Earlier this month Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq. “Our heroic armed forces have now secured the entire length of the Iraq-Syria border,” he said on Twitter. “We defeated Daesh [IS] through our unity and sacrifice for the nation. Long live Iraq and its people.”
The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella organization of approximately 35 mostly Shia militias, were instrumental in driving IS from Iraq. The group was formed after IS captured Mosul in June 2014.
While technically under the control of the prime minister, analysts say the militias are largely independent of the Iraqi government, while Iran holds considerable sway over the strongest groups and influential Shia clerics control others.
Emboldened by their victories, strengthened by Iranian-backing and wildly popular among Iraqi society, some militias have announced their intention to become political parties and run in elections scheduled for next year.
Some figures in Iraq are calling for the militias to disband, others for the militias to be integrated into the army. Meanwhile, Western governments watch nervously, concerned over what they see as sectarian paramilitaries beholden to neighboring Iran.
An unintentional call to arms
After the fall of Mosul and the collapse of the Iraqi Army, then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a decree forming the Commission for the Popular Mobilization Forces. But it was a fatwa issued days later by Iraqi Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani which led Shia volunteers to join the militias en masse.
According to Renad Mansour, Research Fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think-tank, Sistani’s fatwa was never intended to spawn paramilitary groups but was used by Maliki to drive recruits into militias that would technically be answerable to him.
“Sistani’s fatwa said that volunteers need to rise up to defend Iraq as much as needed, rise up and join the state institutions,” Mansour told WikiTribune.
“But because Maliki had created this commission and he was still prime minister at the time, he was able to use the fatwa in a way to say that Sistani was telling volunteers to join the [PMF] even though he wasn’t.”
According to Michael David Clark, lecturer on Middle East politics at Cambridge University, Sistani is reluctant to get involved in politics but has had little choice since 2003.
“I don’t think that Sistani is particularly happy in the political sphere,” he told WikiTribune, “but the nature of Iraqi politics since 2003 has meant that clerics can no longer just say they are concerned with religious matters but they are tied in to politics.”
“He is not the shrewdest in terms of politics and probably frequently finds himself in a positon where he feels he has to do something but doesn’t really think through the consequences. You saw this with the fatwa that… laid the groundwork for the PMF to emerge. I’m not sure that any of that was his plan.”
Militias look to enter politics
According to Clark, the PMF militias are now “expecting to capitalize on the legitimizing effects” of defeating the Islamic State by running as political parties in the in the 2018 elections, adding that they are likely to perform well.
“The individual leaders of those groups are hungry for power, but also the fact is that the vast majority of the militias that make up the [PMF] are to some extent beholden to Iran… It suits their chief backer [Iran] and it suits the leaders of those particular militias.”
This presents a danger, Clark said, as these groups could use their power in parliament to push a “hard anti-Sunni, anti-Kurd line which would engender more conflict in Iraq.” However, he added that Iran would likely use its influence on these groups to prevent them from destabilizing the country.
“Iran doesn’t want a war in Kurdistan and they don’t want another Daesh [IS] and so we must hope that the cooler strategic heads in Iranian politics and foreign policy lean on proxies in Iraq to prevent that from happening.”
The militias have also been accused of a host of human rights violations in their warfare, including the destruction of Sunni homes, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and torture.
Belkis Wille, Human Rights Watch researcher for Iraq, told WikiTribune that the political power of the militias meant there was “really no chance” of individuals facing justice for rights abuses perpetrated by the PMF.
“The prime minister or any future prime minister cannot survive without [the PMF] on his side. So if he adopts any kind of hard-line position that they need to be punished for their abuses, his days would be numbered.”
Calls for PMF to disband
In October, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for the PMF to disband, saying that “now that the fight against Daesh and ISIS is coming to a close, those militias need to go home.”
However, “It’s been quite a long time since the United States, or any western actor, has been in a position to call the shots on what happens in Iraqi domestic politics,” said Clark.
“Whether people in Iraq are listening to Tillerson doesn’t matter because more people in Iraq are now listening to voices from Iran,” he said, adding that the militias disbanding in large numbers was “not at all plausible.”
By mid-2017 there were estimated to be 122,000 PMF fighters. Only 20,000 of them are in militias formed after Sistani’s fatwa.
Mansour told WikiTribune that it is likely these newer militias would disband if called to do so, but older, more established militias that have been both political and paramilitary forces for decades will resist such moves.
“A lot of these groups raised to fight against ISIS will disband, but the stronger groups and the groups that are closer to Iran aren’t going anywhere.”
Between Iran and a hard place
Abadi, who replaced Maliki as prime minister in August 2014, has rejected calls to disband the militias.
Analysts say Abadi is wary of militia commanders using their military success to achieve political aims but lacks the strength to confront them. Instead, the prime minister has moved to integrate the PMF into the Iraqi state and strengthen his control over them.
“Abadi is playing a very difficult game and he simply can’t lose the support of the PMF because that’s the day that he ends his period as prime minister,” Wille said.
Abadi must not only remain on good terms with the PMF but also must carefuly balance domestic and international interests.
“Abadi is in a very unenviable position,” Clark said. “[He] has to balance Western interests and Iranian interests. He’s got to balance Kurds and Iraqis, Sunnis and Shia. Even among the Shia he has got to balance those that are happy with the extent of Iranian influence and those which are not… in such a position it is only natural that there is a tendency towards the status quo.”
Last week, Abadi’s position received a boost when Sistani used his Friday sermon to call for the incorporation of the militias into the state security bodies.
“It is necessary to absorb the fighters in the official and constitutional structures,” Sistani said through a representative, adding that “the fatwa should not be used to achieve political aims.”
Divisive militia leader seeks peacemaker role
Another key figure in Iraq who holds sway over the militias is Shia cleric, militia leader and veteran of Iraq’s sectarian violence, Muqtada al-Sadr.
Despite in the past being labeled a “firebrand” and at one point “the most dangerous man in Iraq,” Sadr is now positioning himself as a moderate figure who stands against foreign involvement in Iraq and sectarianism.
Sadr, who this summer made a rare visit to Saudi Arabia and was the first Iraqi Shia leader to call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, has been one of the few Iraqi figures to advocate disbanding the militias, despite controlling one of the groups himself.
“We advise our brothers in all factions of the [PMF] to hand over their weapons to the federal government and work to strengthen it by enabling it to impose its control over all of Iraq’s territory,” Sadr said in a speech last week.
Clark, who has studied the Sadrist movement in Iraq extensively, believe his comments represent his maturation as a political leader.
“He has changed according to internal and external developments within the Sadrist movement and external development in Iraq and further afield,” he said. “He’s a much wiser much shrewder politician who has had to carve his own path and survive lots of very difficult developments on all sorts of levels.”
“On the other hand he is a political leader… his main domestic rivals are the other militias involved in [PMF] so he’s got a political reason for wanting them to be disbanded.”