PMF networks and brokers are part of the Binaa alliance, which includes Fateh as well as other Shia Islamist leaders such as Nouri al-Maliki (State of Law coalition) and Sunni leaders such as Khamis al-Khanjar (who came from the Iraqi Decision Coalition) (see Figure 3). After 2018, on many issues, Binaa worked with political coalitions and individuals across the spectrum, including at times with Mohammed al-Halbousi, the speaker of the parliament, and Massoud Barzani’s KDP. This loose coalition of networks was on the same side in parliamentary debates on the electoral law bill that was passed in 2020, mounting general resistance to reform measures, or selecting the prime minister or president – this group in 2018 opposed the selection of Barham Salih, preferring Fuad Hussein for president.
PMF networks seek to expand their influence in central government and its institutions and to build patronage networks by employing their own people in public sector jobs. The longest-serving example of control over a ministry is that of Badr in the Ministry of Interior. This was a consequence of a push to integrate Badr into the ministry from 2004 onwards. However, the lack of accountability in the process meant that the ministry has instead become a tool for Badr networks to gain institutional power over the years.
Since 2003, but most explicitly in the years of so-called independent technocratic ministers, political parties have focused on gaining influence within each ministry and state institution by sending proxies into senior positions – known primarily as the special grades (al-darajat al-khasa). The approximately 5,000 senior civil servants who make up this system are a coveted prize for political parties. Many are often directors-general or deputy ministers in a ministry but report first to the political party they represent rather than to the minister. These proxies are essential for pressuring weak, independent ministers into ensuring that contracts and other ministerial decisions favour the parties of these civil servants.
Having significantly increased their political power in the 2018 election, PMF parochial networks sought to increase their representation across senior state bureaucratic institutions. In November 2019, the Minister of Communications Naim Thajeel hired Idris Khalid Abdul Rahman (an economic officer for Brigade 40, Kataib al-Imam Ali), as director-general of the Public Enterprise for Communication and Information. Rahman acquired this major position despite having only served one year in a junior position in the ministry. Jasib Abdul Zahra, the political representative of KH in Basra, was appointed director-general of the Petrochemical Industries Company within the Ministry of Industry. In 2020, AAH networks supported the appointment of Hussein al-Qasid as director-general of the cultural department at the ministry; Qasid was a university lecturer and also a member of the Iraqi Writers’ Union and of AAH since 2016. In August 2019, the then prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, appointed Ziyad Khalifa Khazal al-Tamimi, a tribal figure from Diyala with close connections to Hadi al-Ameri and PMF Brigade 24, as inspector general at the Ministry of Defense.
These examples are not unique to PMF networks, but they represent the way in which politics is done in Iraq. Political parties send their proxies to reinforce their interests in each ministry and government institution, including positions where reform or accountability can threaten party influence. For these networks – like all Iraqi political parties and networks – gaining influence in state bureaucratic positions is key to acquiring and maintaining political power.
Across Iraq’s localities, PMF networks negotiate with other political networks. Falah al-Jazairi, who was a member of the KH general secretariat, failed to win a seat with Fateh in the 2018 election but then cooperated with Maliki’s State of Law coalition and was later appointed governor of Baghdad. Connectivity to the network via the Binaa alliance was key to his appointment. In Ninewa, parties across the ethnic and religious spectrum at times cooperate with each other in transactional relations. Hashim Mohammed Ali Taha al-Brefakani, a KDP member of the provincial council, worked closely with PMF networks and brokered several agreements between the KDP and PMF. Another provincial council member, Ali Khedayer al-Jabouri, was key to brokering relations between the parliamentary speaker Mohammad al-Halbousi and certain Sunni PMF networks. In Dhi Qar, Haji Jabbar al-Moussawi was a KH secretary-general and also a member of the provincial council, not as part of Fateh but rather the State of Law coalition. Also in Ninewa, Najm al-Din al-Jabouri became governor after reaching an agreement with the PMF leadership, which argued for a presence in certain districts under the control of PMF networks. In Kirkuk, Hadi al-Ameri played a crucial role in appointing Rakan al-Jabouri as the acting governor for the province. In the post-ISIS years, the PMF networks have relied on Jabouri for influence and he is publicly supportive of the PMF in Kirkuk. On many occasions, he has rejected calls for removing the PMF from the governorate, instead praising the PMF’s security role in the province.
In some localities particularly in central and southern Iraq, PMF networks span into local government institutions as part of grand bargains often made in Baghdad.
In some localities, particularly in central and southern Iraq, PMF networks span into local government institutions as part of grand bargains often made in Baghdad. For example, the complex oil processes in Basra include a wide array of Shia political parties, ISCI, the Hakim network, PMF networks such as KH, Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada and AAH, the Sadrist network, Dawa and the Fadhillah Party. Often, PMF influence is difficult to distinguish as it takes the form of state processes in which a host of networks work together under flexible agreements.
