The most interesting evolution in Iraq’s security governance is currently represented by the peculiarity of the hybridization process characterizing the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), and the vast array of non-state/quasi-state militias. Since 2014 on, hybridization in state authorities as well as in the security domain has enhanced, although representing a recurrent feature of the Iraqi system which started in the Eighties: the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU, al-Hashd al-Shaabi) embody a new phase of this trend. Today Iraq looks like a plurality of competing but fluid centers of power linked to domestic and/or external patrons. Notwithstanding militias, as the PMU, succeeded to enter and hybridize the state, is the marja’iyya, a non-state authority, to represent paradoxically a source of legitimation for both state institutions and state competitors acting, at the same time, as a shield limiting the expansion of the Iranian model in security governance.

The Road to Hybridization

Long before its collapse following the Anglo-American invasion of 2003, Saddam Hussein’s regime had already created a “shadow state” with parallel and often competing powers.1 It is in this context that non-state actors acquired growing prominence, whether they were formally affiliated with Baghdad (as in the case of tribal networks) or opposed it (like the famous Iran-backed Badr Brigades). With the fall of the Iraqi regime, the country witnessed the mushrooming of a wide array of militias, whose relations with the new power élites ranged from dichotomist opposition to collaboration or exploitation of power mechanisms, in the framework of the Iraqi security architecture’s collapse. The formal institutionalization of militias, their cooptation within the ISF and the “feudalization” patterns, well represented by the takeover of whole ministries by single parties and militias (as well as by the Kurdish peshmerga in the north), are archetypal features of this erosion of state mechanisms and credibility.

Riccardo Redaelli
Riccardo Redaelli is Professor of Geopolitics, Catholic University of Milan, Director of the Master in Middle Eastern Studies at ASERI (Graduate School of Economics and International Relations).

But it was in 2014, with the collapse of the ISF in Mosul, that this process of hybridization and “state structure contamination” reached its peak. Specifically organized to fill the gap created by the Iraqi military’s defeat, the PMU represent an interesting evolution of the patterns of relations between “state” structures and militias. They are both the result and a trigger of ethnic-religious radicalization, intra-state competition and regional geopolitical confrontation.

The Rise of The PMU Galaxy

The main risk in dealing with the PMU is oversimplification, following strongly biased dichotomist narratives or overestimating sectarian identities. On the contrary, the PMU represent a heterogeneous galaxy of around seventy groups that defy any attempt to label this phenomenon with clear-cut definitions, although they can be subdivided into three distinctive groups: the militias connected with the Iraqi theological seminaries loyal to the Marja’-e Taqlid Ali al-Sistani (and therefore called Hashd al-Mariji’i), the ones linked to Iran (Hashd al-Wala’i) and the ones connected to Muqtada al-Sadr, the Sarayat al-Salam (Peace Brigade), which in some ways mirrors the social and political frame of his old Mahdi Army.2

Despite being useful for explaining the inherent diversity of the PMU, this classification does not reflect the reality on the ground, better identified by fluid, flexible matrix-like relationships among domestic actors, regional players, religious and informal power centers with contradictory goals, interests and personal rivalries. The popular support they still enjoy in the country derives both from their success in fighting the so-called Islamic State and from the blurred lines of their identity: something that inevitably strengthens the multiple-loyalties phenomenon that has haunted the “new Iraq” since its foundation.

Hybridization Within The State or Hybridization of The State?

Any attempt to read the current Iraqi situation moving from the theoretical perspective of the post-Wesphalian, Weberian modern state structure is misleading, since the meteoric rise of the PMU and their penetration of the Iraqi security sector are deeply rooted in the failure of state rebuilding from the ashes of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Today, more than a coherent state system, Iraq resembles a plurality of competing centers of power with little interconnection, often linked either to domestic patrons (such as the marja’iyya, tribal or ethnic identities) or to external ones (Washington, Tehran, the Sunni Arab monarchies of the Gulf and Ankara).

The ISF are no exception: the inability to transform them into a truly national organization able to represent Iraq’s integrity beyond sectarian affiliations paved the way for the disastrous defeats of 2014 and triggered PMU formation.

