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Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units

PMC members chant before going into battle during the offensive to liberate Mosul, in Mosul, Iraq, 31 October 2016. Photo Carolyn Cole

During a sermon on Friday 13 June 2014, the Shiite religious authority in the city of al-Najaf urged people at all levels of Iraqi society to help defend the country against terrorist groups. The religious authority headed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani stressed through its spokesman Sheikh al-Karbalai, who delivered the sermon, that “the responsibility of fending off and fighting terrorists lies with everybody, and is not limited to one sector or party”. During the same sermon, al-Karbalai called for the kifa’i or defensive jihad, which prompted thousands of Shiites to join the security services. A security expert estimated that the percentage of Sunni volunteers was only two per cent.

The military mobilization was in response to the fall of Mosul, the governorate of Ninawa and several cities in the governorates of Salah al-Din, Diyala, al-Anbar and Kirkuk to the extremist Sunni organization Islamic State (ISIS), following the withdrawal of the Iraqi army and federal police forces from these areas. This was the narrative of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), which consider the directives of al-Sistani to be their real constitution.

PMC Founder, Godfather

Before al-Sistani issued the kifa’i jihad fatwa (religious edict), Nuri al-Maliki, then prime minister, announced the day after the fall of Mosul the formation of a parallel military force in Iraq, saying that “a number of governorates have formed new brigades and will send them to the battleground, with each governorate sending one full brigade. These brigades have been formed to counter the threat facing Iraq.” Two days earlier, on 11 June 2014, a ministerial committee tasked with managing the crisis issued a press release calling for ‘the formation of regiments consisting of volunteers and popular mobilization forces to support the security services’.

The establishment of the Popular Mobilization Directorate was announced on 15 June 2014 on the orders of al-Maliki, according to Iraqi national security adviser Falah al-Fayyad. A committee was subsequently established in each governorate, and each of the committees was chaired by the police chief of that governorate with the purpose of regulating the recruitment process. On 18 June 2014, the Popular Mobilization Commission (PMC) and then the Central Administration Directorate were established following official Order No. 47. This angered political partners, including the Kurdistan Alliance and the Iraqi National Forces Alliance, which fear that the PMUs have a hidden agenda and will not be dissolved once they have achieved their objective of defeating ISIS.

Al-Maliki said during an interview with the electronic daily Ilaf that “I am the one who established the PMC.” In the same interview, he said that “my idea about the establishment of the PMC was initiated in 2012”. This was when the armed confrontations in Syria were escalating, causing controversy in Iraq. However, the PMC’s official website says: ‘Upon the blessed fatwa issued on 14 June 2014, Cabinet Decision No. 301 for 2014 has ordered the establishment of the PMC.’ This, however, did not prevent Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Shiite Badr Organization and the PMC brigades, from confirming that it was indeed al-Maliki who was behind the establishment of the PMC.

PMC, Iraqi’s Version of Iran’s Paramilitary Basij Forces

The PMC includes scores of Shiite militias, many of which were originally formed following the US occupation of Iraq in 2003. These include Badr Corps, Asaib Ahl-al-Haqq, al-Nujaba Movement, Kataib Hizballah. Other groups were formed after the fall of Mosul to ISIS and al-Sistani’s fatwa. In other words, PMC fighters can be divided into militias that already existed and recruits who joined the PMC in answer to the fatwa issued in al-Najaf. The majority of these recruits are considered to be supporters of al-Sistani.

The PMC is divided into three main groups. The first consists of the militias that are affiliated with the Iranian Vilayat-e Faqih (a theory in Shia Islam that holds that Islam gives an Islamic jurist custodianship over people, which the Iranian regime uses to control Iran and Shiites all over the world) and that share a number of ideological and geopolitical goals. This group accounts for approximately two thirds of the PMC forces, some members of which served and continue to serve as fighters in Syria. The second group is the Peace Brigades affiliated with Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, and the third is the faction affiliated with the Shiite religious authority in al-Najaf. According to Sayyid Ali Aghwan, the al-Sadr group and the followers of Vilayat-e Faqih have different goals and ideologies. He added that the Peace Brigades have Islamist, Arab leanings, unlike the followers of Vilayat-e Faqih, who are completely linked to Iran. On the other hand, the followers of Vilayat-e Faqih in Iraq and the forces that have mobilized to defend the Husayniyat and other Shiite holy shrines have differences because their religious loyalties are divided between Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and al-Sistani. The group that is aligned with Iran dominates the PMC, mainly through Hadi al-Amiri and Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis, the PMC’s deputy chairman. Nevertheless, these militias share one goal, which is to defeat ISIS in Iraq and retake all areas under its control.

