Though many PMF groups and forces emerged only after June 2014, most had a pre-existing presence in Iraq, where they have competed and cooperated with other actors for power since the 1980s. Most of the leading nodes that make up the PMF today can be traced back to one of two militant networks: the Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim network, which began in the 1980s and was close to the IRGC; and the Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr network, which emerged in the 1990s inside Iraq. In its early days, the Dawa Party – another major Shia Islamist political party at the time – also had militants among its members referred to as mujahideen. However, it soon dropped its militant wing, splitting from the IRGC and rejecting the principle of wilayat al-faqih (guardianship or rule by the Islamist jurist) and the role of militias, which migrated towards the Hakim-IRGC network.
Over the years, these networks have transformed, re-invented themselves and gained greater power vis-à-vis the state, but they have always been present and never completely removed. Some of the networks, such as Kataib Hezbollah, operate as vanguard networks. Others, such as Saraya al-Salam or Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), operate as parochial networks. Some groups, such as Badr, have transformed from a vanguard network to a parochial one after 2003. Understanding the structure of each network is significant as it reveals its capabilities and strategies.
The vanguard networks in the PMF have weak ties to their social base. They have established few political party offices and have yet to formally run for elections. Their leaders have not engaged in much activity in local communities. In focus groups and interviews for this paper, many Iraqi respondents did not know the leaders of vanguard networks. Even rank-and-file members of these networks claimed not to know the identity of their commanders.
The main vanguard network in the PMF is Kataib Hezbollah (KH), which has strong relations with Iran. KH leaders have always remained largely unknown and elusive. Yet its relatively coherent leadership structure has been able to form different brigades and groups in order to effectively direct its fighters.
KH emerged after 2003 from the network of Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, who established the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SCIRI) in the early 1980s while in Iran, where he spent more than two decades in exile. SCIRI later formed its own armed wing, known at the time as the Badr Corps (Faylaq Badr). Many future KH leaders such as Muhandis came from the Badr network, which was supported by Iran. In the 1990s, the General Command of the Iranian Armed Forces paid around $20 million to Badr to pay salaries and purchase weapons, foodstuffs, vehicles and equipment. According to the Iraqi sociologist Faleh Abd al-Jabbar, ‘Despite SCIRI’s talk of the Badr Army as an Iraqi organization, the force was under Iranian command. The commander of the force was an Iranian colonel’. In the nineties, Badr maintained underground military bases and networks throughout Iraq. Muhandis and his colleagues ran these bases.
After the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, Badr moved around 10,000 fighters into Iraq and established itself along the eastern provinces bordering Iran, from Diyala to Wasit. At this point, its chief of staff Hadi al-Ameri sought to vertically integrate the network more with a social base inside Iraq. Muhandis, however, split from Ameri and formed KH to maintain the vanguard structure. Unlike Badr, KH did not get involved in Iraqi government politics in the years immediately after 2003. Instead, it rejected the US occupation. For many years, KH remained a small elite force of some 400 fighters. Despite the split, Muhandis remained part of the Iran-aligned network and worked alongside Ameri in several political, economic and security contexts.
Strong horizontal ties have allowed the KH leadership to pursue a clear vision, responding to threats and shocks in a more coherent way.
As a vanguard network, KH’s leadership is united in an ideology of Shia supremacy and wilayat al-faqih, adopted from the Iranian Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini. Muhandis was known by many to be driven more by this ideological conviction than by a nationalism that split Iraq and Iran into two countries. Many of the parochial networks, such as the Sadrists, rejected wilayat al-faqih because of its implications for undermining Iraqi nationalism.
Strong horizontal ties have allowed the KH leadership to pursue a clear vision, responding to threats and shocks in a more coherent way. While the killing of Muhandis presented a significant shock to this network, KH leaders swiftly regrouped and formed several new resistance groups. These included Usbat al-Thaireen, the Islamic Resistance Army (also known as JISIM in Iraq), Kataib al-Shaabaniya, Ashab al-Kahaf, al-Mahdi’s Grip, Saraya Thair al-Muhandis, Liwa al-Montaqimoun, and a few others. These groups represent the KH network’s retaliation strategy for the killing of Muhandis.
On paper, none of these new resistance groups was officially linked to the PMF Commission or any formal security force. Many of the other PMF networks rejected their apparent connection to these rogue groups. However, fighters in the new armed groups had migrated from existing PMF vanguard and parochial networks. They included KH fighters, as well as those from AAH and other Iranian-aligned groups in the PMF Commission. One of the new groups, the Islamic Resistance Army/JISIM, was formed 100 days after Muhandis’s death to avenge his killing and claimed that the KH vanguard network had given it 2,500 fighters. The creation of the Islamic Resistance Army with this specific objective, demonstrates the coherence of the KH leadership, which in the wake of a major shock successfully shifted fighters around and formed new groups to pursue its strategies.
