Today, the status of Iraqi armed groups remains ambiguous despite Baghdad’s attempts to integrate them into the military command structure — a situation that highlights the complex, multifaceted, and poorly-understood roles they will play in Iraq’s political, social, and military development after ISIS.
This article was originally published at the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC), as part of a weekly column discussing security and humanitarian developments in Iraq.
Two days after ISIS swept into Mosul in June 2014, Iraq’s highest Shia religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urged the country’s politicians and civilian population to rally around the state. Speaking directly to the country’s youth, he declared that “the fight against [ISIS] is a sacred defense….Whoever of you sacrifices himself to defend his country and his family and their honor will be a martyr.” Tens of thousands of young men stepped forward to answer Sistani’s fatwa, formally coalescing into the Hash’d al-Sha’abi, or Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) created by then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Today, the PMU is an inadequately-understood conglomeration of fighting units that has been condemned as generally sectarian, violently divisive, and Iranian-backed since its foundation.
However, the narrative of the PMU’s development, composition, and function in Iraq’s counter-ISIS struggle illustrates a more multifaceted organization. Today, there are officially 140,000 men registered in 60-70 groups – many of which object to the term “militia” as de-legitimizing – each fighting under the PMU umbrella but with varying funding sources, patrons, and goals. As Jack Watling thus concluded in The Atlantic, “it is better to treat the PMU less as institution, and more as a struggle for influence that will decide Iraq’s future….” A closer examination of the PMU’s origins within Iraq’s pre-June 2014 socio-political context highlights their complexity, and points to potential future roles for these armed groups in territories liberated from militant control.
Most analysts today recognize that Iraq’s non-state armed groups are key to the fight against ISIS and are powerbrokers within the country’s shattered political landscape. The weakness of the Iraqi state and military after June 2014 provided space in which these groups proliferated – building on their legacies within the past decade’s sectarian tumult. Yet, the PMU’s status remains ambiguous despite Baghdad’s attempts to integrate them into the military command structure – a situation that ultimately underscores the complexity of Iraq’s post-ISIS governance challenge and the deep transformations wrought on Iraqi society over the past two and a half years.
Divisive Origins: Shia Mobilization before June 2014
The process by which the PMU emerged as an officially-sanctioned organization in summer 2014 exemplified divisions between Shia armed groups that had emerged over the previous decade. Sistani’s call to arms coalesced dozens of pre-existing and emerging armed groups into a recognizable body. Yet, the PMU has never functioned as a truly unified entity. The mobilization in the summer of 2014 exacerbated fault lines cleaving across Shia communities in Iraq, most significantly between Iranian-backed organizations and Iraq-focused groups. Although Tehran offered assistance to counter-ISIS forces in the days following Mosul’s loss, Sistani presented a national vision. His wording focused on Iraq’s citizens, describing the need to confront terrorism writ large and repeating that “the Sunnis are ourselves, not just our brothers.” He urged volunteers to exercise force strictly within the legal framework, and made clear that arms should be carried solely by “the hands of the state.” Calling on authorities to dismantle armed groups that fell outside the legal framework, his fatwa was as much a warning to Iran and its confederates in Iraq to step back as it was a response to military developments.
Rapid mobilization under Sistani’s Iraq-centric rhetoric, however, contradicted the competing visions of Shia resistance present during the PMU’s creation. Some units created after the fatwa’s declaration sought to seize the opportunity to secure funding or to protect neighborhoods and holy sites. Yet, many of the Shia armed groups that coalesced under the PMU umbrella had existed prior to the ISIS incursion, and around the time of Mosul’s fall had already been consolidating support and influence in anticipation of that year’s elections. For example, in February 2014, groups including Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), Sadr’s Promised Day Brigades, and Badr had started to organize politically and militarily in Diyala Province, along with other areas north and southwest of Baghdad. On 22 March 2014, ISIS infiltration into Diyala prompted unidentified Shia armed groups to seize districts within the provincial capital, Baquba, before Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) could regain control. According to local reports, some Shia armed groups burned mosques, destroyed civilian homes, and allegedly carried out extra-judicial killings while chanting sectarian slogans.