From this perspective, the conventional narrative that “the Hashd’s autonomy thrives on state weakness, yet it weakens state institutions further the more it expands”3 describes only a part of the current dynamics and trends. It is not only a vicious circle affecting the national security sector: the salient characteristic is that, within the political and institutional grey areas of Iraq, the PMU have been perceived by a large portion of the population as representing the state by another name. And that well before the collapse of the ISF in 2014, an inextricable matrix of leaders who were politicians or military officers, heads of militias, representatives of institutions, or proxies for external actors had already hijacked the post-Saddam state trajectory.

Therefore, looking at the relations among the government, the ISF and the PMU it is possible to observe something more than hybridization. Most of them received money and arms from the central government and acted in support of or even replacing the regular military, and this is a traditional mechanism of hybridization of the regular security sector. In the past decade, Iraq had already tested some forms of mixed security governance. For instance, in 2009-10, in Mosul and other disputed areas the U.S. command organized integrated checkpoints with ISF and peshmerga units, in order to reduce risk of confrontation or feelings of insecurity among the different ethno-religious communities living in those areas.4

Again, in this region, during the military operations against “IS” carried out in 2016-17, ISF and PMU coordinated their activities, thanks also to the informal supervision of Iranian al-Quds officers and pressure by Washington. PMU secured the external perimeter of the front, playing essentially a sort of police and encircling role, while ISF (mainly Army’s 16th Division and Counter-Terrorism Service) carried out the attack to the city , strongly supported by air strikes of the international coalition.5 In that occasion, PMU appeared as subordinated to regular army hierarchy, although – during the post conflict period – there have been continuous reports of abuse and targeting of Sunni families and individuals.

On the contrary, the province of Diyala epitomizes the risk of wide-spread sectarianism and lack of coordinated security governance. There, both Badr Organization and peshmergas prevented joint operations with forces of the international coalition and with ISF units, whose role in that area seems to be extremely weak. In particular, PMU are operating adopting ineffective counterinsurgency approaches and marginalizing Sunni-leaded PMU. Lack of a coordinated strategy with national forces risks to emphasize sectarian diffidence; something very dangerous in a province which has always been perceived as a recovery and refit area for the Sunni insurgency.6

In other words, forms of coordination and subordination of the PMU to the regular ISF chain of command have been evident during the war against “the jihadist caliphate”. However, much more problematic is the security governance in mixed or contested areas after the end of frontal battles, when police routine and post conflict operations underline how loose is the control of the state apparatus over PMU, which often implement sectarian and anti-Sunni postures.7

According to different sources, the estimated number of mobilized PMU fighters is now between 90,000 and 150,000, mainly Shia (Arab and non-Arab), but also comprised of Arab Sunni, Arab Christians, Turkmens and Yazidis.8 The Iraqi government estimates the existence of about 110,000–120,000 fighters regularly paid by the state. Legal institutionalization gave to the PMU state legitimacy: executive Order 91 of February 2016 and the November 2016 law established the PMU as formally part of ISF, providing them with a seat in the Iraqi National Security Council, suggesting they might follow Iran’s dual security system comprising a regular army and a strong paramilitary system (IRGC and the bassij).9

However, the level of ideological, financial, military and even cultural dependence on movements, political actors and militias from entities external to the Iraqi framework testifies to the fact that hybridization is not connected with the security sector per se, but became a distinct feature of the post-2003 Iraqi state. Some of those units, in particular the most connected to the al-Quds force of IRGC (such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah, and Kataib Sayyed al-Shuhada) never hid their double loyalty and their linkage with Iran, which granted them support and protection. Yet even those who endorse the velayat-e faqih doctrine cannot be encapsulated in a simple hybridization pattern, nor be dismissed as mere “fifth columns” acting against the state, since they mobilized (or re-mobilized) to save Iraqi polity vis-à-vis the so-called Islamic State, in a sort of osmotic cooperation with state institutions not only reconfiguring them, but serving also as pawns of a wider, transnational confrontation with Tehran.

From this perspective, the idea of a step-by-step institutionalization trend does not seem to fit either the social-political Iraqi system or the interests of the different actors involved. The example of the Badr Brigades evolution after 2003 is revealing: not only did they hybridize with the ISF, in particular at the police level, but they also took control of the Ministry of Interior, which encompasses military units and even acquired a crucial role in key provinces (with Diyala being the most striking example). As a result, militias, yesterday the Badr Brigades and now the PMU, managed to hybridize a portion of the state.

