Interview with Renad Mansour: Iraq’s Permanent Mobilization

The most powerful groups within the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) existed long before ISIS seized Mosul in June 2014, and will continue to build influence in the future now that operations to liberate the city have concluded. The coalescence of various militias into Iraq’s PMU during the summer of 2014 fundamentally altered the country’s political and military power balances. Since then, the government in Baghdad has sought to manage an evolving relationship with these non-state armed groups, one that will continue to shape the country’s future stability, leadership, and society. To better understand the forces shaping this process, as well as the many factors guiding PMU strategy, we spoke with Renad Mansour, a Research Fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme. 

A memorial in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square for PMU members killed in the fight against ISIS, organized by the Badr Organization.

M. Schweitzer: During the planning stages of the battle to liberate Mosul, the many actors involved – primarily Iraqi government forces, Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), Sunni tribal militias, and Kurdish Peshmerga, as well as their local proxies and international partners – sought to achieve various goals. Each of these groups envisioned victory against ISIS in northern Iraq differently, particularly in terms of political gains. How have these actors – particularly leaders of the PMU – used military operations in northern Iraq as instruments of political opportunity and leverage?

R. Mansour: The fight against ISIS has provided the various leaders within the PMU (as well as within other fighting groups not formally associated with the PMU) a new and, in some ways, unprecedented opportunity to gain legitimacy. The day ISIS seized one-third of the country was an extremely dark day for Iraqis. Any group or individual seen to be fighting against ISIS was therefore elevated in terms of political legitimacy and popularity; such was the case for several prominent PMU leaders, particularly Hadi al-Ameri (Badr Organization) and Qais Khazali (Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, or AAH). During the lead-up to the battle in Mosul in 2016, the PMU, which is predominantly Shia, was even able to gain popularity among some Sunni, Christian, and other minority communities in Ninewa Province near Mosul, creating a narrative centered on the organization’s role as defender against ISIS.

Of course, participating in military operations also endowed the various elements under the PMU umbrella with military power. Although the PMU were largely sidelined from operations inside Mosul, they had played integral roles during previous battles in places like Tikrit and Jurf al-Sakhar. The PMU’s participation in these early operations gave the organization access to significant levels of funding and weapons. It has used its involvement in the fight against ISIS as a means of gaining control and influence over land – a strategy that has been pursued by all of the forces arrayed against ISIS.

After the liberation of Tikrit in April 2015, however, during which Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi invited United States air support to spur on a stalled advance that had been initially led by the PMU, the organization lost its relative monopoly over the fight against ISIS. New actors began to fight alongside and compete with these paramilitary groups, including the Iraqi Army’s Counter-Terrorism Service, known as the “Golden Division.” As a result, the PMU began to carefully choose the places where it would fight, focusing on strategically-important areas over which it would be possible for it to maintain long-term control.

During the battle for Mosul, the PMU played an important role closing access to the city and preventing ISIS fighters from escaping, which allowed the organization to move into positions along the Iraq-Syria border. Today, PMU leaders are focused on remaining relevant within the Iraqi military and political environment. Choosing areas like this border region, as well as other critical zones like Kirkuk and Diyala Provinces, as foci of operations, allowed the PMU to pursue a much longer-term role in places that are at the heart of disputes between various regional actors. Ultimately, this policy has permitted the PMU leadership to largely avoid the question of integration, or the issue of what is to happen to PMU fighters once the battles against ISIS have ended. Rather, the PMU will be able to continue filling a security role, and thus continue to assert its right to operate in these areas. Meanwhile, the PMU’s continued presence has also allowed Iran to maintain an influence, via its proxies inside the PMF, over strategically important areas from the Iraq-Iran border to Diyala and towards the Iraq-Syria border.

Since its coalescence in 2014 to fill the void left by the Iraqi Army’s collapse in Mosul, the PMU has developed into a parallel, and seemingly permanent, military and political force often accused of undermining the Iraqi government’s ability to control, reconstruct, and administer territory. How have PMU leaders challenged Iraqi state authority – what goals do these figures seek to achieve in areas under their control?

