Once enjoying near-unrivaled power, widespread national legitimacy and an aura of untouchability, Iraq’s paramilitary Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) are on a downward trajectory. The PMF is still resilient and retains considerable formal and informal coercive and economic power. However, in 2022 it will face growing challenges to its legitimacy, structure and influence. These stem from widespread public resentment of the PMF’s repression, its internal weakening and splintering, and a growing rivalry with the cleric and militia leader and politician, Muqtada al-Sadr. These vulnerabilities could allow the opponents of the PMF, the technocrats within the Iraqi state and their unlikely bedfellows like the Sadrists, to undermine its power.
PMF’s sources of strength
Between 2014 – when it was created in response to the Islamic State (IS) group’s offensive across Iraq and the collapse of the Iraqi army – and 2019, the PMF achieved a marked rise. The umbrella organization, overseeing a patchwork of militias with varying ties to the Iraqi state, politicians and Iran, is a politically effective and formidable force, with combat experience, robust military capabilities, wide geographical presence and access to local resources. across Iraq as well as multifaceted support from Iran.
The precise number of PMF fighters is unknown; at its peak, the organization claimed to command 160,000. These numbers included a) fighters from pre-existing, mostly pro-Iran militias, such as the Badr Brigade, Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq; b) so-called sanctuary militias, that is, Shia volunteers who responded to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s fatwa to defend Iraq against IS; and (c) various Sunni, Yazidi, Christian and other minority vigilante groups.
The PMF’s heterogeneity and (sometimes forced) inclusion of Sunnis and other ethnic groups has allowed its Iran-aligned leaders to portray the force as transcending close ideological ties to Iran rather than following the orders from a foreign government.
The PMF leadership has repeatedly claimed and rejected the affiliation of Saraya al-Salam, the large and powerful militia loyal to Sadr, which has influence in Basra and other parts of southern Iraq as well as a strong presence in Baghdad. But the tenuous association between the PMF and Saraya al-Salam, which never included an operational integration of Sadrists into the PMF, has often faced competition over legal and illegal economic rents and ballot banks.
The PMF and Saraya al-Salam entrenched and took control of Iraq’s many formal and illegal economies, from the construction contracts that followed the devastation of war; the service sector; and the scrap metal trade to widespread extortion; customs evasion; and the trafficking of oil, drugs and other contraband. Diverted customs revenue alone generates huge revenue for PMF militias, while Iraq loses around $10 billion a year.
As with Saraya al-Salam, the PMF’s monopolization of economic markets and job opportunities gives the organization political capital. Even if local people resent the human rights abuses and sectarian discrimination against Sunnis committed by PMFs, as in Ninewa province, they often have to act by begging PMFs for jobs and jobs. business opportunities and avoid violent reprisals, such as the burning down of their businesses, kidnappings and assassinations.
Basically, unlike many militias around the world, the PMF has managed to acquire a formal status in Iraq’s official security forces as a state-sanctioned auxiliary force with an annual budget of over $2 billion. Its sponsors and political partners in the Iraqi parliament and ministries – including the prime minister’s office when Haidar al-Abadi led the government – further shielded the PMF from liability or efforts to reduce its power. Thus, the PMF saw the state not as an entity to be overthrown, but as a structure essential to its survival and rise.
The weak points of the PMF
Since 2018, the power of the PMF and its fundamental lack of internal and external accountability has led its Iran-aligned factions to violently attack civilian activists. From Baghdad to Basra, pro-Iranian – and Sadrist – militias have killed and kidnapped dozens of civil society leaders and ordinary protesters to suppress a movement demanding anti-corruption reforms, better services and better governance, more jobs and an overhaul of the dysfunctional post of Iraq-Political Order of 2003.
The assassination by the United States in January 2020 of the powerful and charismatic leader of the PMF, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and his Iranian boss, General of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qassem Soleimani, intensified the internal fissures of the PMF and the organization suffered a leadership crisis. Amid the disarray, the shrine militias withdrew from the PMF. The split severely undermined the PMF’s hitherto strong religious legitimacy, increasing vulnerabilities in the reputation of pro-Iranian leaders and factions as street thugs and Iranian stooges.