The narrative of the PMU’s development, composition, and function in Iraq’s counter-ISIS struggle illustrates a more multifaceted organization than that portrayed in the media.
These developments highlighted political rivalries between various Shia factions and the extent to which individual groups were willing to go to garner influence. On 26 March, prominent Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr denounced the violence in Baquba, describing the perpetrators (including members of his own organization present there) as “followers of the dictator” – a thinly-veiled reference to Maliki’s incitement of armed activity against Sunni communities. These comments underscored Sadr’s nationalist position ahead of the April 2014 elections, distancing his bloc politically from violence perpetrated by groups like AAH or Badr. His position also evinced a deeper attempt to pivot international focus away from his position almost a decade earlier as head of the Mahdi Army, which had resisted US occupation forces and Maliki’s government. Echoing the language that Sistani would later employ, Sadr called upon his “true” followers to respect and protect all Iraqis.
Meanwhile, AAH leader Qais Khazali introduced the slogan, “Protectors and Builders,” thus casting his organization as the guardians of Iraq’s Shia communities and assuming a more overtly sectarian tone. Prior to ISIS’s incursions into Mosul, AAH and organizations of its ilk –including Badr and Kata’ib Hezbollah – had been funneling fighters and resources to support Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. In September 2013, rumors indicated that units from AAH, along with Badr and Hezbollah could be gathered to form a special security division in Baghdad under Maliki’s purview (traditionally, Hezbollah focused on military operations, first against the US occupation forces, and then in neighboring Syria to support Assad’s regime – it historically did not seek to influence internal Iraqi politics). Iranian-backed armed groups had, by the time Mosul fell in June 2014, already mobilized significant military resources in parts of Iraq and Syria that were quickly re-focused to counter ISIS advances toward Baghdad.
In short, the PMU’s establishment helped to formalize existing divisions between major Shia armed groups and political blocs – and the organization today has come to embody the many cleavages that shape Iraq’s broader religious and sectarian landscape. On the battlefield, the Shia elements within the PMU can be broadly categorized into three general groups with competing visions for Iraq’s political future – followers of Iran, Sistani, and Sadr, respectively – in addition to a fourth element comprising non-Shia units drawn from Sunni, Yazidi, Christian, and other minority populations.
The Iran-backed armed groups: competing with the state
Iranian-backed groups have emerged as the best-equipped Shia armed groups on Iraq’s battlefield, both militarily and politically. Of these entities, the Badr Organization – founded in the 1980s in Iran and today headed by Hadi al-Ameri – has emerged as the most powerful group with links to Tehran. Other factions include AAH, Hezbollah, Saraya al-Khorasani, and Harakat al-Nujaba, all of which adhere to Iran’s interpretation of the wilayat-e faqih doctrine – that political affairs be ruled by a Shia jurist “Supreme Leader.” With close ties to the Iranian government and its Special Forces, these groups enjoy access to heavy weaponry, intelligence both from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Iraqi government, and embedded Iranian advisors – and have proven their battlefield effectiveness against ISIS.
The Badr Organization’s prominence as a parallel force within both Iraqi military and political affairs highlights its aspirations post-ISIS. Since 2014, Ameri has emerged as a strong influencer of policy in Baghdad, serving as transportation minister under Maliki and, more recently, as the overall commander of the PMU. To-date, Badr is the only armed group to exercise political control over an entire province (Diyala), a position strengthened in May 2015 after Badrist politician Muthanna al-Tamimi was elected governor. Today, some commentators have identified Ameri as a potential candidate for Prime Minister in the upcoming 2018 elections – a development that would likely enrage some Sunni politicians and communities. Yet, unlike groups like AAH, which have earned notoriety for being particularly brutal, Badr’s high-level leadership includes nationalists who may be willing to compromise with Baghdad – and integrate into the future state apparatus.