It is important to first note that some of the groups now fighting under the PMU umbrella had existed as political organizations long before ISIS captured Mosul in June 2014, and long before the PMU existed as a formal entity. Badr and AAH, for example, had been represented in the Iraqi Parliament – with Badr fielding 22 Members of Parliament pre-2014. There are approximately seven groups now under the PMU umbrella that were known to have existed pre-2014, some of them created in 2006-2008 as Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army was dissolving. These seven groups are the strongest elements within the PMU, and their leaders comprise what might be labeled as the overall PMU leadership. These figures include, most importantly, Hadi al-Ameri, Qais Khazali, and Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes (who headed Kata’ib Hezbollah), as well as former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is considered the PMU’s “godfather” for his establishment of the commission that first brought the organization together in 2014.

These groups felt a need to be in Iraq before ISIS seized Iraqi territory in 2014, and will continue to operate across the country in the future. In Diyala Province, for example, PMU forces – primarily affiliated with the Badr Organization – have sought to gain political capital by taking over the security apparatus and police forces. In Anbar Province, the PMU has in some senses tried to recreate the 2006 Anbar Awakening by working with local Sunni tribes, a goal partially facilitated by the organization’s control of large amounts of funding.

The Iraqi government was compelled to pay the PMU in lump-sums, due to its role in fighting ISIS. This decision gave the PMU administrator Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes a great deal of power and autonomy of operations. Several of the seven original and most powerful groups within the PMU had also been historically funded and supported by the Iranians. However, after June 2014 and the proliferation of militia activity in Iraq to counter ISIS’s advances, this model became increasingly unsustainable for Tehran, which essentially pushed its Iraqi proxies to secure funding from Baghdad. At the end of 2015, Mohandes sent a letter to Abadi in which he declared that, because PMU forces were fighting on the frontlines, the organization deserved funding from the Prime Minister’s office. Simultaneously, Abadi faced pressure from within his own political party to fund PMU operations; it was impossible for him to be the Prime Minister who refused to support the PMU, given the organization’s role in fighting ISIS and its popularity among most Shia Iraqis. It is important not to under-state how visible the organization had become by the end of 2014. At that time, the PMU would display posters in central Baghdad of its martyrs who had been killed fighting ISIS, as well as depictions of galvanizing events like the Speicher Massacre.

Therefore, in the 2015 Iraqi federal budget, Abadi set aside funding for the PMU. There really was no other way to provide these funds other than through a lump-sum. Baghdad played no role administering PMU operations of personnel, and could not bring its fighters into the state bureaucracy without facing severe backlash from figures like Mohandes, Ameri, or Maliki. Problems emerged as the funding from Baghdad went directly to the PMU’s de facto administrator, Mohandes, who could then choose which groups within the PMU would receive money. There is no exact figure for the number of groups or fighters operating under the PMU umbrella. The funding thus became an opaque endowment for fighting ISIS, which was disbursed under the cover of the fatwa issued by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in June 2014 (much to the dismay of Sistani himself). Groups that were critical of the pro-Iran, pro-Khamenei leadership within the PMU thus lost a great deal of funding for their fighters, as well as for martyrs and their families.

Mohandes has also been able to use these financial resources to fund certain, distinct communities, allowing certain leaders within the PMU to build a sense of legitimacy for themselves off the battlefield. Fighting groups that do not adopt the pro-Iran line of Mohandes, Ameri, Khazali, and others ultimately face difficulties receiving funding; these include Moqtada al-Sadr’s group (Saraya al-Salam), as well as the four organizations that follow Sistani’s Iraq-focused ideology (Saraya al-Ataba al-Abbasiya, Saraya al-Ataba al-Hussainiya, Saraya al-Ataba al-Alawiya, and Liwa ‘Ali al-Akbar). This kind of funding structure has promoted the emergence of patronage networks and proxy-forces that operate as alternatives to state sources. For example, even some Sunni militia groups now look to Mohandes and the PMU – basically a private organization that can dispense cash without much bureaucratic trouble – for funding and weapons, rather than to Baghdad.

Does the PMU ultimately pose a threat to the Iraqi state’s sovereignty? The answer depends on how one defines “state sovereignty” in the country. While the PMU evolved, Abadi was still able to develop the Iraqi Army’s special forces and Federal Police divisions to fight against ISIS – allowing him to sideline the PMU from certain key operations. Yet, if one views Iraq through a Weberian lens – focusing on Baghdad’s ability to assert a monopoly of legitimate violence in its territory – the situation is more complicated. Critically, the PMU became included within the Iraqi government’s “legitimate violence” after they were recognized as an official security force in November 2016. Ultimately, the PMU organization itself is not the real problem in terms of state legitimacy; rather, challenges arise from certain elements within the PMU that are trying to undermine Abadi’s position by using his failures to humiliate the Prime Minister, thus eroding the executive authority in the country. 

