Experts discuss PMF's challenge to rebuilding Iraq

The Popular Mobilisation Force's autonomy thrives on weakening state institutions further as it expands.
Thursday 16/08/2018
Fighters of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) march during a military parade in Daquq. (Reuters) 
Serious challenge. Fighters of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) march during a military parade in Daquq. (Reuters) 

BEIRUT - The Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella organisation of some 50 non-state paramilitary groups, was greatly credited for its role in helping defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq. It was legitimised by the Iraqi parliament in 2016 as an independent military apparatus under the office of the prime minister to join the battle against ISIS in parallel with the regular army.

The PMF, also known as al-Hashed al-Shaabi, has been exploiting the legal grey zone to expand its reach in the security, political and economic spheres. Its growing power and autonomy have impeded efforts to build a functioning unitary state.

The challenge that the PMF poses for rebuilding the Iraqi state was highlighted in a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) and discussed by experts at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut.

“What is the future of the Hashed?” asked Renad Mansour, research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the Chatham House think-tank. “The Hashed is not the only group in Iraq that is a political party and has an armed wing. Other groups like Hashed are supported and trained by the West.

“However, the Hashed has been more comfortable as it was recognised as a military organisation supportive of the political process, nevertheless independent. Before legitimisation, integration (into the army and security forces) was still an option but since then it has had a role in politics and economics in addition to security.”

“Many leaders of the Hashed were politicians. They took a sabbatical to go fighting against ISIS and now they are coming back. They have significant popularity in the (mainly Shia) south, where they scored well in the last elections, and have become an economic force as well,” he added.

Mansour noted that the central government in Baghdad has had no clear vision on what the Hashed should be.

“[PMF units] receive funding from the government, their checkpoints are very lucrative and they make money through different types of businesses. They also provide services where the state is no longer able to fill in. They are at times cooperating with the state and at other times competing with it.”

The PMF’s autonomy thrives on weakening state institutions further as it expands. The proliferation of armed groups outside the two security ministries -- interior and defence -- presents the most serious challenge to rebuilding post-2003 Iraq.

“The real challenge is not so much the attempt to dissolve the Hashed but how to accommodate it,” said Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at Carnegie MEC.

“Unless the [PMF] and other non-state armed actors are brought within a state-controlled regulatory framework, there is a risk that the same weaknesses of the state that allowed duality in the security and defence domain, will replicate in financial and economic management and elsewhere,” he said.

Sayigh gave the example of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which “started out as a force that would be relied on to defend the new Islamic republic but with time it has become a major economic trader as well, controlling massive economic assets.”

He maintained that though having a parallel army is problematic, it is becoming a feature in some countries of the region. “In Lebanon, you have Hezbollah. In Libya, after 2011, you have dual armies and police forces. And in Yemen we’ve seen pretty much the same happening,” Sayigh said.

While security duality is often the outcome of conflicts and part of post-crisis political settlement, the challenge is how to deal with it, Sayigh contended, adding: “Turning al-Hashed al-Shaabi into something like the national guards or any other specific formula is one option that in itself is not necessarily dangerous so long as it clearly comes under the state, and under a regulatory and operational framework.”

A bigger challenge is that many PMF leaders are seen as proxies of Iran, which views them as “an insurance policy” against the return of a strong antagonistic Iraqi state on its border supported by the United States and Saudi Arabia, the ICG report stated.

It said: “A better way to curb the paramilitary phenomenon is to render the Hashed redundant by shifting powers and capacity to formal security institutions.”

The report suggested that international actors help Iraq recover from almost four decades of war and sanctions by funding reconstruction, strengthening institutions that uphold the rule of law and supporting security sector reform.

It said: "The challenge posed by the PMF will not be overcome easily because it is likely to remain a significant military, political and economic actor in the immediate post-ISIS phase. Yet the solution to the problem such militias pose for the state lies not primarily with them, as much as with the capacity and the strength of the state itself and whoever leads it.”