In November 2016, Ameri illustrated his political clout in Baghdad by pressuring Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to allow PMU forces into Tal Afar, a town west of Mosul along the Iraq-Syria border. While the Iraqi government had originally planned to create a “horseshoe” around Mosul – leaving a corridor via Tal Afar through which ISIS militants could withdraw – Ameri convinced Baghdad to complete Mosul’s encirclement and, by default, establish a line of Iranian proxy control running from Diyala through Tal Afar to Syria; Badr now has forces. While many analysts (including this author) predicted that the PMU’s drive toward Tal Afar may have been motivated by a desire for revenge against Sunni Turkmen seen as ISIS sympathizers, it appears today that Ameri’s primary objective was rather to secure the town’s airfield and supply routes – specifically the highway running west into Syria. Ameri has shown his ability to reshape Iraqi military strategy elsewhere, including during the June 2015 push into Anbar, when he shifted resources away from Ramadi to Fallujah – a move interpreted as following Tehran’s strategic outlook.
The Tal Afar experience points to the future role Iranian-backed groups like Badr might play at the nexus between Syria’s conflict, Iraq’s political establishment, and Iran’s regional machinations. As Iraq analyst Kirk Sowell noted in 2015, “[Badr’s prominence] symbolizes how Iraqis’ hopes for a democratic country governed by the rule of law have given way to a political system that is expressly sectarian and increasingly resembles a garrison state.” If Ameri’s popularity holds, his group could act as a kingmaker in upcoming elections – a position that would allow him, and his Iranian backers, to at once maintain influence within the post-ISIS settlement-making process and facilitate ongoing support for the Assad regime in Syria.
At the provincial level, Iranian proxy influence could fuel a demographic shift. In Diyala, for example, Badr has been accused of cleansing the province’s majority Sunni population and carrying out retribution attacks – a claim refuted by the Human Rights Ministry, which is headed by Badrist politician Mohammed Mahdi al-Bayati. Other organizations, including AAH, have been accused of committing similar or worse abuses across northern Iraq. Maliki, who has also been rumored to be considering a run for Prime Minister in 2018, enjoys close ties to AAH despite its alleged brutality; in April 2014 parliamentary elections, AAH ran in alliance with Maliki’s State of Law party, and Maliki has previously stated that “[the group] has committed no crimes…and is welcome to play a part in Iraq’s public life.”
Essentially, while Iranian-backed groups have become the mightiest non-state Shia forces on Iraq’s battlefields, their role inside Iraq may destabilize the country’s post-ISIS development. In places like Tal Afar, their actions have not necessarily served Baghdad’s best interests; in the political sphere, their growing influence and alliance with spoiling figures like Maliki could undermine ethno-sectarian reconciliation. How these groups wield their influence after ISIS is extirpated will, to a great extent, shape Iraq’s political future.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani: protecting the “civic state”
Armed groups loyal to Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have widely opposed the growing influence exerted by forces sympathetic to Iran, in both the military and political spheres. When he issued the 2014 fatwa, Sistani and the Marja’iyah – Iraq’s Shia clerical establishment in Najaf – did not intend to empower organizations under Tehran’s influence. In 2015, rumors emerged that Sistani had written an excoriating letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, decrying Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps Qods Force commander Qassem Solemani (who directs Iranian Special Forces operations abroad) for disrespecting Iraq’s sovereignty and acting as the country’s de facto military chief of staff. Fighting groups loyal to Sistani – colloquially known as “shrine militias,” referring to the holy shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala – include influential elements like the Imam Ali Brigade, Ali al-Akhbar Brigade, and Abbas Division, whose commanders espouse a nationalist vision that focuses on the Iraqi state and opposes foreign interference. As Adil Talib, a former officer in Saddam Hussein’s army who now oversees logistical operations for the Ali al-Akhbar Brigade, told The Atlantic: “the Brigade fights for Iraq. It is a national struggle….There is no difference between us and the army.”
Since 2003, Sistani and his followers have preached support for a constitutional order that respects Iraq’s diverse ethnic, religious, and sectarian communities – although, as the International Crisis Group’s Joost Hiltermann notes, “they may have thought [such an arrangement] the best guarantee for the survival of Shia dominance.” Nevertheless, Sistani’s adherents viewed the emergence of non-state armed groups, and the sectarian bloodletting they sparked after Saddam Hussein’s ouster, as an existential threat to Iraq’s long-term stability. Sistani’s call to arms against ISIS represented for many Iraqis a new assertion of power from the Marja’iyah – a move that received widespread support from communities frustrated by the Baghdad government’s corruption, weakness, and inefficiency. While some Iraqi Shia look enviously upon Iran’s internal stability and outward regional power, Sistani has remained steadfast in his opposition to Tehran – or any foreign interference in Iraq’s political development.