In the recently liberated areas, however, competition over local state institutions is more conspicuous. The defeat of ISIS in Ninewa presented an opportunity for national parties to compete for power. The dispute over who filled the post of education general-director in the governorate illustrates the violence that can accompany contestation of state institutions. Ahmad al-Asadi’s Sanad Party – a network within Fateh – sought to employ its affiliate Khalid Taha Saeed in the post. Sanad claimed this local position after a series of negotiations within the PMF networks once the government had been formed in 2018. According to local sources, Saeed stormed the building accompanied by PMF fighters linked to the Sanad network and called for the general-director, Khaled Jumaa Shaheen, to resign from the post. However, Shaheen refused. According to a security analyst, Ninewa’s Governor Jabouri declined to investigate the case in order to reduce political tensions and told the Ministry of Education to speed up the process of issuing a ministerial decree to remove Shaheen. Shortly thereafter, Shaheen was replaced by Saeed. This story reveals not only how local government institutions are contested, but also the connectivity between federal and local state competition among these networks.
Reaching into non-government spaces
The PMF – like traditional political parties – is also involved in civil society and humanitarian organizations. Mohammed al-Khuzai, a member connected to KH’s media office, was nominated in 2019 as assistant secretary general for the Iraqi Red Crescent Society. Khuzai, who worked for Abu Zainab al-Lami’s militia faction between 1999 and 2004, was trained by Imad Mughniyeh and joined KH in 2007. He was pardoned during the 2008 National Reconciliation Pardon, after which he used his connection with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis to join the Iraqi Red Crescent Society in 2009 as director for media and youth.
Like most Iraqi political parties, PMF networks employ communications strategies, including a host of television channels, newspapers and social media groups. These channels allow the PMF networks to build ideational power to strengthen vertical ties.
Delivering state services
PMF networks use their connection to the state to perform the activities of government. It is common for groups under the PMF to issue their own ‘authorization’ letters that allow civilians and businesses to pass through checkpoints across the country. Moving through the province of Diyala, for instance, may be best facilitated with a letter from the Badr Organization or AAH, which have gained power in much of the province. Many former fighters still use their connection to the PMF to move across state lines, ‘I still use my PMF identity card because it helps a lot in moving through official state checkpoints, especially because of the respect for Sistani PMF [the Atabat or shrine militias that are under Sistani’s leadership]. Many prefer it to many of the other factions.’ In Kirkuk, a former fighter who fought with the tribal mobilization forces continued to maintain a connection to Brigade 56. He described Mulla Majeed, who headed the brigade, as someone who could ‘make things happen’ because of the network of relationships that Majeed had with different government officials. This connectivity allowed the PMF’s parochial networks to maintain stronger vertical ties with its base, which benefited from this access in everyday life.
Many residents – from network social bases and communities – argue that the PMF networks are more efficient than government bureaucracy in solving problems. A businessman in Baghdad spoke of problems with threats and blackmail, ‘Frankly, I use the PMF and its factions because they have authority and respect in the central and southern governorates. There is no issue that they cannot solve.’ This ability to solve problems was based on the power that these networks had gained over government institutions. In many cases, they acted on behalf of the government.
Employment in the government also presented an opportunity for PMF networks to outsource labour costs and develop local patronage networks. In Kirkuk, members of Brigade 56 have been employed in around 40 per cent of public vacancies in various sectors, such as education, service provision, and other local and provincial directorates in Hawija, its subdistricts, and in Kirkuk city. The PMF uses its control over institutions to hire its members, who become loyal to the brigade for employing them. The governor of Diyala has similarly employed Badr members and loyalists in various government offices and institutions (mayors and heads of towns and districts – except for areas that are Kurdish-dominated).
Tapping into state coffers
The pursuit of profits for PMF brokers involves connecting to the networks that make up the wealthy rentier state in Iraq – a connection that gives access to state coffers. Iraq’s annual government budget, which in some years has exceeded $100 billion, offers the single largest source of revenue in the country.
The main method of wealth accumulation for the PMF is through government salaries. Each year, the government passes a federal budget that allocates funding to the PMF Commission for the salaries of members and martyr families, as well as non-cash material support such as weapons and ammunition. Muhandis was the PMF official responsible for negotiating this sum with the Iraqi government. He worked with Fateh parliamentarians to pass national budgets that favoured allocating sufficient resources to the PMF Commission. As a result of the political successes in the 2018 elections, Fateh MPs successfully increased the 2019 annual budget allocation to the PMF Commission by one-fifth to $2.16 billion. This budget also included funding for weapons, ammunition and other logistical support (around $80 million), as well as for the families of PMF martyrs (around $84 million), and for PMF reconstruction projects in recently liberated areas ($840,000). While salaries vary, in general a single PMF fighter receives 950,000 IQD ($800) per month and a married PMF fighter receives 1,110,000 IQD ($922) per month.