The Shiite PMC

According to former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, he established the PMC not only because it was necessary to defeat ISIS, but also because he realized that the war was going to be a sectarian one, the signs of which became clear in Syria in 2012. Al-Maliki also accused Sunni and Kurdish forces in the Iraqi army of not fighting ISIS in 2014 when they were attacked by ISIS militants. Al-Maliki thus considered the PMC “a necessary” backup in case the Iraqi army collapsed. This is what he meant when he said that the idea of establishing the PMC originated in 2012.

Unlike al-Maliki, the religious authority in al-Najaf denies that the PMC is a sectarian force and reiterates that the fatwa was issued to all Muslims, irrespective of their sects. It also cites speeches given to fighters on how they should treat the residents of the areas liberated from ISIS.

This, however, has not prevented Sunni politicians from expressing resentment at the ineffective Sunni participation in the PMC. The Iraqi National Forces Alliance – which represents Sunni forces in the Iraqi parliament – submitted a request to Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi in late 2015 to increase the number of Sunni fighters in the PMC. Some Sunni politicians also claimed that Sunni fighters lack the necessary armament. As a gesture of good will, and in an attempt to remove any suspicion that the PMC is an exclusively Shiite force, the prime minister agreed to increase the number of Sunni fighters, but this has not been implemented on the ground.

The Future of the PMC

The ongoing discussions about the PMC imply that there are different possible scenarios for the future of Iraq in light of the intensifying debate in Baghdad, as well as in other Arab and international capitals. The cabinet announced in July 2016 that it would make the PMC a structured organization and turn it into an apparatus with a similar status to the Iraqi Counterintelligence Agency in terms of the training and equipment it received and the laws that legitimize its activities. This has, in effect, made the PMC independent of the existing military and security services while still reporting directly to the prime minister. The same cabinet decision affirmed that PMC affiliates will not be allowed to engage in political work and must cut any ties they have to political, partisan and social entities.

The decision has had political repercussions on the domestic and regional levels. On the domestic level, classical Shiite parties believe that it will curb the political ambitions of the PMC – for instance, their participation in the 2018 parliamentary elections. PMC militias such as the Badr Forces do not agree with this view, however, especially because the Badr Forces are involved in the political process in Iraq. For example, PMC spokesman Ahmad al-Asadi said in September 2016 that the PMC is a strategic project and it is important for the future of Iraq. He stressed that the PMC’s military action will not put limits on its political ambitions, statements that could be perceived to be in defiance of the cabinet’s decision.

The decision was also rejected by Sunni and Kurdish blocs. The main Sunni blocs believe that the PMC should serve as the nucleus of the Iraqi National Guards and that the government must dissolve the PMC, which they believe should consist of forces from across the governorates so that these forces can protect their governorates and maintain security there.

For its part, the Kurdish bloc believes that the presence of the PMC should end immediately after the liberation of Iraqi territories from ISIS, because the security and military forces affiliated with the federal government, as well as the Peshmerga forces, are capable of maintaining security and protecting Iraq in the future.

On the regional level, Saudi Arabia has called for the dissolution of the PMC, saying it is sectarian and targets Sunnis. Meanwhile, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates compare the PMC with ISIS and al-Nusra Front because of its terrorist activities.

In addition, several international reports allege that PMUs have committed atrocities against Sunnis. Amnesty International says it has evidence of ‘war crimes’, kidnappings and the murder of dozens of Sunni civilians by PMU forces during the liberation of Fallujah. As Donatella Rivera, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Adviser, put it, “Through its blessing of the militias […] it seems that the Iraqi government permits the committing of war crimes.” Human Rights Watch also reports abuses by PMUs, including the burning of houses in Fallujah. The report quotes two officials from al-Anbar governorate as saying that on 23 June the federal police and the PMU executed more than ten civilians from one of the local clans.

In contrast, Iran believes that its experience of and success in establishing the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Basij should be transferred to Iraq in order to maintain Iraq’s security and independence. General Mohsen Rafiq Dost, former general commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and one of the most prominent founders of the guards in 1979, said that he is ready to establish “the Iraqi Revolutionary Guards”, which will be similar to the Iranian version. Because the PMC is Shiite-dominated and linked ideologically to the Iranian leadership, it has been suggested that Iran is influencing Iraqi politics through the PMC.

Regional War in Iraq

The fact that the PMC is linked to regional parties and sees itself as part of the regional equation will only add to the fragility of the Iraqi political and social landscape, and will undermine and weaken the Iraqi central government. Hadi al-Amiri and later Akram al-Kabi, secretary general of the al-Nujaba Movement, announced a few days ago that they had received a direct request from the Syrian leadership to eradicate ISIS in Syria. These statements were followed by remarks by Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who expected that “PMC forces will be deployed in Syria”.

The involvement of the PMC in the ongoing war in Syria, whether approved by the Iraqi leadership or not, will involve Iraq in another international crisis because the PMC reports directly to the Iraqi prime minister. This could lead to new sectarian conflicts, with the different popular mobilization forces across the region fuelling the violence.