At the end of 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the defeat of Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, an achievement that has paved the way for a new challenge—that of controlling and integrating the powerful, expansive paramilitary groups of the Hashd al-Shaabi (PMU – Popular Mobilization Units), which helped secure the victory.
The PMU is made up of between 60 and 70 militias, with a combined command of approximately 140,000 fighters (EPIC, January 18, 2017). It came about as a result of Iraq’s efforts to dislodge IS, which in 2014 had raised its black flag in Fallujah and eventually came to claim territory from Mosul up to the edge of Baghdad.
While diverse, the PMU can roughly be divided into Iranian-backed Shia groups, which receive support and direction from Tehran and constitute the most powerful PMU consortium; Shia nationalists who oppose outside influence from Iran or elsewhere, and often follow Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani or Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr; and non-Shia militia, a small and diverse group that includes Sunni, Christian, Turkmen, Kurdish and Yazidi fighters, who often lean toward independence or greater autonomy from Baghdad.
The role of the PMU in a post-IS Iraq is a tricky question for the Iraqi government. Tackling it will likely determine the future of Iraqi security and politics, and will have a significant impact on the region.
The presence of Iranian-backed groups in Iraq is not a new phenomenon. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Iran began a strategic shift from conventional warfare to more indirect methods or “Islamic Warfare.” Accordingly, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force (IRGC-QF) was established to export the ideology of the Islamic Revolution regionally and internationally through the provision of training, funding and weapons, as well as strategic direction, to foreign extremist groups, turning them into Iranian proxies.
In the 1980s, the IRGC-QF supported the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which had been founded by exiled Iraqi Shia, and the group’s armed wing, the Badr Brigades, which engaged in cross-border attacks against Baathist leaders in Iraq. Years later, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iran’s IRGC extended its support to other Shia groups that opposed the U.S. military presence. These included Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, the Sadr-affiliated Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and Kataib Hizballah, a violent extremist group that Iran helped establish.
During this period, Iran also cultivated roots in Iraq’s political structure and assisted the United States in the formation of the “United Iraqi Alliance,” a Shia Islamist political coalition that included the Iranian-backed SCIRI, the Sadrist faction and the Dawa party. This political foothold enabled the appointment of SCIRI’s Bayan Jaber as interior minister. He in turn facilitated the placement of Iranian-backed Badr Brigades into Iraqi security forces and police forces (Congressional Research Service, June 4, 2009). Additionally, the Badr Brigades was renamed the Badr Organization and, while it maintained a paramilitary wing, transformed itself into a political party that currently holds 22 of 328 seats on the Iraqi parliament.
In 2011, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, combined with corruption in the Iraqi security forces and al-Maliki’s marginalization of Sunni Awakening (Sahwa) fighters, created a security vacuum that left the country vulnerable to IS. As IS expanded to the edge of Baghdad, al-Maliki established the Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC) as an umbrella organization for militia groups. Following a call to arms by Ayatollah al-Sistani, the number of militia fighters grew to over 100,000, and in November of 2016, the PMU was legally recognized as an independent body within Iraq’s security framework (Asharq al Awsat, November 27, 2017).
The Iranian proxies were strengthened by the flow of fighters and the allocation of government funds. They also benefited from Iranian provided weapons, training, equipment and intelligence from the IRGC-QF. The main Iranian proxies include Kataib Hezbollah, the Badr Organization, and AAH. Other militias, such as Harakat al-Nujaba (HN), were established for operations in Syria. Iranian proxies also worked to co-opt other smaller groups.
In addition, the leaders of Iranian-backed PMU militias influence the Popular Mobilization Committee through PMC Deputy Chairman Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a former leader of the Iranian-linked Badr Brigades. Muhandis served as an advisor to IRGC’s Quds Force Commander Qassim Suleimani and established the Kataib Hezbollah. His former Chief of Staff, Hadi al-Amiri, later became the leader of the Badr Organization and served as Iraq’s transportation minister, allegedly allowing Iranian overflights to supply Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with weapons (Niqash, March 22, 2012).
