Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces, a state within the state
Flanked by his senior military leadership, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared “total victory” over the Islamic State (ISIS) upon the Iraqi government forces’ seizure of the ruins of Mosul. Abadi’s exhilarated outburst is understandable: ISIS declared a caliphate within Iraq and the seizure of Mosul demonstrates the Iraqi state’s enforcement of sovereignty.
Victory however, comes at a price: The rise of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella organisation composed mainly of Shia militant groups, most of which are not subjected to civilian control but pursue their own interests. To the extent those groups are subjected to civilian control, they report to Tehran rather than to Abadi or other Iraqi authorities.
This unhealthy mode of civil-military relations is likely to exacerbate Iraq’s political problems and, in the PMF, Abadi may face another formidable state within the state.
The PMF’s own historiography states that the umbrella group was shaped as a response to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s religious edict on June 13, 2014 calling for defending Iraqi cities and participating in the counteroffensive against ISIS. The narrative implies the PMF recognised Sistani as its source of emulation and highest religious authority.
However, this author’s survey of PMF martyrs listed on the holyfatwa.com website shows that the first PMF fighter killed in combat fell in Jurf al-Sakhar in Babil on March 15, 2013, 15 months before Sistani issued his edict. This is also true of 44 other PMF fighters who were killed in combat prior to the edict.
In other words, rather than answering the call of Sistani, the Shia militias instrumentally used the edict to legitimise their existence as paramilitary forces parallel to the Iraqi military. The PMF was not and is not subjected to Sistani’s control.
Under whose control then if not Sistani’s?
On April 7, 2015, Abadi, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, ordered that the PMF be placed under the direct command of the prime minister’s office. The real chain of command is more complicated and runs through the leaders of militias that formed the PMF and, ultimately, Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, chief commander of the extraterritorial operations al-Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
The latter has nurtured Shia Iraqi opposition groups since the revolution of 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iraq. It has systematically helped its proxies to seize key position in post Ba’athist Iraq.
Facing the formidable threat of ISIS and real threat of the collapse of Baghdad, on July 3, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, PMF committee deputy chairman, in an interview with Iran’s Al-Kawthar TV, declared: “I’m honoured to be Haj Qassem [Soleimani]’s soldier.”
What seems to work for Tehran is not necessarily good for Iraqi leaders. Abadi and his successors will soon discover that the very same militias that helped them prevail in the struggle against ISIS will prey on the polity they are intended to protect. They do so either because of their resilience in the face of attempts at establishing Iraqi civilian control over them or because of their subordination to Tehran.