Although often described as a monolithic (and Iranian-backed) entity, the PMU comprises nearly 60 different, predominantly Shia paramilitary groups. Within this framework, multiple factions have proffered differing views on the future role of their non-state armed groups in Iraq. How have divisions within the PMU structure been manifest since 2014 –what impact will intra-PMU competition have on the organization’s future position in Iraqi politics, at both national and regional levels? 

Divisions within the PMU’s military structure have been replicated in the political sphere, as well. These divisions are rooted in pre-2014 changes within the Iraqi political landscape. Some of the most significant sets of military and political divisions that exist today within Iraq’s militia framework are between pro-Iran elements and groups that follow Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Historically, Sadr had been the firebrand Shia cleric who led the Mahdi Army and advocated for attacks on Sunni populations. When he returned to Iraqi politics in 2011, however, he had clearly changed his rhetoric, adopting a more anti-Iran line. At that point, the more pro-Iran elements within the old Mahdi Army left the organization, most notably Qais al-Khazali and AAH.

Of course, other important divisions exist between the pro-Iran groups and entities that follow Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s ideology. Today, there are approximately four pro-Sistani groups whose mandate is to defend the Shia shrines in Najaf and Kerbala. These groups are willing to immediately dissolve as soon as the Iraqi state is strong enough to take over their security responsibilities. However, there is serious reason to doubt that these groups, particularly the pro-Sadr groups, will disband while the pro-Iran elements remain powerful.

Ultimately, in the post-ISIS setting, it is these powerful pro-Iran groups that are unwilling to integrate into the Iraqi state framework in a way that would be acceptable for Iraq’s partners in Washington. These groups understand integration according to their own terms, wishing to transition from non-state to state actors as entire groups. This would mean that, for example, AAH would simply rebrand itself as a numbered division within the Iraqi Army – while maintaining its overall bureaucratic structure and divided loyalties between Baghdad and the paramilitary organization. Such a process would be unacceptable for the current government in Baghdad, as well as policymakers in Washington.

Significant portions of territory cleared of ISIS are today held by PMU elements, or a combination of federal and PMU forces. As populations in these areas look to rebuild their communities, PMU leaders and their local proxies have promised to provide funding and support for these efforts. What interest do various PMU leaders have in reconstructing territory and encouraging returns of displaced peoples?

The traditional Iranian model for its proxy forces has been to create groups that can provide services on the ground, thus gaining legitimacy from the communities in which they operate. This policy has usually been implemented in predominantly Shia areas – Lebanon’s Hezbollah provides a good example of how this process works. Many of the pro-Iran groups within the PMU will likely seek to implement similar reconstruction projects in Iraq (and Syria), primarily in areas where there is an obvious political benefit of doing so – that is, areas with large Shia Arab populations, or places where it will be easy to showcase PMU-funded work.

Yet, in the Ninewa Plains, where most of Iraq’s minority communities are located, the benefits for the PMU leaders to fund reconstruction work are less clear. Critically, there has been no political solution to questions of control and spheres of influence on the Ninewa Plains; there is no real leadership in that area, nor have there been elections. The PMU leadership knows that maintaining votes and legitimacy in many of these disputed towns would present an extremely difficult proposition. There would be no dividend for any investment in reconstruction or stabilization. Therefore, many of these areas are simply not among the PMU’s priorities in terms of long-term aid for rebuilding or community restoration. However, the most powerful leaders within the PMU – primarily those with Iranian support – have instead sought to foster local armed groups that derive legitimacy from the communities whence they were drawn, and therefore might have an interest in reconstruction, but while remaining loyal to their sponsors. Other regional actors – most importantly the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga – are pursuing similar strategies in Ninewa.

Some analysts have noted that the growth of the PMU over the past three years has provided Baghdad with a tool to project force into areas where it had little influence in the pre-2014 period. How has the PMU’s emergence changed Iraqi policymakers’ political and military calculations in critical areas such as the disputed territories between Iraqi Kurdistan and the central Iraqi government?