As a vanguard network, KH has weak vertical ties to its base and the communities where it operates. Though relatively small compared to parochial networks, KH remains an underground and largely unknown elite force that can rapidly mobilize under different banners and names. At one point, even the identity of its so-called leader, Abu Ali al-Askari, was subject to debate. Some in the Iraqi prime minister’s office questioned his existence. After Muhandis was killed, KH attempted to become more embedded by creating public institutions like youth scout groups, yet it struggled to compete with the parochial networks that were already integrated with their social base and mobilized through shared religious devotion.
The main parochial network that became an organization after 2003 was the Sadrist movement’s Mahdi Army (Jaysh al-Mahdi, or JAM), which, with its tens of thousands of members, was the largest Shia militia fighting the US occupying forces. The militia expanded rapidly thanks to the Office of the Martyr al-Sadr’s network of local administrative offices and religious institutions, inherited from Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr’s pre-2003 movement. Soon after, Jaysh al-Mahdi amassed a significant following among the lower classes of Iraqi Shia society – the Sadrist base – in Baghdad and southern Iraq.
The Sadrist network was impaired by weak horizontal ties. In the mid-2000s, it splintered into smaller fighting units, known as the Special Groups, which included up to 5,000 fighters under the control of Qais al-Khazali. These Special Groups represented leadership structures within the Sadrist network that sought more autonomy from the leader Muqtada al-Sadr. Many of these leaders, like Khazali, were more loyal to his father, Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr, and challenged Muqtada.
As a result, leaders of the Special Groups moved closer to the Iranian-aligned networks. The IRGC leader, Qasem Soleimani, understood how to navigate between the competing networks to take advantage of their weak horizontal ties. He designed a military structure that interfaced effectively with smaller units across the Sadrist network. According to Khazali, by this stage, Sadrist paramilitaries were receiving around $2 million per month from Iranian sources, totalling $24 million per year (not including extensive training and other materiel). Internal conflict was at times managed through Soleimani’s mediation.
These contestations nonetheless continued and at times flared up into violence. From October 2019, fighters from the AAH and Saraya al-Salam fought each other in southern Iraq under the guise of protests. Their feud became a tit-for-tat exchange of violence and assassinations. By the end of 2019, Muqtada al-Sadr left Iraq for temporary safe haven in Qom, Iran, due to threats from within the old Sadrist networks.
Despite the weak horizontal ties and constant infighting, these parochial networks have been successful in developing vertical ties to their social base. They have set up party offices in the localities where they are present and compete in local and national elections. Many of the parochial networks stem from the historical Sadrist networks – including Saraya al-Salam and AAH. These parochial networks seek to strengthen vertical ties by developing patronage networks and expanding their base. They rely on a mixture of ideological, economic, institutional and sometimes coercive tools to maintain these vertical ties.
Ideology plays a large part in attempts by parochial networks to gain a strong base. As the senior leadership sought to transform the PMF into a more vertically integrated organization (strengthening leadership ties to the social base), it relied on Sistani’s fatwa that called for men to fight when recruiting to counter the ISIS insurgency. To further increase their appeal, the parochial networks differentiated themselves from the militias of the past by regularly reminding their bases and communities that the PMF was under the command of the fatwa. After protests erupted in Basra in 2018 and spread to the rest of southern Iraq and Baghdad in October 2019, many protesters accused the PMF of being behind the government’s violent crackdown that killed over 600 and wounded tens of thousands. Yet, to defend the PMF from these accusations, its social base readily refers to the fatwa. A father of a PMF fighter in Nassiriya explained that ‘the PMF have nothing to do with these matters and events [counter-protest violence], and they [his sons] only responded to the marja’s [Sistani’s] call in 2014. We sent our children to fight ISIS’. PMF networks sought to use the fatwa to overcome their waning ideological power as they transformed from a victorious anti-ISIS force to a counter-protest force.
