Facing the existential threat of the then-rapidly expanding Islamic State in 2014, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki officially established the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) to assist in the defense of Iraq. Ayatollah Sistani, a prominent Shia cleric, called for volunteers to fight in the militias. The Sunni jihadis threatened Iran as well, so Iranian-backed militias operating in Iraq joined the fight, too. The PMF is a collection of roughly 50 paramilitary militias of different sizes and with varying political interests.
The PMF is officially part of the Iraqi security forces and received $2.16 billion dollars from the defense budget in 2019, yet it is independent from any control or oversight by the Iraqi Defense Ministry because the forces report to the office of the Prime Minister directly. In reality, the PMF doesn’t take orders from the Iraqi government because the government is not a unified entity, and the PMF brigades have a variety of political goals and alignments. While the PM legally commands the PMF, many brigades take orders from particular parties or competing government officials, the most powerful of whom is Hadi Al-Amiri the Minister of Transportation. Amiri is the commander of the Badr Organization, a large Iranian-backed militia with ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Until the territorial defeat of ISIS, the Iraqi government needed the PMF and allowed their operational independence. Now, without a common enemy, these militias have no explicit purpose, yet most refuse to disband and relinquish control over areas they control. The future of these militias is unclear, and the Iraqi government needs to take control of them or risk losing authority to militia leaders who act as Iranian proxies and regional warlords with personal armies.
On July 1, 2019, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi decreed that the Popular Mobilization Forces must integrate into the Iraqi Military by July 31, 2019. This decree maintains the PMF commission, but consolidates leadership over the militias. In coordination with a previous decree issued two weeks earlier, this is part of a greater effort to restrict the autonomy of the militias by outlawing the movement of forces and stockpiling of weapons without the defense ministry’s knowledge and permission. Some factions will resist and attempt to maintain independence from the Iraqi government or maintain their loyalty to Iran—further complicating the matter. With their loyalties to specific political groups, the militias could endanger the fragile Iraqi state and plunge the country back into war. It is important to understand what the motives of each of the militias are so they can be properly integrated into the military or be disbanded for the benefit of the recovering Iraqi state.
Who Makes Up the PMF?
As previously stated, many of the militias have a connection to Iran. This includes the largest of the militias, the Badr Organization, which officially makes up 11 brigades and controls several others that are meant to appear independent. The Badr Organization is the military wing of the Fatah Party, which holds 48 seats in the Iraqi parliament. Many Badr members have been a part of the official state security apparati, especially the Ministry of the Interior and the Federal Police. Badr affiliates and other Shia militias have and continue to abuse Sunni Arab civilians, especially Sunnis in former ISIS territory.
The Peace Brigades, which makes up at least three brigades, are the second largest contingent of the PMF. Shia fighters largely make up the Peace Brigades, but they are opposed to Iran and are loyal to the influential Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr was the leader of the Mahdi army that resisted the American invasion, but has since publicly renounced sectarianism and has formed the largest party in the Iraqi parliament. The Forward Party, or Sairoun Party, is a multi-ethnic, non-sectarian (though mostly Shia) parliamentary coalition that is made up of anti-Iran Shia parties, the Communist Party, and a few other smaller parties. As the Sairoun Party’s military force, the Peace Brigades are anti-foreign influence, particularly to Iran and America.
The remaining militias operating in Iraq are made up of a few miscellaneous groups: Sunni militias that were opposed to ISIS, a Chaldean Christian militia, a Shabak militia, and a Turkmen militia. All of these militias mostly operate in their respective communities as security. These groups all have links to Iran and the Badr group.
Efforts to Integrate the PMF into the Iraqi Military
Mahdi’s executive order was designed to reign in rogue militias and assert control over the many Iranian proxy forces that make up a large part of the PMF. The Iraqi military is weak and continues to rely on decentralized militia forces to maintain control of Iraqi territory. Because the Iraqi military is weak, individual PMF brigades are largely autonomous and have used their freedom of action to establish local crime rings, rob civilians, and engage in mafia-like protection rackets. The Washington Post has reported that some Shia militias have abused (mostly) Sunni farming communities in what previously was ISIS territory.
The Peace Brigades were the most receptive to the executive order and immediately announced that they would now only be known by their assigned numbers: 313, 314, and 315. The brigade’s spokesperson, Safa’a al-Tamimi, announced that the brigades would put themselves directly under the control of the Prime Minister instead of answering to Sadr, though it is likely he will still have great influence over these militias. Formal integration into the Iraqi military is consistent with Sadr’s goal to strengthen Iraqi institutions, especially against Iranian influence, which manifests in the form of Shia militias that are also restricted by this decree.
Other militia groups have been less willing to integrate with the Iraqi military establishment. On July 30, one day before the deadline, Falih al-Fayadh, the head of the PMF commission, announced that the PMF would need two more months before giving up its autonomous leadership. Many of these militias have gained political influence by associating themselves with political parties in the parliament. Others have established alternative sources of income that they are unwilling to give up, including robbery, extortion, and scrap metal salvaging. Similarly, Iranian-backed groups are unwilling to subject themselves to any oversight or restriction by the Iraqi government. PM Mahdi has begun to crack down on uncooperative PMF units by arresting Hamza Shimmery, a wealthy and allegedly corrupt businessman with ties to several PMF leaders. Mahdi will likely continue to put pressure on criminal elements associated with militias who do not integrate.
What Should Iraq Do?
The Iraqi regime has a couple of options for how to deal with the militias operating within its borders now that collusion is no longer an effective strategy: integration, containment, or suppression. All willing militias should be integrated into the Iraqi military following the example of the Peace Brigades. Those that do not cooperate tend to be militias that resemble criminal gangs and answer to Iran like Kata’ib Hezbullah, which has publicly rejected the decree. These groups should be contained, economically deprived, and shut down like the scrap metal militias operating in Nineveh. Because these militias are well funded and trained by Iran and the Iraqi military is comparatively weaker, they should not be violently suppressed especially because it could lead to escalation and war with Iran, which would be destructive to Iraq and its citizens. Iraqi forces should instead work to contain them.
 Staniland, Paul. “Militias, Ideology, and the State.” Journal of Conflict Resolution vol. 59, no. 5 (2015): 770-93. doi:10.1177/0022002715576749.