Warning Signs: Qassem Musleh and Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces
Who calls the shots in Iraq — the government or the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)? Some observers think it is the latter, especially in light of recent events. On May 26, 2021, Iraqi police arrested Qassem Musleh — the commander of the PMF in Anbar province — in connection with the assassination of a prominent Iraqi activist. Immediately after, PMF militias circulated videos purportedly showing their fighters driving heavily armed trucks around Baghdad’s “Green Zone” in a show of force designed to compel Musleh’s release. When he was set free two weeks later, some analysts interpreted it as another exhibit of state weakness vis-à-vis the PMF, an umbrella organization of mostly Shiite, pro-Iran paramilitary groups that have fought the Islamic State.
In reality, the PMF has some pronounced weaknesses and faces growing challenges. Instead of viewing Musleh’s arrest and release as a victory for the PMF in a trial of strength against the Iraqi state, what actually occurred was a scramble by different PMF elements to maintain a united front against the prime minister when faced with the detention of one of their own. During Musleh’s two weeks in custody, it became clear that the PMF — which was incorporated into the Iraqi armed forces in 2016 — is more divided and weaker than it used to be, even though the shared interests of its main armed factions keep it afloat.
The PMF’s major organizational challenges are competition between the various networks of forces, as they each seek to maintain their privileges and enhance their status, and limited central restraint on their actions. That reality generates the risk that further destabilization and provocation of the PMF by the Iraqi state might trigger more serious bouts of violence. The Iraqi government should, therefore, consider adopting a policy of non-confrontation toward the PMF, provided its constituent groups are willing to reciprocate.
Roots of the PMF’s Weakness: The Assassination of ‘Mr. PMF’ in 2020
Abu Mahdi al Muhandis was a charismatic, father-like figure and as commander of the PMF he was a major source of the groups’ strength. When U.S. forces killed him in a drone strike in January 2020 — in the same attack that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani — it dealt a major blow to the PMF. Even though sentiments about him among the Iraqi Shiite leadership were mixed, he exercised a substantial level of control over the paramilitary groups. In part he did so through the PMF Commission — a state-sponsored umbrella organization under the office of the Iraqi prime minister — and also on the basis of his own personal history, militant credentials, and leadership skills.
Muhandis was also a major power broker among Iraq’s political elites as well as a linchpin in Iran’s regional networks of armed groups and political parties. He was the proverbial glue that kept different PMF networks together — Sunni, Shiite, and other ethno-sectarian factions, local and transnational PMF elements, as well as groups loyal to Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, Muqtada al Sadr, and the supreme leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei. While the PMF has never taken the form of a single hierarchical organization, under Muhandis it comprised an interlocking series of networks with interdependent interests and subject to a measure of central command.
The assassination of “Mr. PMF” shook those networks to their core in two ways. His removal left them relatively leaderless and weakened by a protracted struggle for control between different factions. Muhandis wielded more power than his fellow commanders — Falih al Fayyadh, Hadi al Ameri, or Qais al Khazali — and his death left the PMF leadership disputed and without a single unifying figure. Without Muhandis, individual groups also became subject to weaker constraints on their local autonomy. Together, these developments halted a process that had been underway in which a set of fairly loose, and sometimes competing, PMF networks were moving toward becoming a more integrated organization. Admittedly this remained a work in progress under Muhandis, but the PMF has found it impossible to continue this trajectory without him.
The result has been growing fragmentation within the PMF and stresses on its collective organizational structure. Pressure from protestors, political factions not linked to the PMF, and Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi have intensified these challenges. Since October 2019, protestors have condemned Iran’s increasing intervention in Iraq’s internal affairs and some PMF groups have used violence against their critics. In response, Kadhimi set the ambitious goal of holding the perpetrators accountable and imposing the government’s command over all armed groups.
The arrest and release of Musleh was a vivid illustration of the PMF’s fragmentation and weakening. To begin with, the seemingly integrated and much-touted PMF response of “occupying the Green Zone” on May 26 and 27 was misrepresented by the paramilitary groups. There was no substantial incursion by PMF groups into the Green Zone beyond their usual presence. The temporary handover of a number of checkpoints by security forces to the PMF was relatively peaceful and resulted from a decision by Kadhimi to avoid direct confrontation. In addition, the media spin that PMF pressure on the Green Zone secured Musleh’s swift release turned out to be largely spurious. He was only released about 14 days later, after the charges against him were officially dropped due to insufficient evidence. Behind the scenes, prominent Shiite leaders and commanders had rushed to negotiate the release with Kadhimi in order to avoid further escalation.
