The social nature of PMF network interconnections make them difficult to analyse. This research pushes past neo-Weberian assumptions to reach a closer understanding of the Iraqi state and the PMF.
The heterogeneity of the PMF has prompted those seeking to understand it to move away from considering it in monolithic terms, as a single organization or simply a proxy for Iran, and instead to cataloguing and specifying its different subparts. The PMF has variously been seen as an ‘umbrella group’ of social forces based on sources of religious emulation, or as a military institution with brigades and legal codes, or as a so-called hybrid actor that can stretch across the neo-Weberian state and non-state spaces.
Earlier work challenged the monolith argument, categorizing larger internal dynamics and contestations within the PMF into sources of religious emulation to the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, or Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, or Muqtada al-Sadr. That approach offered a sociological understanding of the organization’s component parts. Yet, this still underplayed the linkages and interconnections that exist between seemingly oppositional groups. At times, a fighter would join one group but maintain ideological or social affinities to another group. In 2014, a senior Sadrist armed leader told the author that he had encouraged some of his fighters to join other PMF groups because that would ensure more access to funds. As such, PMF members and groups have interacted and depended on each other jointly, and at times stretched across sources of emulation.
Other analysts have focused on the PMF’s formal structures, organizational charts, laws and military assets symbolized by the PMF Commission. However, as they note, the PMF is ultimately much more than its structures suggest. The PMF Commission’s 50 or so brigades lack a systematic size, strength and affiliation. Faleh al-Fayadh is – on paper – the president of the PMF, yet he does not have a large dedicated staff and is often at the behest of the social brokers in the wider PMF network. After the killing of Muhandis, network brokers such as Abu Zainab al-Lami, Abu Fadak, Abu Munthadhar al-Husseini, Abu Ali al-Basri and Abu Iman al-Bahli began cooperating and competing for leadership of the PMF. Some of these brokers are in the commission and some are not, but they all run PMF security, political and economic operations.
State power in Iraq cannot be isolated from society and is often found in so-called informal institutions – outside the government space.
Another approach views the PMF as a hybrid actor, defined as ‘a type of armed group that sometimes operates in concert with the state and sometimes competes with it’. This position argues that the PMF can simultaneously be state and non-state. While recognized in the government, it also operates outside government command and control, and runs economic networks that span formal and informal channels. However, approaching the PMF as a hybrid armed actor has meant accepting the neo-Weberian assumption that state power is found in formal institutions. In other words, the state is synonymous with the formal government. That is why the PMF can be in both state and non-state spaces. However, state power in Iraq cannot be isolated from society and is often found in so-called informal institutions – outside the government space – such as a political party’s private economic office. This paper seeks to move past the hybridity compromise to argue that separating state and society in Iraq hinders analysis and policy. Instead, this paper focuses on nodal connections of these groups all considered to be vying for state power, regardless of where they sit.
Each of the previous schools of thought has contributed to the contemporary understanding of the PMF in different ways. However, the deep social nature of network interconnections and ties has always made the PMF difficult to classify. Linkages and connections across PMF groups are based on generationally embedded social relations. Brigades inside the PMF Commission often feature brothers, cousins or relatives working together. Sometimes, these social networks reach into government spaces. At times, as this paper highlights, the same person can even occupy two roles – showcasing the political economy of corruption in Iraq. PMF affiliates, proxies, or representatives in the political space – whether parliamentary representatives or bureaucratic appointees – are nominated and selected based on complex social relations. In short, analysing networks allows research to push past neo-Weberian and other Westphalian assumptions to reach a closer understanding of both the PMF and the nature of the Iraqi state.