While the PMF is a significant actor in the governance of Iraq, it is just one part of an array of forces that make up the incoherent state that struggles in its basic duties to its citizens.
In the early morning of 3 January 2020, the US conducted its highest profile assassination in the modern history of the Middle East, striking near Baghdad International Airport and killing Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, leader of Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), along with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the de facto leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (al-hashd al-shaabi, or PMF). That morning Muhandis had travelled to the airport to greet Soleimani to discuss regional strategy amid an escalation in the US–Iran dispute. A few days earlier, PMF fighters had stormed Baghdad’s Green Zone and protested outside the American embassy. The two, along with their entourage, were killed as they drove out of the airport. Media attention after the assassinations focused almost exclusively on Soleimani, who was the target of the attack. Muhandis appeared to simply be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The killing of Muhandis shook the precarious stabilization process in Iraq. While many argued that he was a major player in the Iraqi government’s crackdown on protesters in 2019 and as such should be removed, the strike – like previous US military action in the country – has failed to either better protect protesters who continue to face state violence, or enhance Washington’s interests of reducing Iranian influence or curbing the PMF in Iraq. Far from being part of a coherent strategy, it was another military strike without the necessary political or socio-economic solution to bring about lasting reform. Instead, it has contributed towards a more violent point in the repeated cycles of conflict that have gripped the country since 2003. The inner structure of the PMF has become less coherent; armed groups have proliferated seeking to avenge the killing; and key PMF social brokers in the Iraqi state have gone into hiding, limiting the chance for engagement. Even if Muhandis was an afterthought, events since the attack have revealed the significance of the killing – and the role of the PMF in the Iraqi state.
The PMF are at the centre of Iraq’s recent history. In the summer of 2014, thousands of Iraqi men gave up their daily routines to join long queues for armed groups that were enlisting soldiers to fight. Many of them had seen videos on social media of Islamic State (ISIS) fighters swiftly capturing one-third of Iraq’s territory while brutally killing their compatriots. The Iraqi army was fleeing without a fight. With ISIS fighters only a few kilometres from the capital, Baghdad, Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a religious ruling (fatwa) calling for men to enlist in Iraq’s state security forces to defend the country’s territory. Rather than join that crumbling army, thousands of men queued to join pre-existing and predominantly Shia armed groups. Seeking to institutionalize these forces, the then prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, integrated the armed groups into the PMF Commission (hayat al-hashd al-shaabi), which came under the National Security Council (NSC).
Following the fight against ISIS, PMF networks converted battlefield successes into ballot-box victories. The largest electoral blocs of the 2018 national elections – Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoun (Alliance Towards Reform) and Hadi al-Ameri’s Fateh (Conquest Alliance) – both drew support from PMF networks. While Sadr often maintained some distance between Sairoun and the PMF, Fateh candidates included several PMF officials turned (or returned) politicians. These electoral victories allowed the PMF to strengthen their connections to government ministries and institutions. The PMF also amassed an economic empire, working and competing with other Iraqi political parties to generate revenue from state coffers as well as from checkpoints, customs and other parts of the so-called ‘informal economy’.
Becoming a part and a key defender of the political order – which increasingly relies on violence to silence the voices of many Iraqis – led to a decline in the popularity of PMF groups. While each group maintains varying degrees of a social base, they struggle to use ideological narratives – such as its anti-ISIS drive – to preserve public authority amid growing anti-establishment sentiment in southern Iraq and Baghdad.
Structurally, the PMF has never developed into a coherent organization. Instead, it remains a series of fluid and adaptive networks representing Iraq’s full ethnic, sectarian and regional diversity. The networks have existed for many decades. Some, known as vanguard networks, have a tight-knit leadership but weak ties to society and remain closer to Iran. Others, known as parochial networks, have less coherent leadership but strong social bases in Iraq. Understanding the history and structure of these networks reveals clues to their strategies, capabilities and nature of engagement with the state.
Critically, these networks have a symbiotic relationship with Iraq’s security services, political parties and economy. They are deeply embedded across state sectors and have formed relationships – sometimes adversarial (some networks have threatened Iraq’s prime minister) but more often cooperative – with a number of key actors and institutions, some of which are strategic allies of Western policymakers. Iran is a key ally to several of these networks.
US and Western policymakers, along with allied Iraqi leaders, have struggled to find a way to limit or integrate the PMF. In a recent discussion on the issue, a senior US policymaker claimed that the best strategy would be to isolate and remove the bad leaders and groups within the PMF, like a surgeon removing a ‘cancerous tumour’, while strengthening the more acceptable groups. The killing of Muhandis can be seen as part of this thinking. Since 2003, Washington has resorted to military solutions to remove adversaries in Iraq. But this strategy has had limited success in enhancing its interests or Iraq’s stability. Without much attention paid to accompanying political solutions, the so-called surgical strategy has done little to stabilize the country.
This paper argues that this failure is based on a fundamental misreading of both the nature of the PMF and the state – best understood as a network. The PMF is not a symptom or even the root of the problem, but part of the array of forces that make up the incoherent Iraqi state. Its brokerage networks – those that link and negotiate between different groups – include not only fighters, but also parliamentarians, cabinet ministers, local governors, provincial council members, business figures in both public and private companies, senior civil servants, humanitarian organizations, and civilians. The diffusion of these networks means that removing one node – like Muhandis – will not change the nature of the problem. Understanding the PMF networks and their connectivity to the Iraqi state and society can help policymakers achieve a more coherent strategy that realizes reform and resolves problems in the country’s governing structure. This strategy should not focus on ideals of how the Iraqi state should look, but on a realistic approach to ensuring more coherence and accountability in relationships between armed groups, political parties, the government and society.