The Parallel Structure: Popular Mobilization Force and The State of Iraq

Since the claim of ISIS defeat, Iraq has been witnessing internal turmoil between various factions having the support of external actors. 

In 2018, Iraqis went to the electoral polls for the first time after the defeat of ISIS. Many believed that since the imminent threat of ISIS had considerably subsided, Iraq could eventually focus on post-war reconstruction and socio-economic reforms. 

In the hope of bringing change, the people of Iraq brought forth two debutant political groups to the pinnacle of the Iraqi political system: the nationalist Saairun and the ideological Victory Alliance. Saairun, led by Muqtada Al-Sadr, evolved over the years to insert the Iraqi nationalist identity beyond the ethno-sectarian divide. Once thought to be the flagbearer of the militant Shi’ite ideology in post-Saddam Iraq under the banner of the Mehdi Army fighting the US troops, Muqtada broadened his scope by reaching out to other segments of the society and demanding the expulsion of all foreign troops from Iraqi soil. This shift occurred after the rise of Nouri Al-Maliki, an Iran-backed veteran politician, to the seat of premiership for the second term in 2010. Despite Muqtada’s pivotal role in refurbishing Shi’ite ideology in post-Saddam Iraq, the majority of the governmental posts were acquired by Iran-backed Shi’ite groups, leading to Muqtada’s disgruntlement. 

On the other hand, Iran-backed groups successfully dominated the Iraqi political system, which was further strengthened by the sectarian politics during the period of Nouri Al-Maliki. Furthermore, the Shi’ite militancy, which was fueled by Muqtada’s Mehdi Army during the Iraqi Civil War, was also inherited by these Iran-backed groups. The organizational framework for the Shi’ite militancy came in the aftermath of a religious decree by Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, which led to the formation of the Popular Mobilization Force. Though the fight against ISIS was supposed to be an Iraqi struggle, the necessary military skills and equipment were in possession by Iran-backed Shi’ite groups. Therefore, the PMF was primarily operated by Iran’s IRGC and became its chief proxy inside Iraq. 

The PMF is an umbrella organization comprised of Iran-backed groups, ethnic Kurdish and Yazidi militias, followers of Sistani, and followers of Muqtada. The groups pledging allegiance to Sistani and Muqtada remained limited to defending the holy shrines in Najaf, Karbala, Samarra, and Baghdad. However, the Iran-backed militias not only dominated the senior leadership positions within the PMF but also expanded the scope of their operations. As a result, the PMF was formally integrated into Iraq’s state structure in 2019. The move came in the aftermath of the success of the pro-Iran ‘Coordination Framework’ in forming Iraq’s government. Since the parties in that coalition were the political wings of the same militias, the integration went smoothly.

The integration provided multiple benefits to both Iran and these militias. First, this step lessened the burden on Iran in terms of financially supporting these groups. After the integration, PMF fighters receive a monthly salary from the Iraqi state equivalent to the wages of the soldiers of the Iraqi regular army. The 2023 budget allocation of the PMF included $2.6 billion in salaries and over $50 million in equipment and services. Furthermore, the integration also provided the PMF with much leverage in generating its own income sources. By being deployed at various checkpoints for security purposes, the PMF receives taxes that amount to nearly $30000 a year. At the state level, the PMF has established its own company in 2022 to undertake projects related to construction, agriculture and economy. 

Second, dichotomy exists within the functioning of the PMF. While PMF fighters are now getting military training from the military academy of Iraq’s Ministry of Defense, their conduct in the operations suggests their independent nature, which is evident from the consistent attacks of the PMF against US troops and bases inside Iraq. In fact, since the October 7 attack and the following intensification of the Gaza War, PMF attacks against the US targets inside Iraq have crossed the 160 mark. Many of the attacks against the US targets were condemned by the Iraqi government while at the same time, it also criticized the US response. This discrepancy shows that the government finds it difficult to reign the PMF and tries to establish a delicate balance in its relations. It is also true that whenever Iraq attempted to limit the strength of the PMF, it faced backlash. During the tenure of Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, following the arrest of PMF fighters by the government, the prime minister’s residence was surrounded, compromising security. Therefore, the impunity with which the PMF operates reflects its leverage over the Iraqi government and brings it closer to Iran. 

Third, despite having an uneasy relationship with the PMF, the Iraqi state relies heavily on its capabilities. In the wake of the Kurdistan Referendum in 2017, the Iraqi government utilized the PMF’s strength to stabilize the situation and take control over the major areas like Kirkuk and halted Kurdish oil exports. Similarly, during the mass protests in Iraq, the PMF proved to be advantageous for the Iraqi state in its attempt to carry out the crackdown against the protestors. Additionally, during the COVID-19 pandemic, owing to its expertise in setting up the field camps and providing logistics, the PMF turned into a relief agency by becoming a helping hand to the Iraqi government. This led to the effective control of two major ministries – interior and health – into the hands of the PMF.

Today, the PMF has dominated Iraq’s socioeconomic and political security apparatus. Its Muhandis Company has signed an MoU with China’s CMEC for trade, energy, transport, and construction. The Muhandis Company draws inspiration and training from IRGC’s Khatim Al-Anbia company, and China is eager to acquire the energy and construction tenders for which Iran is its gateway. Militarily, its strength in numbers has doubled to 238,000 men, which is nearly equivalent to the Iraqi national army. Reports suggest that the government might establish military bases for the PMF outside the major urban centers, which would further cement the role of the PMF. It could follow the establishment of a specialized command center for the PMF that would pave the way for its own military academy, hence, boasting its status to the level of defense ministry. Such an arrangement would also allow the PMF to take responsibility for Iraq’s internal security within the cities, replacing or considerably subsiding the role of Iraqi police. 

Politically, the PMF dominates the Iraqi parliament through the Iran-backed “Coordination Framework.” Furthermore, PMF factions also control the Iraqi judiciary, interior ministry, and some parts of security institutions. The influence of the PMF gained further momentum through its victory in the provincial elections, in which it won 101 out of 285 seats and emerged as the largest bloc. 

It must be noted that within the PMF, certain groups exercise greater control than others. For example, the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haqq, and Kataib Hezbollah are three chief militias within the PMF. These three have their presence in several regions of Iraq, including Kirkuk, Basra, Hamdaniya, Sinjar, Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala, Samarra, and others. The presence of the PMF in these areas signifies three strategic motives. First, it allows the PMF to continue its leverage over the Iraqi state by suppressing the autonomous movement in Iraqi Kurdistan. Second, presence in Sinjar is aimed at curtailing the growing Turkish presence and, subsequently, taking control of Iraq’s border security. Third, holy cities like Najaf, Karbala, and Samarra, which are frequently visited by the pilgrims, provide a social base for the continued role of the PMF inside Iraq. 

Conclusively, for the past ten years since its formation, the PMF has transformed from being a loosely organized paramilitary force to a major entity inside Iraq that controls the majority of the country’s political, economic, and security infrastructure. In this regard, the PMF has emulated its Iranian counterpart, IRGC, which runs parallel to the Iranian state. Thus, the PMF’s orientation towards Iran is evident as it acquires supplies and budget from the IRGC, while the PMF is taking Iraq towards becoming a chief proxy state of Iran in the Middle East.

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