Iraq and the PMF
August 1, 2019
Iraq and the PMF
Iraq’s Prime Minister, Adil Abdul Mahdi, has recently issued a controversial decree to limit the powers of influential Iranian-backed Shiite militias, also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The decree is aimed to satisfy the U.S. amidst the mounting tensions between Iran and the United States. According to the decree, the PMFs are to be fully integrated into the armed forces or join political groups. Moreover, the decree also requires the closure of the group’s headquarters and economic offices as well as the removal of all checkpoints installed by their militiamen.
Popular Mobilization Forces at a Glance and Iran’s Influence in Iraq
Also known as Hashd ash-Shaʿabiin Arabic, the PMFs are the product of Iraq’s fragmented security forces in 2014. After the collapse of Iraq’s security forces in the fight against the Islamic State, initially over 60,000 fighters stepped in to secure Iraq. However, their hold on power and their pro-Iran stance have always been a divisive issue within Iraq while also creating problems with regards to Iraq’s relations with the United States. In terms of its composition, the PMFs contain three distinct factions: groups with allegiance to Ayatollah Khamanei, Ayatollah al-Sistani, and Muqtada al Sadr. Originally, seven paramilitary groups supported by the former Prime Minister, Nouri Al-Maliki, constituted the PMFs. These original seven constitutive groups included the Badr Organization, Asaib ahl al-Haq (AAH), Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Kata’ib al-Imam Ali, and Kata’ib Jund al-Imam. Their number has increased ever since. Although these forces were initially supposed to fall under the umbrella of state’s security services, many of these groups eventually took a different trajectory and followed an independent path while exerting influence on the Iraqi state.
Militias such as the Mahdi Army (affiliated with Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr) were formed independently of Iran while receiving Iranian backing subsequently. Other groups such as Badr Organization, Hezbollah in Iraq, and Jaysh al-Mukhtar were founded with the help of Iran. The militias’ impact on the everyday socio-political life in Iraq has been very palpable. Various Iraqi leaders are especially discontent with the PMFs for their mafia-like economic activities and unauthorized attacks on US forces in Iraq and neighboring countries.
These militias have accentuated Iran’s role in the Iraqi politics, eliciting reactions from the Americans. So much so that Joan Polaschik, the acting principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs in the US has recently said “some ‘rogue’ Iranian-backed militias plot against U.S. interests and plan operations that could kill Americans, coalition partners and Iraqis,” at a Senate hearing. She went on to say that “these groups monitor U.S. diplomatic facilities and continue to conduct indirect fire attacks”, hinting at the deep satisfaction of the Americans with the growing role of Iran in Iraq through these militias. Several recent unclaimed attacks on the bases in Iraq hosting US forces along with a site used by a US energy firm have raised the Americans’ fears of the involvement of pro-Iran militias.
Challenges of Integration
While the total number of PMF is estimated be more than 140,000 fighters at present, the top heads are still politically aligned with Iran despite the fact that they technically fall under the authority of Iraq’s prime minister. The decree by the prime minister has the potential to either reduce the risks from militias or have the reverse effect of consolidating their power depending on its implementation. The Iraqi leaders are considering withdrawing the PMFs to four canton areas: rural districts outside of Baghdad, Diyala Province, Samarra, the desert area between Karbala and the Saudi border; in essence, this translates into their withdrawal from Sunni-only areas. At present, the biggest challenge lies in redeployment; i.e., sending the Iraqi troops to the North to compensate for a security void that would be created by the withdrawal of the PMFs from this area. This scheme would leave fewer non-PMF units around Baghdad, making the capital more vulnerable to PMF pressure, creating another threat. Hence, in the short-run, implementation problems are likely to haunt Iraq.
In the grand scheme of things, the Iranian presence in Iraq through its influence on the PMFs cannot be overstated. While these forces have certainly helped stabilize Iraq in the face of the Islamic State’s advances, they have also created two primary problems for Baghdad: 1) paving the way for a greater Iranian political clout within the domestic Iraqi politics, creating sectarian tensions within the country 2) churning out problems for Iraq’s relations with the US. The fragile stability that Iraq has been enjoying lately owes a lot to the fine balance that Baghdad has been walking in its relations both with Iran and the US. The implementation of the decree by the Iraqi prime minister will shed light on the durability of this stability.