On August 1, militias within the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)—including the Badr Organization, the Hezbollah Brigades, the Martyrs of Sayyid Brigades, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), and Jund al-Imam—together reached an initial agreement to run on a unified list in Iraq’s upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for April 2018. These Iran-backed factions’ attempts to form a political bloc highlights the struggle over whether the Shia-majority PMF will serve primarily to advance Iran’s interests regionally or strengthen Iraqi security structures.
More than three years after it was established, the PMF lies at the heart of the struggle between two currents in Iraq. The first strives to model the PMF after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and to make it an alternative to the Iraqi army. This current is dominated by figures such as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis who are affiliated with and financially supported by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The other current opposes this and favors the PMF’s integration into the armed forces. This current, backed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, is largely made up of groups that are overseen and partially funded by local Shia shrines affiliated with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
The political ambitions of the Iran-backed factions present an ongoing struggle to Abadi’s efforts to integrate the force. The Iran-backed forces consider themselves an important element of the Iran-led “axis of resistance” and have taken on additional combat roles beyond Iraq’s borders. Ali al-Yasiri, the secretary-general of the Khorasani Brigades, has emphasized, “Wherever we are needed, we will be. We operate based on the axis of resistance’s best interest.” As a result, they do not necessarily follow the Iraqi commander-in-chief’s orders. In fact, they have disobeyed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on several occasions. This stems from their belief that they are obliged to follow Ayatollah Khamenei because he is the Wali al-Faqih (the Guardian of the Islamic Jurist) and, according to one Shia school, all believers must follow his instructions regardless of their nationality. Almost all of the Iran-backed Iraqi militias openly admit that they follow the Iranian Supreme Leader and that his religious instructions have primacy even over Iraqi state law. Qais al-Khazali, the secretary-general of AAH, has stressed, “When religious law is in contradiction with state law, the former prevails.”
This stance proves even more contentious when considering Iran-affiliated PMF leaders’ aspirations to dominate the political scene. “A military victory without a political victory has no meaning and no value,” Qais al-Khazali said on the third anniversary of the PMF’s founding in June. Factions such as AAH have already intensified their activities in preparation for the 2018 parliamentary elections. Since March 2017 these groups have striven to form a unified political bloc that strengthens their position in the upcoming elections. With the recent agreement, this goal seems more realistic than ever. They have also increased and expanded their outreach activities, such as forming youth organizations, delivering speeches in universities, and meeting with tribal notables. Abadi has repeatedly emphasized that, as military personnel, PMF leaders are not allowed to become involved in any political activity, a ban they have largely ignored. But these leaders stress that they must be allowed to participate in politics as long as they are not officially registered as PMF commanders—which they are in no rush to do.
These factions are popular among the Shia population, which sees them as the saviors of the nation because they were the only force besides the Kurdish peshmerga that could stop the Islamic State’s advance in Summer 2014. According to an April 2017 poll by the National Democratic Institute, 97 percent of residents in the southern Shia-majority provinces approved of the PMF. The approval rate for Hadi al-Amiri, the secretary-general of the Badr Organization, was 66 percent, compared to 52 percent for current Prime Minister Abadi. Amiri, who has very close ties to Iran, has repeatedly been suggested by Shia parliamentarians as a contender for the premiership. A unified bloc led by Badr will increase his chances as a Abadi’s main competitor, though Abadi can also rely on some support from Sunni communities.
Meanwhile, Abadi is trying to stave off their competition by showing that they do not need to be political groups and they are best used as part of the country’s military. The Iraqi administration’s efforts to curtail these groups’ political engagement included parliament’s vaguely worded November 2016 law that stipulated the PMF will be an independent military institution within the security forces. The law has also become one of the main obstacles to dissolving the PMF and integrating its fighters. Instead of challenging this law, Abadi is trying to consolidate and empower PMF factions not allied to Khamenei, including the Ali Akbar Brigade and the Imam Ali Combat Division. The largest of these factions is the Abbas Combat Division with over 7,000 active fighters and up to 40,000 reserve forces.
In this, Abadi has the backing of Ali al-Sistani, a Grand Ayatollah and the supreme Shia authority in Najaf. Although Sistani’s call for Iraqis to take up arms against the Islamic State in 2014 resulted in the creation of the PMF, he refrained from recognizing the group as it became dominated by Iran-backed factions. Instead, since 2014 he has encouraged the formation of military groups overseen and partially funded by local Shia shrines, which are under his patronage, to end Iran’s monopoly over the Shia paramilitary factions and keep the forces under Iraqi institutions. Shrine PMFs work very closely with the Iraqi army and do not have political ambitions. Although some of their fighters are on the PMF payroll—which is overseen by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis—the shrine factions do not receive orders from Iran-backed PMF leaders, and even have specific instructions from al-Sistani not to even meet with any non-Iraqi military figures nor participate in the Syrian war.
Abadi has agreed to merge 1000 fighters of Abbas Combat Division, the largest and best-equipped shrine faction, into the Iraqi army. In this regard, the government allowed the division to mobilize an additional 3000 fighters from its reserve in July to boost its forces in the Tal Afar operation, giving more operational roles to Iraq-aligned Shia factions. This can open the door to further merge Shia factions into Iraqi police and army forces, something Iran-backed factions fiercely oppose. If the government continues to pursue these efforts aggressively, they could eventually lead to the demobilization of the PMF and end the prospect of having an ideological force obliged to follow Khamenei’s instructions. In line with the shrine factions that have declared their willingness to be integrated in the police and army forces, Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr—head of the Saraya al-Salam, a large Shia militia faction—has also asked for the integration of PMF fighters.
The pro-Iran factions, however, having secured their independent position in the PMF law, are not willing to consider this option and present serious challenges to the model. For example, even though the PMF receives only 6 percent of Iraq’s security-related spending, the PMF Commission that controls the budget ($1.63 billion for 2017) is dominated by the Iran-backed factions. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the operations commander of the PMF Commission, disproportionately rewards the factions loyal to Iran. Since 2015, shrine factions have entered in a series of disputes with PMF Commission leaders, accusing them of cutting their budget and confiscating one of their brigades.
At the moment, keeping the Iran-backed factions from dominating the political scene rests with Abadi, and the 2018 elections will determine if his current is ascendant. Yet as the Islamic State, the PMF’s common enemy, loses its last territories in Iraq, these factions will push back harder against these efforts, and any success they have in achieving a greater political role will extend Iran’s regional influence.
Hamdi Malik is a contributor to Al-Monitor and BBC Persian. Follow him on Twitter @HamdiAMalik.