This Iraq-focused position has translated beyond the battlefield into the Marja’iyah’s support for Abadi’s ill-fated anti-corruption reform effort launched in August 2015. In the weeks preceding Abadi’s initiative, Sistani urged Iraqi politicians and the population to assist the Prime Minister’s efforts – an effort rare for a figure like Sistani who ideologically opposes direct intervention in politics by the religious establishment. In one critical statement Sistani warned that if “true reform is not realized, Iraq could be dragged to partition and the like, God forbid.” He concluded by explaining that “the Marja’iyah hoped that the political class that came to power through the ballot box would administer the country correctly and that major problems requiring the intervention of the Marja’iyah…would not happen. Unfortunately, things happened differently.”
“The Brigade fights for Iraq. It is a national struggle….There is no difference between us and the army.”
Sistani’s ability to shape Iraq’s political development had its limits in 2015. While his support for Abadi helped to limit the space in which the Prime Minister’s opponents could maneuver, spoilers within the Da’wa Party – including Maliki – managed to operate behind the scenes to undermine political support and will for reform. Chatham House’s Haydar al-Khoei explained the ensuing impasse thus: “Unlike his other interventions which had an immediate impact, his calls for reform were met with strong resistance by an entrenched, corrupt elite which has successfully blocked any meaningful reform to maintain their privileged status.”
Yet, Sistani’s position within Iraq’s security and political discourse represents a significant bulwark against increasing Iranian influence in the country’s development post-ISIS. Although ageing (he is 86 years old, prompting some analysts to worry that Iran will seek to fill his position with a sympathetic figurehead), the Marja’iyah that produced Sistani will maintain its financial, ideological, and political independence through its selection of a successor. Najaf will likely remain an important voice for a future “civil state” based on “respect for the law and the constitution, human rights, and equality,” as Sistani described in 2013.
Accordingly, Sistani has urged his followers to work alongside the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. Sistani’s followers supported the 26 November PMU law, which sought to better regulate the organization’s command structure and activity, and have generally acted as a counter-balance to the PMU’s pro-Iranian elements. Ultimately, though, fighters in the “shrine militias” do not necessarily echo this sentiment, noting that they answer first to Sistani, then to Baghdad. As such, these groups could remain after the ISIS threat has passed to oppose any proliferation of Iranian-backed paramilitary power.
Moqtada al-Sadr: A transformed political opportunist
Today, forces loyal to Sistani’s Najafi ideology remain Iraq’s strongest domestic bulwark against Iranian influence, although this role could further highlight limits to Baghdad’s authority. However, between Tehran’s and Baghdad’s (or, as the case may be, Najaf’s) spheres of influence lies the so-called Peace Brigades, loyal to firebrand Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. These groups have a long and complicated history with Iran and Baghdad, but today generally adhere to the federal government. In recent months, Sadr has established himself as the voice of popular anger regarding government inefficiency and corruption – a position that suggests a desire to move from the role of paramilitary to political leader.
After it became clear that Abadi’s reform agenda had stalled in summer 2016, Sadr began to push the Prime Minister to renew efforts to install a technocratic cabinet and pursue corruption in Baghdad. He mobilized his Shia support base, reigniting protests from the previous year against government inefficiency – albeit with different, more sectarian actors. These maneuvers were motivated at once by political ambition and a need to carve out new relevancy for the Sadrist movement. Sadr’s Peace Brigades alone were unable to secure Baghdad after ISIS’s lightning advance in summer 2014 – creating a security void that more militarily successful groups like AAH or Badr could fill. In an effort to demonstrate his indispensability, Sadr boosted his popularity on the Iraqi street by asserting leadership over the country’s populist political discourse. As the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack explained, “Sadr saw that Iraqis were unhappy with the government and that [the Marja’iyah] had demanded reform. By claiming the protest narrative…he asserted leadership over the country’s populist political discourse.”
