Iraq’s Militias Set Their Sights on Political Power

With elections looming in May and the Islamic State on the run, the Popular Mobilization Forces are eyeing politics.

Members of the Popular Mobilization Forces advance toward Tal Afar, Iraq, on Aug. 22, 2017. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the Popular Mobilization Forces advance toward Tal Afar, Iraq, on Aug. 22, 2017. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

This month, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced an unexpected political alliance with the leader of an Iranian-aligned militia. Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Badr Organization, was set to join Abadi’s grand coalition of political parties slated to run for election in May.

The alliance provoked a swift backlash from across Iraq’s political spectrum. Long seen as a nationalist by Western governments, the prime minister was traditionally viewed as Amiri’s political enemy. Just days earlier, the two were exchanging slurs and heated accusations, with Abadi singling out militias like those allied to Amiri for particularly harsh criticism.

While the proposed coalition dissolved only a day later, the move stoked concern within the U.S. and other Western governments — which have long seen factions of the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), such as Badr, as an Iranian fifth column — intent on destabilizing the central government.

“I tend to see this through the lens of what I assume to be Iran’s grand strategy for the region,” said Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq. “You create, fund, organize, and train nonstate actors that will follow your direction and not that of those ostensibly running the country.”

As the fight against the Islamic State winds down, the issue of the PMF has only grown in prominence — pitting international fears of sectarian tension and growing Iranian influence in Iraq against powerfully entrenched political and military forces within the country.

Largely formed after 2014, the PMF themselves are a loose assortment of militias that rose up in response to the Islamic State’s drive through the country. While some of the most powerful and influential groups are indeed Shiite and Iranian-backed, including Badr, many are small local units that responded to nationalist calls from powerful religious figures such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

And not all are linked to Tehran, according to the U.S. military.

“PMF is a catch-all term,” said Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Defense Department spokesman. “There are Christian PMF, Yazidi PMF, and Shiite PMFs that are not affiliated with Iran.”

Now that active fighting in much of the country has subsided though, many of these militia units, especially on the local level, continue to provide support to the overstretched Iraqi Army. “The police and army are just spread out across so much of the country,” said Sajad Jiyad, the head of Al-Bayan Center for Planning and Studies, a Baghdad-based think tank. “The PMF aren’t elite units, but they contribute manpower, which is really needed.”

Figuring out an effective formula for demobilizing or incorporating these groups back into the established Iraqi security forces, however, is now rising to the surface as a delicate issue in post-Islamic State Iraq. And U.S. policy, according to some current officials, hasn’t caught up.

“Most of the decisions made in Iraq and Syria over the past several years were driven by the directive to defeat ISIS,” said a congressional foreign-policy aide involved in Iraq policy. “While we have been successful in that aim, our choices then and now have not yet shifted to take into account how we defeat the idea of ISIS in a meaningful way.”

Without a U.S. budget for 2018, American military aid to the Iraqi Army — one of the primary avenues for the United States to exert influence in the process — is also limited. With a full appropriation, military assistance could be conditioned on the demobilization of certain groups. Barring that, the only way for the United States to exert leverage is via “conversations bilaterally through [the State Department] and the military,” another congressional aide said.

Some U.S. policymakers acknowledged the role that the PMF have played over the past several years, as well as the political tightrope that the Iraqi prime minister now has to walk. Many units have been lauded across Iraqi society for the role they played in the defeat of the Islamic State. One U.S. official, who asked not to be identified in order to speak about ongoing discussions, likened it to a moderate Republican candidate balancing rhetoric from a populist Tea Party primary opponent.

“There is a political balance for Abadi between wanting to reintegrate the PMF and demobilizing them completely,” the official told Foreign Policy.

Other current and former officials, however, noted that a failure to effectively integrate parts of the PMF into the formal Iraqi security forces, or disband some militias entirely, could destabilize the government and aggravate sectarian animosity throughout the country.

The May elections provide a potential entry point for some groups with political aspirations. After a call in late 2017 from Ayatollah Sistani for groups to lay down their arms, some simply split their political and military wings. Other PMF leaders, such as Amiri, are former government ministers seeking office once again.

Yet this transition poses a threat to the structure of Iraqi politics and lays the groundwork to legitimize potentially dangerous trends, said Belkis Wille, a senior Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Up until now, when the PMF have committed abuses, they were still considered rogue elements,” she told FP. “Now, if they become political players, that gives them significant cover.”

Iraqi government officials, for their part, downplayed concerns about the dangers posed by the PMF. “There is a law to regulate the PMF’s status as part of the Iraqi security system,” an Iraqi official who asked not to be identified told FP in an email. Some members of the groups “are likely to get back to their normal civilian life or put down their arms.”

Jiyad of Al-Bayan Center echoed this, noting that popular opinion fell decisively on the side of demobilization. “The general public doesn’t want to see leaders running a party and a militia,” he said.

Nevertheless, PMF leaders, especially those who made sacrifices in the fight against the Islamic State, have an undeniable political cache in post-conflict Iraq, even in some Sunni-dominated areas.

“You find that there’s actually more trust for the PMF politicians than for politicians from the Green Zone [the heavily protected government area of Baghdad],” Jiyad said. “The PMF politicians did something. They put skin in the game and fought [the Islamic State].”

  Twitter: @Rhys_Dubin