Shia Popular Mobilization Units in a Post-Islamic State Iraq: A Look at Peace Brigade Commander Shaykh Kazim al-Issawi
Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 4
The military campaign to conquer the northwestern Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State (IS) is advancing toward completion. At present, approximately 80 percent of the city — Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city and the Islamic State’s Iraqi capital — has been captured by the U.S. and Iraqi led coalition (al-Jazeera [Doha], April 30; al-Bayan [Baghdad], April 30; NRT News [Sulaimaniya], April 26). As the Mosul operation comes nearer to its end, the powerful Iraqi Shia cleric and political leader Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr is calling for the central government in Baghdad to present a plan for stabilizing and securing Mosul after IS (Rudaw [Erbil], April 24; al-Mada [Baghdad], February 20). Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr is the leader of a majority Shia socio-political movement, the Sadrist movement, that is seeking to promote Iraqi nationalism and cross-sectarian, cross-ethnic cooperation to address persistent corruption and government mismanagement in Baghdad. The Shia cleric also leads one of the most powerful Hashd Sha’abi (PMU-Popular Mobilization Units) organizations, Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigade), which is currently participating in the broader campaign to defeat IS and remove it from its remaining territory in Iraq (al-Sumaria [Baghdad], April 13; NRT News, March 23).
Shaykh Kazim al-Issawi is the overall military commander of the Peace Brigade and the chief of security for the Sadrist movement. Al-Issawi, 37, is a close friend and top advisor to Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr, serving in a variety of high-level roles — including strategist, military commander, and spokesman — for both the Peace Brigades and for the broader Sadrist movement (Facebook; YouTube, March 28, 2016; YouTube, March 27, 2016; YouTube, June 6, 2015; YouTube, November 26, 2014). A lifelong friend of Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr, al-Issawi rose through the ranks of the cleric’s first militia organization, the Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM), which was formed in 2003 after the Saddam Hussein government was dismantled by the U.S.-led Coalition (al-Bayan [Baghdad], July 2, 2016; YouTube, September 10, 2014).
Al-Issawi grew up in the large, Shia-majority Sadr City neighborhood in eastern Baghdad. By his early 20s, al-Issawi already began working for Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr. Reportedly serving as the cleric’s agent throughout the Shia-majority areas of Baghdad and central and southern Iraq, al-Issawi worked to recruit, mobilize and operationalize JAM constituent militias against the Coalition (al-Bayan [Baghdad], July 2, 2016; YouTube, September 10, 2014). He was one of the most effective JAM leaders, particularly in the area of Baghdad, and by 2008, al-Issawi was promoted to be the leader of the JAM successor militia Liwa al-Yawm al-Maw’ud (Promised Day Brigade).
The Promised Day Brigade was one of several Shia-majority armed opposition organizations, which the Coalition referred to as the “Special Groups,” that emerged from JAM after it was demobilized by Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr in 2008. The Promised Day Brigade was the only JAM successor organization to remain loyal to the overall command of Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr (YouTube, September 10, 2014). The Promised Day Brigade cooperated closely with other Special Groups that were under the influence and indirect command of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ expeditionary arm the Quds Force (IRGC-QF). Under al-Issawi’s command, the U.S. military considered the Promised Day Brigade to be one of the most effective and dangerous Shia organizations fighting Coalition forces in Iraq during the period between 2007 and 2011 (Associated Press, June 30, 2011; al-Basrah.net [Basra], November 10, 2010; al-Jazeera [Doha], September 11, 2011; Los Angeles Times, July 14, 2010).
Al-Issawi has also reportedly been a foreign diplomat for the Sadrist movement. He is believed to have been Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr’s envoy to the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the shrine city of Qom, located 125 kilometers (km) southwest of Tehran, where the clerical leaders of the Islamic Republic are based, as well as an envoy to the Shia movements in Lebanon (Ahewar [Baghdad], August 16, 2011; Jordan News [Amman], August 15, 2011).