Sadr’s importance in the context of Iraq’s paramilitary mosaic lies in the political role he has managed to carve in Baghdad. He derives power from the frustration of millions willing to mobilize on his command – as demonstrated when his supporters stormed Baghdad’s International Zone in April 2016. His historic role as head of the Mahdi Army in 2003-2008 – a group responsible for some of the worst excesses during the country’s civil war in 2006-2008, targeting US occupation forces and allegedly operating death squads that murdered Sunni Arab civilians – makes many in Baghdad and Washington wary of his anti-Western, anti-secular rhetoric. The Mahdi Army’s resurrection through the Peace Brigades provides military clout to underscore political ambition, and these forces have operated alongside Sunni tribal units in Anbar and adopted at least a semantically less-sectarian tone. Moreover, Sadr’s activist position (al-hawza al-natiqa) has brought him into conflict with Sistani and the Marja’iyah in Najaf, who strictly adhere to the quietist school (al-hawza al-samita) of non-interference.
Sadr’s rebranding process offers some insight into his future role in the Iraqi political discourse. During protests in spring 2016, his supporters chanted “na’am na’am l-al-Iraq” (yes, yes, to Iraq) and waved only Iraqi flags rather than the religious, regional, or paramilitary banners seen in other demonstrations. In War on the Rocks, Renad Mansour and Michael David Clark characterized Sadr’s evolution thus: “[He] increasingly transcends sectarian calculations. Today, his fiercely independent Iraqi nationalism, based in popular values, is critical of foreign intervention, be it Iranian, American, or any international actor….This is remarkable for a man once depicted as a tool of the Iranians.” On the battlefield, this ideological position has fueled conflict between Sadr’s forces and other foreign-backed armed groups. For example, in 2015 and 2016, sporadic clashes occurred between the Peace Brigades and AAH in Baghdad and al-Muqdadia, respectively.
While it remains unclear whether Sadr’s influence can positively transform Iraq’s political process – particularly as he faces fierce opposition from other Shia figures, including Maliki – these trends are encouraging. For example, On January 10, Sadr offered a 35 point proposal to the Iraqi Parliament advocating for election reform, claiming that current election law was not “acceptable” to the people. Three days later, Sadr called on his followers to protest the government’s suppression of opposition voices, as well as ongoing security challenges in the capital. These and other reformist efforts illustrate Sadr’s ability to act as a check on both the federal government and powerful elites seeking to undermine democratic processes. Whether he can maintain this position without fatally challenging state authority will remain a critical question at the heart of his developing political activism.
Monitoring armed group development after ISIS
Ultimately, many observers have been quick to condemn each of the three forms of Shia PMU – pro-Iran, pro-Sistani, and pro-Sadr – for jeopardizing Iraq’s future political stability. However, the various ideologies, military action, and political activism espoused by each bloc points to a deeper competition for control of the country’s socio-political helm.
Baghdad has, since the organization’s creation, grappled with the question of what can be done with the PMU in a post-ISIS Iraq. The PMU law that passed through parliament on 26 November 2016 sought, in part, to regulate political tensions incipient in the divisions between armed groups – turning the overall PMU organization into an official security institution structured similarly to the anti-terrorism apparatus. One PMU spokesman, Ahmed al-Asadi, explained that, as a result of the legislation, “All factions will be completely separated from their current political and religious affiliations….” Such assurances can do little to disentangle Iraqi politics from the deep roots that many armed groups have spread throughout the country’s political system since long before ISIS took Mosul. Yet, a more comprehensive understanding of the role played by various PMU elements in Iraq’s struggle against ISIS – as well as these groups’ political visions – could inform efforts to integrate certain units into the Iraqi Army, under the purview of the Defense and Interior Ministries.
The relationship between Iraq’s various PMU elements, the state’s future development, and the Iraqi population is an evolving narrative. What future roles do armed actors envision filling in liberated territories, particularly in areas disputed between two or more groups? Will post-liberation recovery in areas with strong paramilitary presence be conducted for the sake of political gain or for the local community’s welfare and rehabilitation? To what extent are local paramilitaries accountable to the populations they purport to govern? These questions should ultimately remain central as policymakers and analysts seek to understand how Iraq’s armed groups may transform the country’s post-ISIS political, social, and ethno-religious landscape.