Iraq’s Shiite Militias Are Just Getting Started

The Iranian-backed forces that took control of Kirkuk from the Kurds are setting their sights on Baghdad.

A member of the Popular Mobilization Forces flashes a "V" sign in the northern town of Hatra on April 28. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the Popular Mobilization Forces flashes a "V" sign in the northern town of Hatra on April 28. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images) hashd1

“We fight tonight,” Zakey Kamaal, a Turkmen Shiite with salt-and-pepper hair, told me on Oct. 15. He was dressed all in black to commemorate the killing of Imam Hussein, the 7th-century religious leader whom Shiites consider the rightful leader of the Muslim community, and spoke calmly and with authority.

“Peshmerga will walk out without much confrontation,” he said.

Kamaal is a commander in the Iran-sponsored Badr Organization, an Iraqi Shiite militia that recently participated in driving the Kurdish Peshmerga from the disputed city of Kirkuk. On the day that I spoke to him, he and six other middle-aged soldiers were war-gaming under a life-size photograph of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric. The men were discussing the need to convince their fighters to exercise restraint, so as to allow the Peshmerga to abandon their positions without resistance.

Kamaal was true to his word. On Monday, Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Badr Organization, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a U.S.-designated terrorist who heads the Iran-aligned Kataib Hezbollah, looked on as the Kurdish flag was lowered and the Iraqi flag was raised at Kirkuk’s provincial council building.

Kirkuk has long been disputed between Iraq’s central government and the Kurds, but it became a flashpoint after the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Sept. 25 referendum on independence, which included the territory. The vote was widely seen as an attempt by KRG President Masoud Barzani to strengthen his political position in Iraqi Kurdistan, but electoral considerations in the rest of the country also shaped the fallout from the referendum. Iraq’s politicians head to the polls next year in national elections — to let the referendum pass uncontested would be tantamount to political suicide for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the umbrella organization under which Kamaal’s group and other militias fall, have emerged as a powerful political actor in the past several years. Following Ayatollah Sistani’s 2014 fatwa calling on Iraqis to take up arms against the Islamic State, and with weapons and military training provided by Iran, they fought the terrorist group with fanatical zeal — and the victory has empowered them like never before. Now, they are pushing officials in Baghdad to take an uncompromising stance on a range of issues, from ending the Kurds’ aspiration for independence to curtailing the U.S.-Iraqi partnership. Abadi is trying to walk a tightrope — balancing these sentiments with his own desire to bolster the central government’s ties to Washington and Iraq’s diverse array of sects and ethnicities.

Kamaal professes that the PMF takes orders from Abadi — but the truth is more complicated. In reality, they represent a powerful constituency that can pressure the prime minister to adapt to their agenda, and can also act on their own if the government does not support them. The decision of the Badr Organization and other militias to fight the Peshmerga, for instance, preceded Abadi’s instructions to send in the Counter Terrorism Service to secure the federal infrastructure in Kirkuk.

The divisions between Abadi and the PMF groups were visible even before the assault on Kirkuk. On Oct. 11, PMF fighters on the ground in Kirkuk told me the operation to re-establish control over the territory “is a matter of a day or two.”

But even as the PMF was mobilizing its forces, a source in the Iraqi Defense Ministry was boasting about Abadi’s strategy to resolve the crisis — measures that included restrictions on KRG airspace and marshaling diplomatic help from Iran and Turkey, but that did not contemplate the military action.

“Use of force? No chance,” the official said, on condition of anonymity. “Abadi is drawing up a list of things that can be done to teach Barzani.”

In reality, Abadi was cornered. Turkey didn’t cut off the pipeline used by the KRG to supply oil, and the Shiite militia groups pressured Abadi to deliver a quick political resolution or let them handle it.

“We move in when dialogue fails,” Kamaal said, by way of explaining the PMF’s role in Iraqi politics.

Having crushed the Islamic State in much of Iraq and recaptured Kirkuk, Iraq’s Iran-backed militias are now oozing with confidence. They are determined to hold on to the power that their members have fought and died to acquire, and they wish to be seen as a legitimate force — not an unorganized, unkempt bunch of fanatics.

To a large extent, this is also about economic survival. Ahmad, a 22-year-old Badr fighter who doubles as a taxi driver, isn’t needed as much since the threat of the Islamic State receded. Now, he is only deployed for 15 days per month — but in that time, he earns $400. Driving a taxi the other half of the month only earns him $80.

“I can die in war, but the money is very good,” he said.

By building political power in Baghdad, the PMF hopes to increase their access to Iraq’s patronage networks — which means jobs in the security services or a government ministry for people like Ahmad. And by wresting the oil fields around Kirkuk from the Kurds, the PMF and their allies are also dramatically enlarging the revenues available to Baghdad.

The U.S.-led coalition attributed the fighting in Kirkuk yesterday to a “misunderstanding” between the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga. On the ground, however, the situation looks much different. The assault on Kirkuk couldn’t have happened without Iran’s nod, and the recapturing of the territory is just the latest in a long list of victories for Tehran in the region. For anyone traveling in Syria, Lebanon, or Iraq, it is easy to see Iranian influence. Either the United States doesn’t care about Iran’s preeminence, or it doesn’t know where to look.

Anchal Vohra is a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East. Twitter: @anchalvohra