The Peace Brigade
Al-Issawi asserts that the experience that he and his comrades gained from fighting the Coalition prepared them to combat IS, and the Peace Brigade was initially mobilized from fighters from the Promised Day Brigade as a rapid reaction force to protect Baghdad, Najaf, Samarra and Karbala in the immediate aftermath of IS’ capture of Mosul in June 2014 (YouTube, May 10, 2016; YouTube, September 10, 2014; Twitter, July 1, 2014). Following the initial mobilization of the Peace Brigade, al-Issawi’s first mission was to mobilize and oversee the participation of the Peace Brigade in the defense of Baghdad and the city of Samarra, approximately 30 km north of the capital (YouTube, May 8, 2016; YouTube, July 17, 2014). During this time period, al-Issawi was also the field commander for Peace Brigade operations to protect the Shia ethnic Turkmen majority city of Amerli, located approximately 180 km northwest of Baghdad in Samarra governorate (YouTube, September 10, 2014; YouTube, September 1, 2014; al-Alam [Tehran], August 29, 2014). The successful defense of Samarra and Amerli was accomplished by a coalition of PMU groups spearheaded by al-Issawi and the Peace Brigade, including with the support of the IRGC and U.S. airstrikes. Subsequently, the defense of the city was a victory used by the Peace Brigade to justify its expansion in the defense of all of Iraq (YouTube, April 20, 2016; Washington Post, February 17, 2015; YouTube, August 4, 2014).
Prior to the formation of the Peace Brigade, al-Issawi maintained a relatively low public profile for a field commander of his importance to the JAM organization. However, the Peace Brigade celebrated al-Issawi’s role as the commander of its operations in Samarra and Amerli (Sadreoon News [Baghdad], August 31, 2014). Al-Issawi was appointed to be the security chief of the city of Samarra, a de facto military governor, by Sayyid Muqtada in January 2016 (Salih Iraq [Baghdad], January 7, 2016). Since the defense of Samarra and Amerli, al-Issawi’s public profile has significantly increased to the point that he is presented as a faithful hero of Iraq, not just to its Shia community, and he is the subject of several Sadrist movement anashid (anthems) publicizing his role in the Peace Brigade’s campaign against IS. His position as a close friend and trusted advisor to Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr is also carefully promoted in these Peace Brigade’s anthems (YouTube, June 1, 2016; YouTube, February 7, 2015; YouTube, July 7, 2014).
Al-Issawi has also served as the spokesman for the Peace Brigade with the international media (al-Mada [Baghdad], February 20; Washington Post, April 26, 2016; Washington Post, August 31, 2014). He is increasingly becoming the chief spokesperson of the Sadrist movement’s political arm. Al-Issawi is developing a public persona based on speaking truth to power in the service of all Iraqis, and he also conducts outreach to the people from IS-controlled or formerly IS-controlled areas on behalf of Muqtada al-Sadr’s mission to achieve inter-communal reconciliation in Iraq (YouTube, April 5, 2016; YouTube, April 4, 2016).
Kazim al-Issawi is one of the most powerful and consequential political and military operatives in Iraq. He is one of the most powerful PMU leaders who is not directly controlled by the IRGC-QF, or working to implement walayat al-faqih (rule of the jurisprudent), which is the governing system in the Islamic Republic of Iran. For this reason, al-Issawi will be a pivotal leader in the looming battle over the role of the PMUs in Iraq after the defeat of the Islamic State, a conflict over whether IRGC-QF backed PMUs will actively seek to impose their will to shape the socio-politics and security of Iraqi Shia communities.
Al-Issawi’s role as a key advisor and confidant to Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr is also highly consequential to the future of Iraq. He is assisting the Iraqi Shia cleric in the development and outreach of a pan-sectarian, Iraqi nationalist political platform that is meant to be a counterweight to the IRGC-QF. In the event of an intensified confrontation between the Sadrist movement and PMU organizations closely tied to the IRGC-QF, al-Issawi will be the commander and overseer of the Sadrist movement’s military and political opposition to the IRGC-QF backed groups. The outcome of that intra-Shia conflict is likely to have a decisive effect on the socio-politics of the Iraqi Shia communities, and to strongly effect the future of Iraqi national politics, particularly inter-communal harmony and the country’s territorial integrity.