The future of the Popular Mobilisation Units in Iraq

27th August 2019

The role of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) remains a huge part of debate in Iraq. With the territorial war against ISIS now over, with the group now resorting to guerrilla tactics as an underground movement; questions are now raised about the PMU’s continued existence.

Following the collapse of the Iraqi army that led to one-third of the country falling into the hands of a radical Islamist terrorist organisation in 2014, the PMU was formed following a religious decree, or fatwa, by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Sistani, who is the supreme religious authority amongst Iraq’s Shia Muslims, or Marja’, is known to be a quietist that attempts to avoid getting involved in the country’s governing system. This position stands in contrast with Iran’s Marja’, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is the country’s Supreme Leader and thus is the head of a clerical ruling system (Wilayat al-Faqih). Despite the quietist tradition of Sistani, the fatwa was seen a necessity and a last resort to sustaining Iraq’s security, with the Shia being directly threatened by the Salafist-Jihadist ideology of ISIS. The fatwa allowed the recruitment of thousands of Shia volunteer fighters, which would be known as the Hashd al-Sha’bi, or PMU. This would be taken advantage of by Iran-backed groups in support of the Wilayat al-Fiqh system who would eventually receive government perks such as salaries once the PMU became on par with the Iraqi Army.

The formation of the PMU led to a number of militias joining the paramilitary structure. These were predominantly Shia, and were essentially divided into three umbrella factions; the followers of “firebrand cleric” Muqtada al-Sadr, Saraya al-Salam (a revival of the Mahdi Army), those who pledged allegiance to Sistani and were influenced by his fatwa, and finally those who pledge their allegiance to Khamenei and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The first umbrella, which tends to get support from poor urban Shias who are critical of Iran’s influence, was agreed to be disbanded by Sadr following the end of the war. The second includes fighters loyal to Iraq’s quietist Ayatollah Sistani, and included a number of militias, including the followers of the Hakim family of clerics. The third umbrella included a number of groups with direct links to Iran’s elite military force: the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). This umbrella includes a number of organisations who follow the Wilayat al-Fiqh system of Iran, and most notably include the Badr Organisation, whose direct relations with the IRGC dates back to the Iran-Iraq War when they were the armed wing of Hakim’s Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). SCIRI would eventually face many splits and a name change, with the Badr Organisation under the leadership of Hadi Ameri leaving to create his own faction following the party’s change of allegiance to Sistani and intentions to dismantle their armed wing. Alongside these three umbrella factions, the PMU would expand into other communities, forming new brigades and recruiting Sunni Arabs, Christians, Yezidis and Turkmens in the fight against ISIS.

Militias known to be more loyal to the IRGC than Iraq’s institutions have continuously given the country’s Prime Ministers a headache. Former Prime Minister Haider Abadi had certain problems in asserting his authority, while current Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi is a compromise independent figure with no faction of his own. Only last month, the Prime Minister issued a decree, insisting on the full integration of the PMU into Iraq’s Armed Forces, no later than the 31st July, but it appears that this still has not happened. This could be blamed on the influence that Iran-backed PMU groups have on the scene, with their political wing led by Ameri making up the second largest parliamentary list in Iraq following Iraq’s elections in 2018. Furthermore, another issue is Abdul-Mahdi’s political future largely rests with not infuriating influential Shia figures; namely Sistani, Sadr (who topped the elections) and Ameri. With some 120,000 fighters currently not under the direct command of the Prime Minister and Iraq’s Armed forces, state institutions remain weak, and thus allow factions ideologically, militarily and politically close to Iran to wield extensive influence in the country.

In order for Abdul-Mahdi’s plans to succeed, he will need backing from the international community, namely the west. Only time will tell.