces’ (ISF) inability to provide security was the impetus for expanding the role of the PMF, but the intra-sectarian conflicts generated by the PMF’s rise will endure long beyond the end of ISIS. Many of the militias within the PMF have relatively little common ground with one another, and some have a history of conflict: Muqtada as-Sadr’s Mahdi Army fought with Nouri al-Maliki’s Da’wa Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq when the latter two controlled the Iraqi government. Though the government prevailed in 2008, the bad blood between the two sides remains.

Given the militias’ renewed recruitment since 2014, their ubiquitous armaments, and their ambitious leaders, these conflicts will continue without a serious commitment on both sides to disarm. For the militias espousing Iraqi nationalist sentiments, such as the Sadrists and groups loyal to Sistani, disarmament and reintegration is certainly feasible. However, integrating groups that take orders directly from Tehran, such as Asa’ib ahl al-Haq and the Badr Brigades, could compromise the ISF’s integrity. Reintegration must be conducted very carefully to avoid importing competing loyalties. However, such a solution depends on a willingness to be reintegrated, and this willingness differs significantly between groups.

For the moment, the Iraqi state has granted the PMF official status as a military force, though it is prohibited from contesting elections as a bloc. Yet this official recognition, and the PMF’s nominal subjugation to the prime minister’s office, does little to change the actual balance of power on the ground. The allegiances of the PMF’s constituent militias rest with competing political centers of gravity. As a result, the rationale for cooperation will eventually dissipate, and internal divisions that have lain dormant will reemerge. The most obvious cleavage, given the clear struggle for authority, will be between the PMF collectively on one side and the Iraqi state on the other.

There is already evidence of tension between the state and the PMF. The PMF has not shied away from explicitly disregarding orders originating from the central government, and has even come to the brink of engaging them in direct combat. Iraqi military top brass have voiced their concerns that the PMF will attempt to take advantage of the ISF’s weakened state if their political interests are not represented. Given the fractious nature of the PMF itself, however, it is difficult to conceive of a postbellum scenario in which all the constituent militias are satisfied. Hardliners have called for the institutionalization of the PMF along the lines of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Iran, which operates beyond the control of the state. Conversely, Iraqi nationalists within the PMF prefer integration into the ISF. Whichever view prevails, the future of the PMF will shape the Iraqi political landscape for the foreseeable future.

In Lebanon and Iran, groups such as Hezbollah and the IRGC effectively hold veto power in domestic affairs. However, they grant deference to democratic politics and pluralism, so long as it does not affect their core interests. The fundamental difference between these organizations and the PMF is that the latter does not follow a unified political logic, and thus is prone to unpredictable or irrational behavior. Whereas Hezbollah and the IRGC are shrewd political actors that time and again have proven their pragmatism in pursuit of maximizing their influence, there can be no guarantee that the PMF, with its multitude of internal divisions and competing interests, will act in a similarly measured fashion.

In terms of achieving lasting stability in Iraq, the destruction of ISIS means little without a clear plan for the future role of the PMF. Despite the militias’ politically corrosive influence, the Iraqi state remains forced to rely upon this agglomeration of ideologically disparate militias. These political divergences have been contained by the immediate threat of an external enemy, but without such a rallying cry there is little incentive for cooperation. In the absence of a comprehensive plan for the political and military future of the PMF’s constituent militias, the political independence of the Iraqi government itself is in jeopardy.