The crucial caveat in the 2014 fatwa called for Iraqi citizens to join government ‘armed forces’, rather than militias. Acquiring a connection to the government allowed PMF parochial network leaders to signal to their followers that they were in compliance with the fatwa. In Basra, a civil society leader explained the difference in her province where many had begun to accuse the PMF of targeting protesters and civil society activists on numerous occasions, ‘Those who organize for the military wing are what we call the PMF. Those are the ones who participated in the battle against ISIS. The militias are the ones who carry out the eliminations [attacks on protestors and civil society activists].’ This differentiation, between the PMF and the ‘militias’, or later between the PMF and the ‘factions’ (fasayil), helped the PMF parochial networks maintain some ideological power over their social bases, despite losing widespread popularity due to accusations of having targeted peaceful protests in Basra in 2018 and elsewhere after October 2019.
Parochial network tactics for building vertical ties included using their access to state networks to offer employment opportunities to their social bases. According to a lawyer from Baghdad, ‘the poor are unable to get loans to gain a fixed resource. Most of the youth in our areas resort to being hired by the PMF and Saraya al-Salam. Sometimes you think that this poverty is a methodology used by the factions to gain fighters. If job opportunities become available, they will go to the relatives and friends of the partisans.’ A father whose children serve in the PMF said, ‘There is no need to fear [if your relatives are employed by the PMF], especially because your children receive salaries from the government. Sometimes they [the PMF] insist that orders must be followed, those who refuse will lose their [government] salary.’ This reveals how economic incentives and coercion connect and serve as tools for parochial networks to maintain their social base when ideological arguments wane.
Even those who are not part of the social base tend to go through the PMF networks for expediency and to avoid government red tape.
Even those who are not part of the social base tend to go through the PMF networks for expediency and to avoid government red tape. A tribal leader, who was critical of the PMF networks for blackmailing residents in his province of Kirkuk, acknowledged that if he encountered any trouble, his first resort was to go to the PMF. He found them quicker to respond and more effective because they were from the local area, unlike the federal police, who included officers from all over the country. A resident from Baghdad, who the PMF had kidnapped and later released, acknowledged that in most cases working closely with PMF parties, companies, economic committees or leaders meant that ‘loans can be obtained’ and ‘projects will not be obstructed or rejected’. Most interviewees – whether pro- or anti-PMF – agreed that its networks were key to delivering or facilitating public services.
To strengthen their public authority more generally, these parochial networks also rely on modes of coercion, which has created a sense of fear in the country. PMF networks have enforced their authority on citizens by specifically targeting those who have spoken out against them, from civil society activists to government leaders including criticisms of President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, whom they accused of being US agents. PMF networks are also implicated in a series of kidnappings and assassinations in the country.
This mixture of tactics has allowed parochial networks to hold varying degrees of vertical ties with their social bases. This translated into successes in elections in 2018, when the Sadrists won the most seats and the PMF electoral bloc, Fateh, came second (most of its seats went to Badr and AAH). The voter turnout in that election was its lowest since the US-led invasion, a sign that the wider Iraqi population was not necessarily happy with the ruling elite, including the PMF parochial networks. However, the key to the PMF’s electoral success was its strong social base, which went out to vote for the political parties of the parochial networks.
The struggle to integrate parochial and vanguard networks
In 2014, as ISIS began to take over large parts of Iraq’s territory, PMF leaders wanted to transform these vanguard and parochial networks into an integrated organization. They focused efforts on the PMF Commission, which was legally recognized by the Iraqi parliament in November 2016 as ‘an independent military formation as part of the Iraqi armed forces and linked to the Commander-in-Chief’. Muhandis was the main driver of this integration effort. To strengthen horizontal ties by centralizing the command structure, he sought to take formal decision-making power over military strategy and revenue generation from the disparate networks and to create a hierarchical structure for the PMF. He looked to Executive Order 331 of 2019 as the legal framework to strengthen these ties.
However, the networks did not neatly adhere to the new organization. Prior to his death, Muhandis confided that even he could not control all the networks. Its leaders had divergent political interests and views about the future role and vision for the PMF. Some groups or actors appeared ambivalent about their membership and association with the PMF. For example, although the brigades under the command of Muqtada al-Sadr have always been part of the PMF Commission (Brigade 313 and 314), he has at times spoken out against the commission, once calling the PMF ‘impudent militias’ (al-militiat al-waqiha) and has even denied he’s part of the commission. Muhandis struggled to integrate local parochial networks.
Muhandis also struggled to control revenue generation. Near Mosul, the Shabak Brigade 30 conquered key territory including checkpoints that generate considerable revenue, such as on the road from Mosul to Erbil. Muhandis wanted to centralize these revenue generation schemes as part of forging a single organization. He ordered Brigade 30 to withdraw from the Ninewa Plains in August 2019. However, the brigade refused to do so, and Muhandis was forced to capitulate on his position and strike a new deal that allowed the brigade to maintain the checkpoint.