The Rise of the Popular Mobilization Forces Threatens Iraq’s Future and Its Statehood

ByFarouq Yousif

From its very establishment in 2014, in response to a fatwa from the Iraqi Shiite Supreme Marja Ali al-Sistani  to combat the creeping invasion of ISIS in Iraq following the fall of Nineveh to ISIS control,  it became apparent that the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) was created for mere sectarian objectives.   There is no clear-cut proof that we can depend  on to figure  out the political drivers behind  Sistani’s fatwa, which led to  the formation of the  PMF to bind  the growing  Shiite militias scattered across Iraq  under a unified and singular military leadership. However, it was announced later that Iran was behind the PMF.   Iran did not intend to liberate  Iraqi territories from ISIS — as was reported back then — neither to protect Shiite  holy  shrines – as mentioned  in Sistani’s fatwa —  but to create a paramilitary force  like the IRGC in Iran —which  is prepared to defend Iranian interests in Iraq from  potential threats.  

The rapid growth of the PMF has been a key Iranian goal. The PMF took control of Iraqi territories formerly under ISIS control and planted the seeds of political and social dissension in these areas.  The Iraqi government, as well as the country’s security and military forces, could not assist the displaced people in returning to their cities as they were unable to cross the red lines outlined by the PMF.   The Iraqi authorities had no clue what was happening in the territories which had become part of the PMF sphere of influence. The PMF controlled territories were a hotbed of hostility against Iraqi statehood because they were fertile areas for sectarianism to flourish. Several reports issued by international organizations confirmed that the PMF committed ethnic cleansing in the territories in its sphere of influence.   

The top priority of the PMF was to secure the land corridor stretching from Iran to Syria.  Despite the anonymous and overwhelming number of strikes against its camps, the PMF succeeded in securing the corridor. The strikes probably targeted the Iraqi Hezbollah because since its establishment by the late Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, it operated across the virtual lines separating Iran and the United States in Iraq. This was done to mislead the enemy (the United States) from knowing what was going on inside their spheres of influence.

 The IRGC, when deploying the PMF factions, divided them into two main designations: military and political.

From a military initiation perspective, the PMF overtook the Iraqi Army and security forces and became the military arm of [Shiite] sectarianism in Iraq. Politically, PMF candidates won seats in the Iraqi Parliament.   

The PMF tightened its grip on Iraqi statehood and dominated the Iraqi Army; no longer is it merely a supportive military group. The question arises here about the future of the Iraqi government. Preserving the government’s prestige is a far-fetched dream because it cannot even function properly.  The Kazemi government was unable to protect embassies and diplomatic missions from militia attacks until a ceasefire was announced by the militias. Also, the Kazemi government has been unable to secure the release of opponent activists who were kidnapped by the militias.  

Reviewing the political interactions and outcomes, it becomes apparent who obeys and who rules.  Since 2003, Iraqi statehood and the features of the Iraqi government have not been clearly identified. Superficially, it appears as if the country is governed in accordance with the Iraqi Constitution, but in reality, it is ruled by partisan political factions which use ministerial buildings as their headquarters. Their main aim is to collect financial revenues for their respective political loyalists/supporters.  The political factions exacerbate the fears of government officials by using their powers to increase corruption in the government; and if a minister attempts to confront their corrupt practices, he will be forced into resignation.   Also, members of these political factions are always prioritized when it comes to government posts or business contracts.  They can blackmail all Iraqi state-run apparatuses: the Parliament, the army, and police/security forces without fear of any ramifications.  Perhaps the best metaphor to describe the Iraqi government’s dilemma is ‘a government of angels crushed by devils’ (the PMF and militias).     

This smoothed the path for the PMF to take control over Iraqi ministries.  The political factions converged to distribute state revenues. Iran directed this move since it could no longer continue to finance its small number of militias – which were integrated into the PMF — due to US sanctions.  The PMF trained and funded Iraqi militias, most prominently: the Badr Organization; Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq; Saraya al-Khorasani; Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba; and Hezbollah (also known as the Iraqi Hezbollah). According to the official budget of the PMF, it had the finances to fund these militias. To pay for their expenses, the above-mentioned militias imposed taxes on markets and distribution checkpoints across Iraqi cities. They imposed levies on agricultural products.

The militias were no longer focusing on sectarian objectives because they started to operate across Shiite-majority cities. Their operations focused on looting and banditry to cover their expenses. Some PMF factions turned into bandit organizations, and the government was unable to combat them.  The government was not brave enough to arrest a militant branding a PMF identification card. The most dangerous act committed by PMF militias was the blackmailing of foreign companies and forcing them to pay illicit taxes.  As a result, some foreign companies resorted to closing their businesses in Iraq, thus experiencing heavy losses. The Iraqi government is partly responsible because it covered up the illegal operations undertaken by PMF militias against foreign companies, claiming that the operations were carried out by angry Iraqi tribes. The government was unable to pinpoint who carried out the illegal operations.

When reviewing the small PMF-backed militias which have been integrated into the organization  since its establishment, it becomes apparent that the PMF, as a military organization,  is not a well-defined military force; we cannot outline its geographical boundaries. It has become like an octopus; its factions continue to mushroom across the country.

Astonishingly, in every single Iraqi town you will find militias and their offices, and they claim to be part of the PMF. The PMF leadership has never denied nor affirmed their claims. If any Iraqi man can possess a weapon, he can potentially set up a militia and join the PMF. The Iraqi government would not pursue him nor would he be held accountable for his acts.  

If things continue this way, the south of Iraq will turn into a non-state-run military barracks. The government’s security and military forces have been unable to discharge their duties to safeguard citizens and their properties. 

The current situation in Iraq provides fertile ground for augmenting the PMF’s political presence.  Given its political presence, the PMF can continue to place further pressure on the Iraqi government to hinder the internal Iraqi reform process. This will benefit the ideological-centered parties which are linked to the PMF. Furthermore, this political presence has resulted in the PMF becoming an integral player in the political conflict in Iraq.  The militias belonging to the PMF have become notorious for their violence and illicit operations.  The government needs to firmly combat this behavior in order to smooth the path for the upcoming parliamentary elections. Some Iraqis  argue that the government’s political inaction  will not benefit the large parties because it puts them in direct confrontation with the PMF, which can dominate the government if the large parties do not win the most  seats in the Parliament.

 In a nutshell, the PMF domination of a country pulled apart by sectarianism has already started. The PMF has tightened its grip on Iraqi territories and major border crossings and imposed its dominance on Iraqi state-run institutions. Changing this reality cannot be done via elections — even if the PMF loses.  The attempt to create a modern Iraqi state has become much more difficult since the rise of the PMF, which has penetrated the basic pillars of Iraqi statehood.      

Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Farouq Yousif
Farouq Yousif
Iraqi researcher and writer