More Than Militias: Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces Are Here to Stay

iraq pmf

Over the last several years, I have met with commanders and fighters from Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (al-hashd al-sha’abi, or PMF), an umbrella organization of some 50 paramilitary groups, to hear about their perspectives on the situation in Iraq. Last month, I re-visited a leader whom I hadn’t seen in some time. As I walked into the room, I noticed that he no longer wore army fatigues — instead, he was in a suit. He joked that things had changed, and he was now returning to politics.

He is not the only one. The PMF have become much more than a group of militias, now seeking to establish a legitimate institutional presence and play a role in politics and the economy, against the backdrop of a fragile Iraqi state that remains weak after the fall of ISIL.

A critical aspect of the state rebuilding process is reforming the security sector, which collapsed in 2014 when a few thousand fighters took over one-third of Iraq. During the 3-year fight against ISIL, a number of armed groups — united in opposition to a common enemy but not in command structure or vision — emerged in place of the struggling state armed forces. Although the Iraqi armed forces have since recovered, the state’s weakness has allowed many of these paramilitary groups to continue to control territory in liberated areas from Mosul to Kirkuk.

The largest of these groups is the PMF, established in June 2014 by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after the fall of Mosul. The PMF includes groups with competing ideologies and rivalling allegiances to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. However, the most powerful groups and leaders in the PMF come from a network of conservative Shia Islamists who enjoy good relations with Khamenei and the regime in Tehran. PMF forces played a key role in the liberation of territory, first on the front lines in much of the initial fighting, and then holding areas as Iraqi forces recovered and began leading the liberation.

Today, in recently liberated areas, the PMF has recruited local fighters and serves as a de facto national guard. Its political influence is also growing. Organized into the Fatah Alliance electoral bloc, PMF leadership is focused on making gains in the upcoming 2018 elections.

The Iraqi government and its international allies have demanded that the PMF integrate into the central state apparatus. Most recently, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi issued a decree to rein in the militias through an integration process. This has traditionally meant incorporating fighters into the command chain of the traditional state armed forces (al-quwwat al-musalaha), which legally fall under the Ministry of Defence or the Ministry of Interior.

But realities on the ground paint a different picture. Benefitting from the weakness of Iraqi state institutions, the PMF leadership has rejected Baghdad’s decrees, and instead offered its own vision for the future of the militias: to become an independent security body protecting the political system, like a praetorian guard for the state. Under this proposal, the paramilitary groups would fall under the Prime Minister’s Office, which separates it from the Ministry of Defence or the Ministry of Interior.

Despite Abadi’s ongoing efforts at security-sector reform, so far the PMF leadership has won the debate. It will not integrate in the traditional way; rather, it will become an institutionalized autonomous force, fundamentally altering Iraq’s security architecture and challenging Baghdad’s command structure and monopoly over legitimate violence. Institutionalization, rather than integration, will define the PMF’s role as the Iraqi state rebuilds itself.

From Integration to Autonomy

Previously, integration into traditional security institutions was the more likely path. Following Iraq’s 2006-2008 civil war, Maliki dealt with a similar militia-related problem and faced two options: integrate or attack. He continued the integration of certain paramilitary groups, such as the Badr Organization, into the Ministry of Interior, a process that had begun under former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. As part of this process, Badr fighters switched uniforms to become federal police. Rather than integrating, however, they eventually took over the ministry. At other times, Maliki chose the alternative — to attack other paramilitary groups, notably the Mehdi Army.

From 2014 to 2016, PMF leaders expressed a willingness to eventually integrate into the traditional security ministries. Becoming a state actor, on the surface, was a key priority because it boosted the leadership’s sense of legitimacy and gave it access to state funds. Last year, for instance, the government paid $1.63 billion to the PMF. The PMF commission, or administrative body, was formed in June 2014 to give the armed groups a sense of legal justification and a degree of institutionalization. Then, in February 2016, Abadi passed Executive Order 91, which stated that “the PMF will be an independent military formation and a part of the Iraqi armed forces, and attached to the general commander of the armed forces.” Even after being granted this legal status, PMF leaders on several occasions still expressed willingness to integrate into the state forces. They went so far as to explain to me the different ways in which their groups could integrate into the Ministry of Defence as Iraqi military units, or into the Ministry of Interior as federal police.

However, leadership was not enthusiastic about being subject to the strict bylaws of either ministry. As such, in parallel, they sought to acquire legal recognition for the PMF as an independent security armed force linked to the state but — crucially — autonomous.

The paramilitary groups realized this objective in November 2016, when the Iraqi parliament passed the Law of the PMF Commission, recognizing the PMF as “an independent military formation as part of the Iraqi armed forces and linked to the Commander-in-Chief.” The PMF is therefore now legally recognized as a legitimate armed entity under the National Security Council (NSC), rather than in a subservient position under one of the security ministries. It enjoys parity with the Ministries of Defence and Interior, and has a seat at the NSC, just like those ministries.

Despite its title, the NSC is a “civilian institution” meant to conduct civilian oversight of the security agencies. The arrangement under the NSC provides the PMF with greater maneuverability and autonomy. It can now also keep the identities of its militias, including names, flags, and leaders. Integrating into the army or police would have required uniform changes, the removal of flags, and the loss of some degree of autonomous command and control. Moreover, the NSC, as a civilian institution, allows the PMF to become more than strictly a security organization, as it can become a political and economic actor as well.

Under the ambiguity of the prime minister’s office, the PMF now have legal recognition as an independent entity parallel to the traditional security agencies. As a result of this legal change, PMF leaders are no longer interested in the previous options for integration.

Under State Control, But Retaining Autonomy

While traditional security-sector reform would have sought to integrate the PMF and other armed groups into a single command structure, under either the defense or interior ministries, the PMF has managed to carve out an autonomous space. It will penetrate state institutions, but not the way it would have under a more conventional integration framework.

