The Shia Militias of IraqDec 22, 2016
fatwa by the senior-most cleric in Shia Islam, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in response to the fall of Mosul in 2014. Sistani declared the fight against the Islamic State “a sacred defense,” and promised that “whoever of you sacrifices himself to defend his country and his family and their honor will be a martyr.”
Today, the PMF is estimated to boast over 60,000 fighters, contributing 35,000 men to the 90,000-strong force currently besieging Mosul. The PMF has played a key role in the attacks on Fallujah, Ramadi, and Baiji, and recently spearheaded the Iraqi advance on Tal Afar, just west of Mosul. But despite the PMF’s importance to the war effort, its status remains ambiguous. On November 26, the Iraqi government passed legislation making the PMF an official component of Iraq’s security forces, subject to military law, with equal status to the army. But two days later, a senior Iraqi MP told me that “the bill is what we’re working towards; it will take time.” Full integration, then, is still some way off.
Members of the PMF refer to theirs as a movement of national liberation, or as a religious crusade against evil. International media have described the group as a “mostly Iranian-backed coalition of Shia militias,” barely controlled by the Iraqi state. Neither description is entirely correct. The PMF itself embodies many of the fault lines of modern Iraq, divided between religious and national identities, state and non-state actors, and private and foreign interests. The 40 core units that make up the PMF range from the Abbas Division, controlled by Sistani but closely aligned with the government and trained by Iraq’s special forces; to the Peace Brigades, loyal to the Iraqi cleric and politician Moqtada al-Sadr; to the Badr Organization, an Iranian proxy militia. Roughly half of the PMF units were formed out of pre-existing Iraqi militias, some of which fought against coalition forces after the 2003 invasion. The rest are new formations, mobilized by Sistani or Iraqi politicians.
The PMF is, itself, a process—a struggle for control over a myriad of armed groups. It could become the basis for a new Iraqi army, with much stronger ties to the communities it is supposed to protect; in Shia areas at least, the PMF are held in higher regard than the army. Or its ascension could lead Iraqi politics into an era of warlordism, in which party factions wield private armies. The worst outcome would see Iraq remain a battlefield, beset by proxies funded by Iran and Gulf countries.
The future of the PMF as an institution has massive implications Iraq. For many members of the PMF, the legitimacy of their struggle is derived from Sistani’s fatwa. If he withdraws it, and the units under his control demobilize, the PMF will be a set of Iranian proxies and political militias, officially part of the state, but not under its control. Alternatively, if corruption drives a wedge between the Iraqi government and Iraq’s clerical establishment, the loyalty of PMF units raised by the Shia shrines could be tested.