Reining in Iraq’s Paramilitaries Will Just Make Them Stronger
How the Popular Mobilization Forces are taking over the Iraqi state from within.
On July 1, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi issued an official decree that, at the end of this month, Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) would be fully integrated into the national armed forces. To most observers, this came as a surprise. The PMF were established by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2014 in response to the collapse of the Iraqi army and the swift rise of the so-called Islamic State. Most analysts concluded that these 50 or so predominantly Shiite paramilitary groups and militias were too powerful to be integrated with other state institutions and that they would continue to pose as independent military, economic, and political actors.
Has Mahdi found a solution for what had been considered an impossible problem? He emphasized that the groups would be abandoning their individual names and other political affiliations, instead adopting brigade and battalion numbers. They will also close their economic offices and commit to following the command of the prime minister as commander in chief. Many in Iraq and across the region are celebrating the news.
It’s worth noting, that among those celebrating are the leaders of the paramilitaries themselves. Qais al-Khazali, who leads the powerful League of the Righteous (Asaib ahl al-Haq), tweeted his support for the prime minister’s decision as a step in the right direction. Similarly, the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr issued a statement of support and announced the disbanding of his Peace Brigades (Saraya al-Salam). Members of Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba have also endorsed the order.
One might have expected harsh criticism from these leaders, given that their groups’ economic and political interests seemed to be directly jeopardized by the prime minister. But they seemed to understand something that most observers have not: Although the new policy mandates that the PMF integrate with the Iraqi state, it does not require their subordination. If anything, the risk may be that the state is subordinating itself to the paramilitary groups, not the other way around.
For the PMF leadership, this decree presents an opportunity to consolidate power from within the state. In my meetings with senior PMF leaders over the years, they have always insisted that one of their top goals was to gain official recognition by the Iraqi state. On one hand, there were financial incentives associated with gaining official control over ministries and government agencies. But the paramilitary groups also saw joining the state as the most promising path to public legitimacy.
PMF leaders are aware that many Iraqis have been withdrawing their support for the militias—and that includes Iraqi Shiites. During the fight against the Islamic State, Shiite Iraqis viewed the PMF as a quasi-sacred force—but once that war was over, they began criticizing the paramilitary groups. For example, in Basra, the home of an estimated one-third of PMF fighters, there were widespread protests against the PMF for operating as a parallel state. Local activists have blamed the PMF for killing 20 or so protesters on Sept. 8 and 9, 2018.
Muhandis, the group’s leader, has set the goal of transforming his organization from a wartime to a peacetime armed group by developing a clearer (and more formal) chain of command and enduring public support. His first step has been to consolidate the organization and centralize its decision-making. During the war, the PMF existed as an umbrella organization of many paramilitary groups all fighting against the Islamic State. After the Islamic State lost its territorial control, these groups began fighting one another for power, legitimacy, and resources. Muhandis therefore began a campaign to purge internal enemies, which he referred to as “fake” groups.
To complete this transformation, Muhandis’s ultimate aim has been to secure a closer connection to the state. Mahdi’s declaration this week marks a step toward that goal and toward strengthening the PMF’s internal hierarchy. He recognizes that there are still PMF groups that do not obey his command. For instance, a rocket attack near the U.S. Embassy in May was not ordered from the PMF’s central leadership, some of whom scrambled to find out how the attack happened. By gaining control over state resources—and how they are distributed within his group—Muhandis now has leverage to establish greater control over the PMF.
However, the single most important reason why the senior PMF leadership at this point supports the prime minister’s new decree is because of the prime minister himself. Unlike former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who at times worked against the PMF, Mahdi owes his power to the paramilitary groups that backed his candidacy. He does not have a political party to back him. Since his election, the PMF’s political leadership, represented via the Fatah electoral bloc, have sought to gain influence over the prime minister’s office, including by staffing it with allies. The appointment of the prime minister’s new chief of staff, Mohammed al-Hashimi, known as Abu Jihad, has given Muhandis and the PMF a strong ally in the Prime Minister’s Office. Security analysts argue that it was Abu Jihad who was internally behind this week’s decree. Indeed, weeks before it was officially announced, Abu Jihad explained the concept to me in a meeting at his office in Baghdad, pitching it as a response to criticisms about security sector reform.
The experience of the Badr Organization, which is the largest PMF unit with some 30,000 fighters, offers an instructive cautionary tale. It agreed to dissolve and integrate into the Ministry of Interior in 2004, but not only did Badr maintain a group of fighters separate from the official armed forces, it also ensured that those fighters sent into the ministry remained loyal to the paramilitary group. Today, Badr (and thus the PMF) continues to control all aspects of the ministry, from the minister to the federal police. Mahdi’s decree can similarly serve as a step for the PMF to pursue integration with the state but at the same time maintain its autonomy and the loyalty of its fighters and members.
For the senior PMF leadership, the main goal is to become part of the state as a step to consolidate power and gain control of the state. They will integrate on their own terms so as not to lose autonomy. And so, rather than reining in the paramilitary groups, Mahdi’s decree can actually be another step in the process of their empowerment.