Towards Which Model?

With regard to the Iraqi defence sector, the PMU might follow a paramilitary, “Hezbollah-style” model or turn into a dual structure as the IRGC/regular army in Iran.

Echoing Hezbollah, some of the PMU capitalized on consensus at political level (despite the Order 91 excludes them from any active political role) contributing to the success of the al-Fatah electoral bloc that came second in the 12 May parliamentary elections.10 Similarly, the PMU are trying to impose themselves as economic actors and social-welfare providers, especially in contested areas of the country, supporting local populations’ needs and administering justice. Not surprisingly, they often took sides, supporting portions of Iraqi’s fragmented society against others or adopting punitive attitudes, especially towards the Arab-Sunni communities of the “liberated areas”.

However, Iraq’s peculiarity stands in the Shi’a theological rift between the Iranian model of political and security organization and the idea of the current marja’iyya. Interestingly, Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani’s fatwa of 2014 has produced a strong legitimization for militias’ activities, well beyond Sistani’s intention. But he still has the authority to withdraw this legitimization if some of the PMU should overtly attempt to disaggregate the authority of the central government or if the ones connected to the IRGC (in particular the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah) should impose Tehran’s views and interests with force. Something that PMU leaders are aware of, despite the influence and power of “the Sepah” (as the IRGC are often referred to in the country). This peculiarity is generally overlooked: the best defense against Shia domination on formal and informal military actors, as well as on state authority, relies on a non-state religious authority. This says much about the oddity of the Iraqi situation: a non-state authority is the shield and the source of legitimation for both state institutions and state competitors.

Finally, despite the simplistic narratives depicting the PMU as simply pawns for Iranian ambitions, they are clearly polymorphic entities, with different ethnic and social roots, ideologies and goals. They might have double or multiple loyalties, but they are not disentangled from Iraq and the defense of what they perceive as Iraqi interests. Nor does Tehran want Iraq to become a theatre of conflict, probably one of the few interests shared with the current US administration.11

This article was originally published on the Italian Institute for International Political Studies website.​


1 A. Charles Tripp, History of Iraq, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp.337 on.

2 Fanar Haddad, Understanding Iraq’s Hashd al-Sha’bi. State and Power in Post-2014 Iraq, The Century Foundation, March 5, 2018; Renad Mansour and Faleh A. Jabar, The Popular Mobilization Force and Iraq’s Future, Carnegie Middle East Center, April 2017

3 Nicholas Heras, Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, in Hanin Ghaddar (Ed.), Iran’s Foreign Legion. The Impact of Shia Militias on U.S. Foreign Policy, Policy Note n.46, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2018, p.6

4 Emma Sky, Preventing Arab-Kurd Conflict in Iraq after the Withdrawal of U.S. Forces, USPI Brief n.86, March 22, 2011

5 The decision to rely only on ISF units derived from the political and ideological significance of Mosul liberation as well as by the previous misconduct of PMU in other Arab Sunni-dominated areas. Erica Gaston, Only fully liberated in July 2017, half of the city is severely damaged while weak rule of law allows ample opportunities for a range of armed actors to intervene in Iraq’s second largest city, Global Public Policy Institute, August 27, 2017

6 Michael Knights and Alex Mello, Losing Mosul, Regenerating in Diyala: How the Islamic State Could Exploit Iraq’s Sectarian Tinderbox, “CTC Sentinel”, 9, 10, October 2016, pp.1 on

7 In particular, there have been report of abuses and targeting of refugees returning to their home after the battles, especially in Anbar and Mosul. See for instance: Norwegian Refugee Council, Displaced Iraqis forced to return to destruction left in wake of war on ISIS, February 27, 2018

8 Garrett Nada and Mattisan Rowan, Part 2: Pro-Iran Militias in Iraqi, Wilson Center, Research: The Islamists, April 27, 2018

9 Iraqi Executive Order 91: information previously available at: However, PMU are still under direct prime minister’s command and their enrollment in the salary system is temporary: maybe an attempt, to mitigate their institutionalization.

10 International Crisis Group, Iraq’s Paramilitary Groups: The Challenge of Rebuilding a Functioning State, Report no. 188, July 30, 2018, p. ii.

11 Andrew England, Iraq’s Shia militias: capturing the state, “Financial Times”, July 31, 2018