The PMF’s ideological and material ties to Iran and Tehran’s strategic interests in Iraq and the region pose problems for the group. They allow PMF rivals and the Iraqi public to denigrate the PMF’s lack of patriotism and commitment to Iraq’s prosperity. Iran’s sponsorship therefore both provides resources to the PMF and hinders its ability to become an autonomous political actor that is not burdened with the baggage of being part of Iran’s “axis of resistance”.
The withdrawal of the shrine militias also drastically reduces the membership of the PMF, long inflated by the number of ghost soldiers, thus diminishing the group’s claim to state budgets. Along with the Sadrists, the Sanctuary Militias now constitute another rival that could compete for influence, access to resources, and territorial sway.
In the October 2021 legislative elections, the PMF’s Fatah Alliance performed poorly. In a courageous push for law enforcement and transparency, the Iraqi electoral commission excluded PMF fighters from the special vote for members of the security forces because the organization did not provide a list of its fighters, which she refused to divulge for years. Fatah won 17 seats, down from 48 in 2018. In contrast, the Sadrists, the PMF’s main rival, won 73 seats.
Through legal challenges and violent intimidation, the PMF sought to reverse the results. In a brazen escalation, he likely sponsored or undertook a drone assassination attempt on Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. At US insistence, Kadhimi sought and fought to limit the power of the PMF and limit attacks by pro-Iranian militias on US personnel in Iraq.
After his election victory, Sadr called on the PMF to disband. The PMF refused. For years, the PMF has rejected and sabotaged national efforts to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate (DDR) its fighters, despite calls from Ayatollah Sistani. Reluctantly, it only acceded to minor steps, such as changing the label of its offices and moving its arms depots out of towns, while mostly refusing to withdraw its fighters and bases. urban areas.
Sadr also announced that he would disband his Saraya al-Salam militias and closed several offices to re-brand his movement as a law-abiding entity operating within state parameters. For years, Sadrist militias have operated with a chain fist in Basra and elsewhere. It remains to be seen whether these movements will translate into an effective withdrawal of the militias or the abandonment of their economic interests.
Finally, in December 2021, the United States officially reframed its military mission in Iraq as no longer a combat mission, although 2,500 American forces remain on Iraqi bases. This agreement, negotiated between the Biden administration and the Iraqi government in the spring of 2021, aims to undermine efforts to legitimize the PMF through anti-American and “anti-occupation” propaganda.
The PMF in 2022
The stakes are high for the PMF. Its ability to extract resources from the state is linked to its political preeminence, and this is linked to Iran’s ability to influence the Iraqi political environment. The PMF’s ability to justify its state subsidies is diminished by its poor electoral performance, declining popular legitimacy, and relatively low, albeit persistent and growing, ISIS terrorist activity.
But the PMF also has resilience.
The street muscle of the PMF remains important. It is ready to violently attack its rivals and controls or influences a range of economic sectors. In interviews in Iraq in November 2021, we found that after the October elections, pro-Iranian PMF militias in Mosul and other parts of Nineveh actually increased their coercion against Sunnis and other local populations, acting with greater brutality in their systematic extortion and political repression. Our interviews also showed that the PMF always opposes, sometimes violently, even informal and low-key efforts by NGOs to provide DDR assistance to individual PMF combatants seeking to leave the group.
Additionally, the PMF can exploit Iraq’s turbulent political environment, capitalizing on the country’s many political divisions. He can reaffirm his partnership with former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of the Dawa party, which won 33 seats. Iraq’s fractured political class, which still retains many deep ties to the PMF, is unlikely to unite to marginalize the organization.
That said, this may be the first time in years that Iraqi technocrats, moderate politicians and civil society actors – long unable to match the PMF’s coercive capabilities – can exploit the PMF’s internal disarray, Sadr’s determination to prevent the PMF from rebounding, and the widespread antipathy towards the PMF to reduce the organization’s hold on Iraqi state and society.