PMF leaders argue that their autonomous position under the NSC is not so unusual — it has been done before with Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service (also known as the Golden Divisions or CTS). Even Abadi is reported to have made the comparison. In 2007, Maliki took the CTS out from under the strict control of the Ministry of Defence and brought it under the prime minister’s office as part of the NSC civilian oversight process. At the time, many analysts argued against taking the CTS out of institutionalized chains of command because it put the service in unclear legal waters and made it answerable to the prime minister rather than traditional security institutions.

During the fight against ISIL, however, many commentators changed their minds, and the CTS became the most celebrated fighting force on the frontline liberating Iraqi territory. Today, few question the service’s legal standing. Moreover, the CTS was recently granted a ceremonial quasi-ministerial status to put it on the same level as the other security ministries under the NSC. The PMF does not yet have this standing, but it is an equal partner in the NSC and seems to be striving to replicate the CTS precedent.

Although both are autonomous entities under the Prime Minister’s Office, the PMF is not the CTS. The CTS has a focused and limited security mandate (counter-terrorism missions). While it is no longer under the Ministry of Defense command structure, it is still aligned with army strategies and firmly under government control. Its activities reinforce the government’s monopoly on violence and the overall strength of the state. By contrast, PMF activities are much broader. Currently, its military role is more visible outside Baghdad, particularly in the provinces of Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninewah, and Salahadeen. In these areas, the PMF serves as a sort of national guard, and has recruited locals to patrol borders and checkpoints. However, the command structure does not necessarily go up to the prime minister, who serves as commander-in-chief. In fact, oftentimes the groups compete with state forces over checkpoints and operations.

The PMF challenges the government’s position not only in the security realm, but also in politics. It wields significant political power given the Fatah Alliance’s upcoming electoral run and its influence over political actors and state institutions. Although some PMF leaders have switched their army fatigues for suits in an effort to separate politics from security, the line often remains blurred. For instance, following budget negotiations last month, Fatah leaders argued that the PMF should be granted the same pay and pension allocations as the Iraqi armed forces. In this instance, Fatah acted as a political organization that could lobby on behalf of the PMF.

The paramilitaries also hold formal and informal economic power. Unlike the websites of the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Interior, or CTS, the PMF’s website includes a strong focus on its rebuilding efforts all over Iraq. For instance, in Basra, trucks with the PMF logo have begun rebuilding roads and infrastructure. In Baghdad, the PMF have advertised their role in rebuilding a medical clinic. In recently liberated areas, PMF checkpoints collect taxes and tariffs and facilitate the transport of formal and informal trade left in ISIL’s wake.

The PMF has used its unique status to move back and forth between formal and informal spaces, as its interests dictate. Baghdad has allowed the militias to institutionalize their role as part of the state, while maintaining autonomy as an independent security, political, and economic actor. The PMF retains the image and prominence of a state actor but the autonomy of a non-state actor. For instance, if it faces too much resistance from the state, or does not win enough seats in the upcoming elections, the PMF can revert back to its paramilitary status with minimal concern for pushback from the state. The weakness of Iraq’s institutions affords the PMF the flexibility to simultaneously cooperate with and compete against the state for power, legitimacy, and capacity.

The PMF and the Future of the Iraqi State

Broadly, there has been a consensus among the Iraqi government, its foreign allies, and the analyst community that the PMF should disband or be incorporated into the state in some way that retains a single command structure. However, given the group’s success in attaining its preferred form of autonomy vis-à-vis the weak state, the idea of integrating PMF fighters into the army and police seems to be off the table for now. If the PMF are here to stay, rather than ignoring the reality, Baghdad and its international allies need to have a discussion over the short-term division of labor. This effort should seek to to include the paramilitary groups within the system and take away their informal or non-state power, which at times allows its leaders to compete against the state for power and capacity.

At the moment, the Iraqi government does not have a clear vision for what it wants to do with the PMF. Security-sector reform should, in the short term, clarify and make predictable the relationship and chain of command between the prime minister’s office and the security entities under the NSC. In the longer term, the process should strengthen the capacities of state institutions. At the security level, the government should work to rebuild local police and state armed forces in recently liberated areas, to provide an alternative to the role the PMF is currently playing. Instead of allowing local armed groups to look to the PMF for support, the central government should improve its relations with provincial councils and municipalities to offer an institution-based solution to the power vacuums in areas recovering from ISIL.

At the political level, the grey area between an armed group and a political entity weakens the state’s monopoly over force. Many political parties in Iraq have their own armed wings, official or unofficial. The PMF has simply been a particularly significant instance of this, and although its paramilitary groups have changed their names and clothes in an effort to become political entities, it is easy to read between the lines. As such, Baghdad and its allies need to thicken the line between security and politics not just for the PMF, but for all groups that rely on armed factions.

At the economic level, addressing the war economy by building state infrastructure to man checkpoints and collect tariffs can pick away at the PMF’s revenue streams. Again, the PMF is one of many Iraqi groups that take advantage of state weakness for economic gains. As such, the solution must address this structural problem and the negative incentives for those profiting from the state’s inability to control trade.

Although victory over ISIL has been declared, the fight to tackle its root cause is ongoing. ISIL was able to succeed because of the breakdown of the state and the weakness of its security sector. Now, ISIL is gone, but state weakness is manifesting itself in a very different way. To address the core problem of weak institutions, Baghdad and its regional and international allies need to first catch up with these realities, and then come up with new ideas.


Renad Mansour is a research fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House and with the Institute of Regional and International Relations (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani. The research presented in this article is part of a project funded by the Netherlands Research Organisation.

Image: Mahmoud Hosseini/Tasnim News