Widening Cracks in the PMF
There are several significant cracks in the PMF’s organizational structure. The most profound is the schism between the Atabat — or shrine — groups, which are loyal to Sistani, and the rest of the PMF. The Atabat groups split from the PMF in April 2020 to join the Iraqi Army and Ministry of Defense structures. They were followed by several smaller groups. Their departure caused a serious loss of legitimacy for the PMF as a whole among its Shiite and non-Shiite followers because the organization and its networks are grounded in Sistani’s fatwa of 2014 and he is the very person to whom the Atabat groups pledge their loyalty. While the differences between the Atabat groups and the rest of the PMF predated their actual split, it was largely the influence and control of Muhandis that had prevented it from occurring sooner. So far, leaders from the Badr and Asaib ahl al-Haq armed groups have failed to salvage the relationship between the PMF and Sistani, depriving those groups of some of their religious legitimacy. Notably, Sistani recently condemned PMF actions in several statements. Atabat groups also recently commemorated the fatwa’s anniversary without inviting other groups, triggering hateful reactions from some of them toward the representative of Sistani who spoke at the event.
Another divide in the PMF has opened up between groups such as Kataib Hizballah, on the one hand, and Badr, Asaib ahl al-Haq, and Saraya al-Salam on the other, due to poor relationship management by Kataib Hizballah in the PMF Commission after Muhandis’ death. While it is unsurprising that a number of critical PMF functions — like internal affairs and intelligence — are controlled by Kataib Hizballah given that Muhandis founded the group before assuming the PMF’s leadership, he managed to exercise control in a manner that kept other factions onboard. But Kataib Hizballah’s imposition, in February 2020, of another one of its commanders — Abu Fadak al Mohammadawi — to succeed Muhandis on the PMF Commission alienated key groups such as Badr and Asaib.
Since then, opposing camps have formed in the commission that are in dispute about strategic matters, such as the allocation of the additional funds obtained through the 2020 state budget, but also about tactical issues, such as the framing of the response to Musleh’s arrest. In essence, this is a competition for domestic power. Khazali, the leader of Asaib ahl al-Haq, has for example made barbed comments over the past few weeks toward Badr’s leader — Ameri — and Kataib Hizballah that express his dissatisfaction with their monopolization of power within the PMF. In response, Kataib Hizballah and Harakat al-Nujaba excluded Asaib ahl al-Haq from the Tansiqiya, a loose confederation of resistance groups, muqawama, that pursue the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
A third divide relates to the nature of the relationship between key PMF groups and Iran. While this association was always contentious for some groups, like the Sadrists, and not in dispute for others, like Kataib Hizballah, the real battle is for the “middle” of the PMF that consists of Badr and Asaib. Both are shifting their discourse toward a more “patriotic” stance, indicating there is space for prioritizing domestic interests with associated strategies and efforts — a development that was accelerated ahead of the 2018 parliamentary elections and more recently by the need to adopt a less Iran-oriented profile in the wake of the 2019 protests calling for limited foreign intervention and reform of the political system. While Khazali continues to call Iran “a strategic ally,” he oscillates between “pro-Iran” and “pro-Iraq” positions with the intention of having the best of both worlds, positioning himself as moderate heir to Muhandis for the PMF leadership. Such prevarication and distancing from Iran have caused other groups, such as Harakat al-Nujaba, to double down on their pro-Iran stance and seek more direct confrontation with U.S.-led coalition forces through drone attacks.
A final divide results from the PMF Commission’s neglect, after the killing of Muhandis, of local groups in areas liberated from the Islamic State. Their diminished connection with the commission has caused groups like the Shabak 30th Brigade in Nineveh to join Iraq’s network of Iran-linked resistance groups as an alternative way to secure their local interests, position, and autonomy. Attacks on coalition and U.S. forces in new places have been a side effect of such local power calculations. For example, the attack on Erbil airport in October 2020 — in which six missiles were launched from an area in the Nineveh Plains controlled by the PMF — was unprecedented.
The Risk of Violence in Response to Pressure on the PMF
The fact that the PMF Commission, an organization that was created to manage a number of armed group networks, suffers from reduced legitimacy, increased internal competition, and divided loyalties creates risks. These developments reduce central control, halt professionalization efforts, and enable groups to pursue their narrow self-interests with greater autonomy. Also, when they are confronted, PMF groups have more latitude to respond with the threat or actual use of violence because the constraints on doing so have decreased. From this perspective, the response to Musleh’s arrest was a harbinger of how PMF groups might react when they feel cornered. The assassination of an intelligence officer in Baghdad on June 7 provides another example of what can happen when pressure is brought to bear on the PMF, considering that the assassination was a response to Kadhimi dispatching hundreds of intelligence officers to border crossings to curb smuggling facilitated by armed groups. As the planned October 2021 parliamentary elections approach, the risk of violence will increase.