In 2017, the PMC received more than $1.63 billion from the Iraqi budget to be administered by Muhandis.  One militia fighter explained that Iranian-backed garrisons received preferential treatment from the Iraqi government—in the form of higher salaries and better overall administration—as well as receiving “armored vehicles, special artillery and Katyusha rockets, all things that other militias do not have” from Iran (Niqash, June 19, 2015).
Nationalist Shia and Non-Shia Groups
Paramilitaries loyal to Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei are of concern to many of Iraq’s Sunnis, Kurds, Turkmen, Yazidis and Christians, as well as ideologically nationalist Shias who associate with al-Sistani or al-Sadr.
Al-Sistani, who rejects outside support from Iran, established his militias primarily to protect Shia holy sites and liberate IS held territories. Such groups include Saraya al-Ataba al-Abbasiya, Saraya al-Ataba al-Hussainiya, Saraya al-Ataba al-Alawiya, Liwa Ali al-Akbar and the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (ISCI), which also associates itself with al-Sistani (SouthFront Analysis & Intelligence, August 27, 2017).
The other nationalist movement in Iraq is represented by al-Sadr, who was supported by Iran as the leader of the Mahdi Army from 2003 to 2010. He has since denounced Iranian influence in Iraq and embraced Iraqi nationalism, although his relationships and views have changed substantially over time and may evolve again. Like al-Sistani and other Shia clerics, al-Sadr has been critical of Iraqi militias that fight in Syria for al-Assad (al-Monitor, April 11, 2017). He currently presides over Saraya al-Salam (the Peace Brigades), which is a regeneration of the Mahdi Army.
This issue of Khamenei’s primacy versus Iraqi nationalism is a matter that changes with the political environment. For example, after a change in leadership, SCIRI began to ideologically shift away from Iran, as evidenced by its removal of the words “Islamic Revolution” from its name in 2007, after which it became the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (ISCI). ISCI’s changing loyalties were rejected by al-Amiri who later severed the Badr Organization from ISCI. Similarly, some Sadrists groups, such as Jaysh al-Muammal, realigned themselves to the Iranian-backed PMU (Middle East Forum).
Shifting loyalties and ideologies can ignite conflicts between and within sects, and al-Sadr’s past clashes with other Shia groups may portend the potential for intra-Shia conflict in the future. In 2008, Prime Minister al-Maliki’s Shia-led government unleashed Operation Charge of the Knights (Saulat al-Fursan) against al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Basra. Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam has also clashed with the Iranian-backed AAH in 2015 and 2016 (see Terrorism Monitor, April 29, 2016).
Iranian proxies and dominance also make Sunnis and other groups wary, some of which have found an unlikely advocate in al-Sadr. At the same time, it should be noted that some non-Shia groups are prone to outside alliances and influence that can also weaken the Iraqi state. For instance, the Nineveh Guard (NG), previously known as Hashd al-Watani (HW), is a Sunni militia led by the former governor of Mosul, Atheel al-Nujaifi. NG is an official part of the PMU but also receives funds from Turkey, which has troops stationed in Iraq that are unwelcome by the government, as well as some Gulf States. Similarly, the Sinjar Resistance Units (SRU) is a Yazidi force with strong ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PPK) in Turkey and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria.
Iranian proxies and other militias that are influenced by outside forces tend to fractionalize Iraqi security. Accordingly, the diverging interests of the Iranian government and their surrogates have complicated the goals of domestic security, international policy and politics.
For instance, in the early phases of the fight against IS, it was intended that PMU units would primarily act as a holding force that would enable the Iraqi security forces to continue liberating areas from IS. However, Iranian proxies have become increasingly aggressive and expanded their mandate well beyond fighting terrorism. Most notably, three Iranian proxies—Kataib Hezbollah, AAH and the Badr Organization—recently participated with Iraq security forces in an operation to expel Kurdish Peshmerga fighters from Kirkuk following the Kurdish referendum for independence.
