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Pro-Iran Shiite Militias in Iraq Expanding Despite Iraqi Leaders' Efforts to Curtail Them

Members of Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces take part in a military parade in the town of Taza, south of the northern oil city of Kirkuk, Iraq, June 28, 2019.

Pro-Iranian Shiite militias in Iraq known as Popular Mobilization Forces are becoming bolder, despite calls by Iraq’s Shiite spiritual leader and prime minister to put their weapons under government control.

The PMF is an umbrella organization of Iraqi Shiite militias formed in 2014 to fight the Sunni militant Islamic State (IS), whose capture of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul triggered a collapse of the nation’s military. PMF militias boast tens of thousands of fighters.

Earlier this month, Iraqi media circulated a letter purportedly from the PMF’s most dominant commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, ordering the creation of a PMF air force separate from the Iraqi military. His apparent order came after several aerial strikes on PMF bases in Iraq in recent months. The PMF blamed the strikes on Iran’s regional enemy Israel, which neither confirmed nor denied responsibility.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shiite cleric in Shiite-majority Iraq, inspired the PMF’s creation through a June 2014 fatwa or religious decree encouraging Iraqis to “volunteer to join the security forces” to save the country from the IS threat. Iraqi Shiites responded by joining pre-existing and new Shiite militias with the approval of then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who granted them semi-official status under the PMF umbrella. The militias also received training and weapons from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force as they battled IS and helped Iraq’s revived military to defeat the Sunni militants in 2017.

Since then, the elderly Sistani has been urging Iraqis, through statements by his representatives, to join security forces specifically under the government’s authority. A week after the September 5 revelation of the PMF’s intention to create its own air force, Sistani’s office director in Lebanon, Hamed Alkhafaf, told Iranian Shiite news agency Shafaqna that the cleric believes weapons “should be, first and foremost, in the hands of the army and no party, group or clan other than government forces should hold arms.”

Iraq’s government also has been calling for PMF weapons to be brought under its control in recent years.

In late 2016, the Iraqi parliament enacted a law granting the PMF formal recognition as an autonomous branch of the Iraqi security forces and entitled it to government aid, with Iraq’s 2019 budget allocating $2.16 billion to the organization.

But the law also required PMF to put its weapons under Iraqi state control and abandon politics. Since the law’s passage, Iraq’s previous Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and incumbent Adil Abdul Mahdi also have issued decrees calling for the PMF to respect it.

In response to a dozen attempted attacks by suspected PMF militiamen on U.S. military, diplomatic and commercial targets in Iraq in the first half of this year, Prime Minister Mahdi in early July called on the PMF to become an “indivisible part of the armed forces and be subject to the same regulations.” He warned that any group failing to comply by July 31 would be treated as an outlaw.

Almost two months after that decree, the PMF has continued to operate outside of Iraqi government control. Some experts say Sistani’s ignored appeals for the PMF to abide by government decisions show the cleric no longer is the main influencer of the organization.

The PMF’s most powerful militias were established before Sistani’s fatwa and owe allegiance only to Tehran, according to Mithal al-Alusi, an Iraqi politician and former parliament member. Consequently, “the strength and weakness of these militias depends on the strength and weakness of the IRGC and the Iranian regime,” Alusi told VOA Persian.

Alusi said the PMF also has benefitted from the political support of some Iraqi Shiite politicians, particularly those affiliated to Islamist parties, who see the organization as a guarantor of continued Shiite rule of the country.

Ismael Alsodani, a retired Iraqi brigadier general who served as an Iraqi military attaché in Washington, said those Iraqi politicians have manipulated Sistani’s 2014 fatwa, using it to call for government benefits for PMF militias while encouraging those militias to ignore government orders.

Mustafa Habib, an Iraqi political analyst and visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, noted that not all PMF militias have defied the Iraqi government. “There are those who respect the government and work under its leadership, and some who refuse to work with it and consider themselves part of an ‘axis of resistance’,” Habib said, referring to an alliance that includes Iran, Syria and non-state actors such as Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Iraq’s pro-Iranian militias, some of whom the U.S. has designated as terrorist organizations, have increased in size by twenty times since 2010, according to a study published last month by the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center. From having as few as 4,000 operatives at the beginning of that period, the study said such militias now employ 81,000 to 84,000 personnel under the PMF umbrella.

Michael Knights, the author of the study and an Iraq military expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the significant growth of Iran-backed Iraqi militias, coupled with Iraq’s large population and weak government, make the country the fastest-growing arena for Iran’s expansion of perceived malign influence in the Middle East.

Knights told VOA that Iran’s major rivals in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia, have been watching this trend closely and are likely to act against it when necessary.

“Israel will keep striking in Iraq until such time as the Iranians stop using the PMF to move and hide missiles. The Israelis now consider Iraq to be a part of an extended battleground— first it was Syria, and then Iraq was added to it,” Knights said, referring to a series of recent unclaimed attacks that targeted PMF groups across Iraq and Syria.

“If you look at the suspected Israeli strikes, they all hit Kataib Hezbollah, which is a primary Iranian proxy in Iraq, but also is the most important player within the PMF,” he added.

The attacks, which killed and wounded several PMF members according to Iraqi media, raised the prospect of a new proxy war in Iraq, with Kataib Hezbollah threatening to strike back at Israel and hit U.S. bases in Iraq with missiles.

Ihsan al-Shamari, the head of the Iraqi Political Thinking Center in Baghdad, told VOA that Iranian influence over the PMF presents a major challenge to Iraq’s democracy and sovereignty.

“Iraqis don’t have any issue with the PMF as an institution, but their concern lies in Tehran’s dominance over its decision-making. Iran will continue to support a number of armed factions in Iraq as part of its strategy to maintain proxies in the region,” Shamari said.

“Ultimately, it is up to Iraq's government to decide whether it be for this Iranian vision of the PMF or against it.”