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From Battlefield to Ballot Box: Contextualising the Rise and Evolution of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Units


The full report can be accessed here. Read on for the Executive Summary.

Following the Iraqi elections on 12 May the ambitions of one particular group of actors have captured international attention – the controversial Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) known by their Arabic name as al-Hashd al- Sha‘abi.

• Embraced by some for their role in military efforts against Islamic State, and looked upon with distrust by others for their foreign ties, the current and future role of this state-sanctioned paramilitary force remains one of debate and uncertainty.

• The PMU are often portrayed in black and white terms, but these elections also highlight how they are in fact distinctly nuanced and diverse, with some of its members giving up their military affiliations to participate in the political process.

The Birth and Institutionalisation of the PMU
• Following the unprecedented collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul and elsewhere in 2014, coupled with fears that Baghdad itself might fall to insurgents, Sistani’s wajib al-kifai fatwa, published in 2014, bestowed an unforeseen moral legitimacy upon the PMU. In its original wording, the fatwa deliberately refrained from adopting explicitly Shiite references, addressing all Iraqi citizens – irrespective of their confessional background.

• However, plans for the establishment of additional security units appear to precede Islamic State’s intrusion into Mosul, and date back to the spring of 2014.

• Having united diverse forces under the umbrella of a multi-layered paramilitary body, the PMU were officially integrated into the Iraqi security forces through the so-called Hashd law in 2016. However, the chosen wording, framing the PMU as part of the country’s security forces while simultaneously labelling them as “independent”, has left much room for interpretation. This ambiguity is what enables some of the more notorious factions of the movement to chart a path between an identity of state and a non-state actor depending on social context, audience, and short-term objectives.

• The current lack of a sustainable roadmap for the integration, professionalisation and/or re-qualification of the 140,000 individual fighters is what feeds the fear that the PMU might exploit the grey zone described above, drawing both on their operational legality and acclaimed ideological legitimacy.

Organisational Structure and Leading Formations
• Set up as an umbrella organisation, the PMU comprise approximately forty distinct entities.

• The PMU therefore exhibit a high-degree of diversity, while accounting for a range of internal tensions and divisions along strategic fault lines. Showcasing these often-conflicting ideologies, allegiances and interests on the ground requires dissecting the paramilitary outgrowth, and identifying its fundamental units.

• Analysts tend to differentiate entities within the PMU between pro-Khamenei, pro-Sistani, and pro-Sadr clusters. Nevertheless, personal testimonies and statements by PMU-affiliated leaders reveal subtle nuances and gradations, manifesting themselves both within and between these roughly outlined clusters. This report does not seek to put forward a substitute-typology approach, but rather to magnify some of the specific groups, sensitising the reader to the challenge, and at times folly, of categorising them as belonging exclusively to one of the three ideological camps.

• According to high-ranking PMU representatives, Western misperceptions of the PMU derive largely from the apparent dominance of pre-existing Iran-aligned formations. The role of those armed factions (which they refer to in Arabic as fasa’il), has been claimed to be of an essentially “administrative” nature due to the lack of battle proof cadres capable of training and organising the overflow of volunteers who answered Sistani’s fatwa.

• This report provides an overview of the main concerns linked to the PMUs from the proclaimed Iran-aligned camp, focusing on some of the groups most often criticised: Badr, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq (AAH), Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Saraya al-Khorasani, and (according to some sources) Kata’ib Tayyar al-Risali. Furthermore, this report elaborates on Muqtada al-Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam Peace Brigades and the so-called Hashd al-Marji‘i, referring to the pro-Sistani formations financed by the country’s shrine authorities.

The Hashd and Election Manoeuvring
• The May 2018 parliamentary elections reflected Iraq’s highly fragmented political landscape.

• One of the most noticeable examples of a victorious cross-sectarian pact has remained Sadr’s unexpected coming to terms with the secularists and the weakened Iraqi Communist Party. With his newly formed political party Istiqama (Integrity), he has been branding the rather unorthodox alliance Sa’iroun (On the Move) as a non-sectarian and inclusive march toward reform and social justice.

• With none of the registered forces having been able to achieve a majority of parliamentary seats, experts have identified five major contenders after the release of the election results with the potential to affect Muqtada al-Sadr’s government formation efforts. These five are: Hadi al-Ameri’s Fatah (Conquest Coalition), Haider al-Abadi’s alliance Nasr (Victory), Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawlat al-Qanun (State of Law Coalition), Ayad Allawi’s al-Wataniya (National Alliance), and Ammar al-Hakim’s Tayyar al-Hikma al-Watani (National  Wisdom Movement). Although all of the above listed factions seem to generally agree upon the importance of state’s monopoly on violence, the tolerance threshold regarding PMU’s degree of autonomy within the state’s armed forces will strongly depend on the leverage and decision-making power of every one of them within the soon-to-be-composed coalition government.

• Ambiguities within the existing legislation meant to strengthen the state-actor character of the PMU have left a loophole, allowing the PMU to take on multiple roles, benefiting equally from the established operational legality, and acclaimed ideological legitimacy.

• The lines are blurred and the allegiances – at least those that have been verbally professed thus far – are prone to shift according to the target audience and the immediate operational advantages pursued by the groups’ cannier political forerunners.

• Regardless of any potential electoral gains PMU-affiliated leaders have been able to achieve to this point within and outside the established Fatah alliance, the PMU as an umbrella organisation requires the firm institutional embrace of the Iraqi authorities.

• With Islamic State regrouping slowly in the background, the Hashd needs to gradually develop into a disciplined and agile state organisation.

• This transformation process, alongside continued security sector reforms in a fragile yet hopeful democracy, will take time. It will also require a high level of manoeuvrability on behalf of Iraq’s future government, its frequently competing neighbours, and its foreign allies.