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Following the capture of Mosul and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s historic proclamation of the caliphate in 2014, media outlets were far too eager to spread overtly fatalistic scenarios painting the imminent “end of Iraq.” Nevertheless, within four years’ time, an unprecedented surge of volunteers has managed to reverse the tide. Marching under the banner of the so-called Popular Mobilisation, known in Arabic as al-Hashd al-Sha‘abi, these mission driven young warriors have contributed immensely to countering the advances the self-proclaimed Islamic State, whose insurgents had brought the US-trained Iraqi army to its knees in an almost unhampered fashion. Therefore, their conquests and efficiency on the ground despite the rather basic military training have raised the legitimate question of how such an array of loosely organised civil defence forces has proven so successful in standing up to ISIS’s resilient insurgency tactics. As indicated during recently conducted field interviews with various experts and members of Iraq’s security sector, one of the major and often underestimated factors enabling the Popular Mobilisation’s triumph represents the religious fervour of its members to respond to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s fatwa (religious edict) for defensive jihad. In that context, their strong belief in the justice of the cause has empowered them to effectively challenge ISIS’ jihadi salvation narrative.
For this purpose, the following article seeks to elaborate on the structural factors preceding al-Sistani’s fatwa, examining more specifically the rhetoric adopted by Iraq’s leading religious authorities. Furthermore, the author will analyse how this morally charged call to arms has become instrumental for legitimising the armed resistance against the ISIS transgressors, facilitating the creation and institutionalisation of the country’s Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) – a state-sanctioned paramilitary umbrella consisting of approximately fifty primarily though not exclusively Shiite armed entities and comprising around 140,000 individual volunteers. Last but not least, the author will conclude by commenting on the fundamental role of Iraq’s Shiite religious authorities (marja‘iyya) in boosting on the one hand the combat morale of those freely enlisted fighters, while simultaneously feeding into the social and symbolic capital of the PMU as a hybrid paramilitary institution with an agile chain of command and a vaguely delineated security mandate. Acknowledging the ensuing interplay between the marja‘iyya and the PMU is also important for understanding the multiple implications of this ‘sanctified’ mass mobilisation exercise for the resilience and credibility of Iraq’s still fragile state security institutions, while critically revisiting speculations regarding the feared revival of Shiite militancy in Iraq.