Despite the weakening of the PMF as an organizational entity, most factions understand that their strength lies in unity and that not standing up for one another might be fatal in the long run. For example, major Shiite political figures linked to the PMF, like Ameri and Maliki, jointly lobbied behind the scenes on behalf of Musleh, facilitating his release. Despite the growing divisions between factions, the urgency of expediting Musleh’s release reflected their continuing shared interests.
Whether the result of a quid pro quo or an attempt to deescalate violent confrontations, Shiite political leaders have protected the PMF, as happened in Musleh’s case. For example, Kataib Hizballah relies on the Fateh parliamentary bloc for political benefits. In exchange Fateh, particularly Badr’s political bloc, depends on voters from across PMF factions to maintain its parliamentary majority. Hence, artificial PMF unity will likely be maintained for some time to come.
Yet, the prime minister might seek to test and puncture that unity, given that he has little to lose and much to gain from doing so. His popularity is limited, his political future uncertain, and he understands that the PMF suffers reputational losses in all public incidents of the Musleh variety, irrespective of their precise outcome. But such actions by the Iraqi state do not lead to changes in PMF behavior, as the kidnapping and physical abuse of Ali al Mikdam — an Iraqi activist critical of armed factions’ role in suppressing protests — illustrated in early July, just one month after Musleh’s release.
Bringing further pressure to bear on the PMF carries three major risks for Iraq as a whole. First, Iran might revert entirely to a strategy based on small, loyal, and well-equipped forces rather than on mass-based paramilitary mobilization that is more susceptible to popular and political pressure — Harakat al-Nujaba instead of Badr, in a sense. Iran successfully used such an approach during the height of the U.S. occupation of Iraq between 2005 and 2007 when its “Special Groups” developed a fearsome reputation for their ability to pierce U.S. armor with explosive devices specifically developed for that purpose. If this happens, it would likely make security coordination and political compromise across Iraq’s security sector more difficult.
Second, Kataib Hizballah, in particular, is well placed to expand its regional reach. Development of its capabilities over the past few years has given it a fairly sophisticated platform from which it can easily grow further. Just a few years ago, the group was limited to engaging U.S. forces in guerilla warfare. But today it controls major assets like a key Iraqi-Syrian border crossing and plays a major role in running the so-called Iranian land corridor. Kataib Hizballah’s agenda does not prioritize Iraqi national interests and its further growth would complicate U.S.-Iraqi relations.
Third, should greater pressure on the PMF translate into substantial electoral losses for PMF-linked, pro-Iran political parties while the Sadrists become more influential due to a high turnout of their reliable constituency, Iran-linked PMF groups will command less political clout to defend their interests against their primary competitor. In turn, this would likely cause these groups to resort to violence as a primary response mechanism against any prime minister who seeks to curtail their power with the backing of Sadr’s political and military wings.
What Should Be Done?
It might have been feasible to promote greater integration of the PMF into the Iraqi Security Forces through a pressure- and incentive-based strategy when the PMF was largely under the control of Muhandis. There was an integrated command in place with sufficient authority to make any course corrections or changes that were agreed with Iraq’s political factions. Today, greater pressure on the PMF risks creating more contestation and fragmentation among the paramilitary groups, which might respond with more violence. PMF leaders like Ameri and Khazali have publicly complained about such pressure in recent weeks. Ameri also emphasized that the “future of the PMF is under threat” in a recent electoral rally as a way to mobilize constituents. It has been a long time since a PMF leader issued such warnings, which indicate that the groups feel themselves to be under pressure.
Regardless of the PMF’s nefarious activities and the abuse of power by a number of its armed factions, the months leading up to the national elections are not a good time to increase pressure on the groups in the form of Musleh-type measures. It is wiser for Iraqi politicians to wait for the electoral results, work to appoint a stronger prime minister, and secure a measure of collaboration with the newly elected Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi.
A feasible interim strategy to keep the situation manageable is for the Iraqi government to negotiate with all armed groups, large and small, via Shiite political leaders in order to develop a temporary deal that de-escalates existing tensions. For example, armed groups could commit to stopping the targeting of protestors and assassination of activists, as well as to reducing their attacks on coalition forces. In turn, the government could commit to further harmonization of PMF and Iraqi Security Forces salaries, allow the temporary re-integration of a number of dismissed PMF members into the security forces, and permit the PMF to investigate their own members first before any arrests are made. A mutual policy of non-confrontation would likely serve both the Iraqi government and the PMF well for the months ahead.
Nancy Ezzeddine is a research fellow at Clingendael’s Conflict Research Unit. In this role she contributes to the Middle East research program, exploring identity politics and the use of religion as means of political mobilization in the Middle East.
Erwin van Veen is a senior research fellow at Clingendael’s Conflict Research Unit where he leads a team that analyses the political economy of conflict in the Middle East. His own work examines the political use of armed groups in processes of state development and geopolitical conflict.