Many of Iraq’s Shia are taking up arms to fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State. However, rather than enlisting with the Iraqi military via the Ministry of Defense (MOD), they are opting to join paramilitary groups under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF or al-Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic), which has become the single largest ground force combating Islamic State fighters in Iraq. Despite Human Rights Watch’s accusation that some groups under the umbrella, such as the Badr Brigades, League of the Righteous (Asaib ahl al-Haq), and Imam Ali Battalions are carrying out widespread and systematic human rights violations, the PMF has maintained its popularity and legitimacy among the Shia base. A recently published poll showed that 99 percent of Iraqi Shia support the PMF in its fight against the Islamic State.

As a consequence, the number of recruits rushing to enlist with the PMF is substantial. According to various claims from well-informed sources in Baghdad, more than 75 percent of men ages 18 to30 residing in the Shia provinces have signed up. Although most of these recruits are reservists who will not fight, the mere volume is indicative of the PMF’s support in that region.

The sheer extent of such numbers would typically indicate some form of conscription. However, there is no such formal mandatory recruitment in place. The PMF is merely guided by Ayatollah Sistani’s al-wajib al-kifai fatwa, which itself very carefully restricts recruitment to only as many as needed to combat the threat posed by the Islamic State. Yet, a PMF administrator in Najaf told the author that more than enough recruits have joined. They are having no trouble attracting members who come from a diverse set of social classes and geographic regions. According to him, the only distinguishable group that is not joining is university students.

Recruitment Campaigns

Without formal conscription, various avenues for PMF recruitment have emerged. These include existing political parties and armed groups, the Shia religious establishment and individual clerics, and increasingly, state officials.

The PMF, formally established by Nouri al-Maliki in early 2014, is able to recruit with ease partly because it is made up of various political parties and armed paramilitaries that have been active in Iraq for some time. For example, the Badr Corps, which is one of the larger groups in the al-Hashd al-Shaabi, was formed in the early 1980s and became one of the strongest organizations in Iraq after 2003. A well-established base helped with the recruitment campaign, particularly after the fall of Mosul in June 2014, when Iraq’s was in shambles. While the MOD struggled to rebound, the PMF benefitted from its existing political party and paramilitary institutions that were already in place to enroll volunteers. Existing members of the parties were easily able to enlist and those who were not already members easily found a group to join via the various offices. In short, the political parties provided a quick channel for recruitment in all localities—a luxury that the waning Iraqi Ministry of Defense lacked.

According to other PMF officials, the recruitment campaign is successful because it is administered by the religious establishment. One administrator claimed that the PMF benefitted from the role of the Najaf’s hawza 'ilmiyya, a Shia seminary, and particularly from Sistani’s office in Najaf. Sistani’s fatwa gave the PMF a religious legitimacy. Moreover, Shia religious scholars from the hawza are instrumental in recruitment, from issuing sermons, to posting banners on the streets, to organizing advertisements in the media. Most of the cities in the south are awash with posters celebrating the PMF. Many of these banners call for the citizens to defend the area and assert “with you we will win”.  Recruitment videos also play on Shia expressions, such as “labbaik ya Husayn” or “at your service oh Hussein”.

The PMF also actively displays images of martyrs. Its aim is not only to induce a sense of duty to avenge martyrs but to also maintain that the hawza will look after their families; many PMF banners show how the marja'iyya, or religious leaders, are supporting martyrs’ families.

Finally, the state is also attempting to take control of the recruitment process as part of an effort to bring the PMF under its auspices. In the summer of 2014, the Iraqi Council of Ministers attempted to institutionalize the administration and recruitment of the PMF by calling for a directorate body (hay’at al-hashd al-shaabi). Many leaders have started to urge recruits to join via the official state institution rather than the political or religious parties. This is an attempt by some, including Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, to gain control over the PMF’s recruitment process and membership. Abadi is eager to institutionalize the PMF under his office, which is now responsible for the PMF’s budget. He wants to use the power of the purse to wrest influence from the political parties and armed groups that make up the PMF. To him, this can decrease the influence of substate forces and proxies in the recruitment process.