Abadi has since 2014 been struggling against the senior leaders of the PMU. At times, he has allowed the PMU to lead operations in places like Hawija or Tal Afar, while the Iraqi Army would pursue objectives in other key battles like Mosul. Any consideration of how the PMU has strengthened Abadi’s hand must also take into account the ways in which the organization has undermined it – as well as the ways in which the Iraqi Parliament has sought to undermine the executive branch since 2014, primarily under Nouri al-Maliki’s direction.

Rather than the PMU, the real source of strength for Abadi has come from the support provided by the US – both on the frontlines against ISIS, in terms of training, logistical support, and airstrikes, but also in the political arena with regards to events like the Kurdistan Referendum. Had it not been for his good relationships with President Donald Trump, Abadi’s options to respond firmly to Erbil’s vote would have been severely limited. Abadi’s decision to move away from Iranian hegemony, and instead seek to leverage Iran’s support against that which is provided by the US, was ultimately what strengthened his position both in Baghdad and in key contested zones across the country.

This backing from Washington represents a new element of Abadi’s political and military calculations today. When he was Prime Minister, Maliki sent the Iraqi Army into disputed areas across northern Iraq, including Khanaqin, Kirkuk, and Ninewa. The problem Maliki faced then, however, was that the Iraqi Army was closely associated with his personality – in some areas it was referred to as “jaysh al-Maliki,” or Maliki’s army. These forces were violating the social contract between Baghdad and the communities living in many of these places, and were widely hated for these actions. Today, however, the Iraqi Army has regained a significant degree of popularity among these same populations, as well as at a national level. Recent polling conducted by the National Democratic Institute indicated that support for the Iraqi Army (and the PMU) have increased over the past three years. Continued US support for the Iraqi Army’s reconstitution after 2014 was important to this outcome. Whatever popularity the PMU has gained, in the meantime, has been due to its role in the fight against ISIS and the lack of any sectarian violence.

Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has struggled to manage the PMU, ultimately recognizing the organization as a legitimate state-affiliated entity rather than attempting to integrate it into existing government institutions. Has Baghdad’s strategy toward the PMU evolved since 2014 – how has Abadi understood the PMU’s evolution and role within the balance of Iraqi political parties and interest groups?

The relationship between the Iraqi government and the PMU has evolved dramatically since 2014, when it was essentially unstructured and fought on an ad-hoc basis after the Iraqi Army’s collapse. By mid-2015, the Iraqi government was heavily relying on the PMU to lead military operations against ISIS, until the battle in Tirkit in April 2015. The various groups within the PMU were so successful during that 2014-2015 period because they were able to quickly mobilize huge masses of the Iraqi Shia population, using pre-existing mechanisms and institutions from pre-2014. In many cases, a young man could sign up with the PMU in Basra, and the next day find himself in training, while the recruitment process could take weeks or months in the highly-bureaucratic (and, at the time, disarrayed) Iraqi Army.

After Tikrit, however, commanders within the Iraqi Army and policymakers in Baghdad realized that the balance of power between state and PMU forces was unsustainable. Over the subsequent year, the Iraqi government was able to develop its own forces, specifically its special forces and police divisions, with assistance from the US military. During the battle in Tikrit, the PMU initially took the leading role in fighting. Yet, they soon became bogged down and unable to advance, prompting Abadi to call in American airstrikes. These airstrikes seriously upset the PMU leadership, but also showed for the first time that Abadi and the Iraqi Army could continue fighting against ISIS without PMU support. Later, in Fallujah, Iraqi forces were deployed on the frontlines, in support of the PMU. Baghdad’s relationship with the PMU trended from dependence to increasing independence over the past three years, in terms of military operations against ISIS. Mosul showed Abadi’s ability to take charge of the battlespace, as he put the Counter-Terror Service forces on the frontlines.

Today, Baghdad seems to want to employ the PMU in supporting roles for its conventional forces, although the final array of forces on any front line is the result of political debates. For PMU leaders, maintaining relevance on the battlefield is important. They do not want to face the question of de-mobilization or integration into the formal Iraqi armed forces structure just yet. Ultimately, it seems highly likely that Abadi will be forced to use the Iraqi Army to pursue certain elements within the PMU that have pursued policies of undermining his government. The majority of PMU fighters are volunteers. It is the state’s responsibility to build employment opportunities and sources of livelihood for these individuals, as well as capacity to manage psychological conditions like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among returning fighters.

This interview was also published at the Post-War Watch

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