Similarly, in the earlier battle against IS in Mosul, the government initially planned what was termed a “horseshoe strategy” that would allow a route in which IS could withdraw through Tal Afar. Al-Amiri, however, reportedly demanded the PMU move north to rout IS and control territory from Diyala to Tal Afar, which borders Syria, enabling Iranian-backed PMU units to secure the highly strategic airfield and supply routes extending west into Syria (Iraqi News, December 8, 2016). As a result, Iran now effectively controls an Iraq-Syria land bridge through Bou Kamal in Deir Ezzour, facilitating the transportation of supplies and weapons into the Syrian theater (The Majalla, July 21, 2017).
Iranian-backed PMU groups are active in Syria (Iraqi News, Jun 1, 2017). In many cases, Iraqi militias supported the al-Assad regime prior the formation of the PMC in 2014. Badr, for example, deployed 1,500 fighters to Syria in 2013 and some paramilitary groups have been created specifically to take part in the Syrian conflict (Jihadology, October 18, 2013).
PMU support for al-Assad contravenes the Iraqi government interests and authority (NTR, December 21, 2016). Instead, it advanced Iran’s IRCG-QF goals, which seek to dominate Iraq and continue its political and guerrilla activities in Syria, Lebanon and the Gulf States—and even reach as far as Nigeria, Azerbaijan and Pakistan. As the spokesperson for Harakat al-Nujaba, Bashar al-Saidi, noted: “It makes no difference whether we’re in Iraq or Syria …We are all the followers of Khamenei and will go and fight to defend the holy sites and Shia everywhere” (MERI: Middle East Research Institute, March 2017).
Finally, the rise of Iraq’s PMU may also have reverberations in the political arena. The PMU and their leaders have gained popularity since the liberation of Mosul, a trend that some militia leaders hope will translate into votes in Iraq’s 2018 elections.
Iraqi law bans militia groups from the political process, but this separation is difficult to maintain in practice. The Badr Organization, for example, is a political party with a paramilitary arm. Recently, numerous pro-Iranian militia leaders have resigned from their militias to comply with Iraqi law, but it is likely that they will indirectly continue to control their militia units (Niqash, November 23, 2017). If Iranian proxies successfully capture a majority in parliament, Iraq could become an Iranian client state.
It was reported that as many as 62 PMU figures are preparing to stand in Iraq’s upcoming parliamentary and local elections (The Baghdad Post, December 27 2017). Many of these figures are from Iranian-backed militias, including the Badr Organization, AAH, Harakat al-Nujaba, Kataib Hezbollah, Kataib Jund al-Imam and Kataib al-Tiar al-Rasali (Iraqi News, December 26, 2017; The Middle East Institute, December 15, 2017).
Three Ways Forward
The increasing involvement of PMU forces in Iraqi security, politics and foreign policy means the position of the groups in a post-IS Iraq will have a significant impact on Iraq’s future and that of the region. There are three possible approaches to managing the PMU that Iraq could explore.
First, PMU militia groups could be allowed to remain as independent units within the Iraqi security framework, an outcome favored by Iranian-backed proxies. It appeals to groups loyal to Khamenei because it offers the most flexibility to influence Iraqi politics and security and continue operations in Syria.
Second, the PMU militias could be disbanded, an option preferred by some Sunnis and Kurds. Al-Sadr too has called for all PMU militias, including his own, to be dissolved. In a televised speech late last year, he said: “We advise our brothers in all factions of the Hashd al-Shaabi to hand over their weapons to the federal government and work to strengthen it by enabling it to impose its control over all of Iraq’s territory” (The Middle East Eye, December 11, 2017).
The third option, one favored by Prime Minister al-Abadi and Ayatollah al-Sistani, is that the PMU be incorporated into the Iraqi security structure, ideally under a single chain of command that puts ultimate authority in the Iraqi government’s hands
 See: Al-Mawlawi, A, ‘Iraq’s 2017 Federal Budget: Key Features and Trends’ Al-Bayan Centre for Planning and Studies available at: https://www.bayancenter.org/en/2016/12/876/