It is ironic that the state is now encouraging recruitment to a paramilitary umbrella group and diverting recruitment away from the Ministry of Defense, which struggles with recruits. In the first half of 2015, the MOD expected 24,000 recruits but only managed to attract 9,000. Meanwhile, as mentioned, the PMF has exceeded its recruitment expectations with the state’s support.

Despite the central government’s institutionalization attempts, the political and armed groups remain influential in the recruitment process and the PMF remains merely an umbrella. Instead, state officials responsible for recruitment act in a personal or political party capacity. For instance, the First Deputy Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, Humam Hamoudi, who is a member of Ammar al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, one of the largest Shia parties, has supervised the establishment of various recruitment centers and training grounds. At a graduation ceremony he told a group of recruits, “We in the parliament, in the government, and in all places, have as our top issue that al-Hashd al-Shaabi is trained, armed, and paid.” Although paramilitary recruitment is not part of his official job description with the state, he, like many government officials, has decided to become personally involved in recruiting volunteers.

Why Are So Many Joining the Substate Militaries?

The question then is, what motivates such a large number of Iraqi Shia to join a paramilitary group? A small survey, conducted by the author, of new recruits in Najaf reveals various motivations.

One frequently noted reason is the protection of Shia religious sites. A senior PMF administrator told the author that Sistani’s fatwa called first to protect the holy shrines and second to liberate the homeland from internal and external enemies. As such, he believes that primary focus has to be on defending the shrines and then defending Iraq. Many recruits claim they enlisted to answer Sistani’s call, which carries a great deal of weight in Shia politics in Iraq. One stated to the author that “God watches everyday as I go to work for the Hashd… I forget I have a wife and children because I have a strong motive to testify.”

However, when questioned about why recruits are joining the paramilitary groups rather than the official state army, the overwhelming response is a mistrust of the Ministry of Defense. One recruit claimed, “If anyone was in Iraq now he would join the Hashd rather than the army.” Some believe that the MOD, like other wings of the government, is marred by corruption. They refer to stories like the 50,000 ghost soldiers who were on the government’s payroll. In contrast, the PMF became part of the growing protest movement with banners such as “Hashd fights against the terrorist; Hashd fights against corruption.” There is also mistrust in the organizational management and efficiency of the state army. Some  point to the Iraqi army’s ineffectiveness in combating the Islamic State in Mosul despite outnumbering the salafi-jihadists. As a PMF administrator told the author, “Most of the brothers [PMF fighters] tell me that they do not join the army because it is too easily penetrated by the enemy.” On the contrary, most recruits perceive the PMF as more efficiently run. Moreover, recruits believe that the Hashd treat its members and their families better.

Finally, the oft-cited economic argument—that recruits are joining the PMF rather than the Iraqi army because the former pays better—was not a major feature in responses but is an important signifier of why recruits are siding with the paramilitaries.

Breaking the Taboo of Militias

The rush of recruits seeking to join the PMF rather than the Iraqi army represents a broader trend: the increasing relevance and legitimacy of non-state actors in the region. For most Iraqi citizens from the Shia provinces, the PMF is more trustworthy than the state army. More critically, they feel it represents them to a greater extent than the MOD. Similarly, the Kurds in Iraq feel that their peshmerga, another substate military actor, represents them better than the central government’s forces. Moreover, the peshmerga now fight wars not only in Iraq but also in Syria, notably Kobane, with the approval of the international community—which is thereby recognizing the paramilitary as legitimate.

For many years now, the word militia has been perceived in the Middle East as a negative and extralegal—if not illegal—concept. However today, these militias are able to recruit a greater number of officers than de jure states; paramilitaries in Iraq now fare better than the MOD in enlisting new officers. Rather than competing with these security forces, Baghdad supports them. The central government often relies on them. Abadi, for example, needs the PMF as a wing of his government to fight his battle against the Islamic State. As such, state officials actively recruit fighters to serve not for the state but for para-state groups—a trend which is expected to continue in the region during the phase of transition.