Please read on for the Introduction.
During the first two weeks of October, Iraqi authorities were confronted with a wave of mass protests over years of administrative inefficiency, financial mismanagement and
endemic corruption. Evidence of a disproportionately violent crackdown on demonstrators emerged, incriminating both state and non‑state armed elements, implying their engagement in a highly non‑transparent and rather worrisome “burden sharing” in their attempts to “protect the public order”. The accountability gap generated by such an approach has once again exposed the limitations of superficially cataloguing commissioned security providers as “state”, “non‑state”, or – currently the far more fashionable term – “hybrid” actors. Acknowledging the transactional dealings between ruling elites and the plethora of armed auxiliaries, this report seeks to show how, despite being generally considered devalued, the label “state actor” has nonetheless become a bargaining chip that unlocks access to agenda‑setting powers and institutional leverage. Once negotiated, state endorsement can often come at the expense of the state’s own institutional backbone, the bureaucratic apparatus of which can easily be transformed from hostage into enabler and, eventually, accomplice to its own debilitation. As a comparative consideration on state‑sanctioned paramilitarism shows, the paramilitary umbrella known as Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) presents no exception to this rule.
The decree of Iraq’s prime minister, Adil Abdul Mahdi, on 1 July 2019 formally stipulating the integration of the PMU with Iraq’s security forces provoked controversy within circles of Iraq observers and security analysts, as well as mixed reactions among the PMU’s own ranks. While some have embraced the prime minister’s order as a step towards the gradual dissolution of the PMU within Iraqi armed personnel structures,1 others have warned about the risks of “institutional state capture”, an approach favoured by various PMU leaders.
Regardless of how deeply entrenched the PMU may seem, the paramilitary umbrella is still in its infancy in terms of its organisational development. Having marked the fifth anniversary of its establishment, the PMU has been highly invested in consolidating its image as a state‑sanctioned security institution, aggressively rejecting the pejorative term “militia” and challenging any calls for its incremental dissolvement.
Nevertheless, the popular literature on the PMU is often dominated by a highly securitised and, to some extent, sectarianised narrative that feeds on the concerns of the seemingly inescapable “Hezbollahisation” of Iraq. Accordingly, comparative studies have overstated the obvious parallels with Shiite militarism, as exercised both by Hezbollah and by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Maintaining a conscious distance from this normative argument, this report explores the institutional logic of state attempts at forming paramilitary forces to help a government protect the established power structure from external and internal threats. Empirical evidence from across the globe has highlighted the rationale of governments resorting to relatively disciplined paramilitary wings, which can serve either as an auxiliary of, or as a counterweight to, the traditional army. Whether combating home‑grown violent extremism or suppressing mass protests perceived to be demanding regime change, these praetorian‑like actors have been selectively deployed by ruling elites either as an insurance policy against coups or as occasional backup for border security. Acknowledging the utility of this practice, PMU veterans and embedded strategists, as well as Iraqi government officials and international advisors, continue to test possible routes for transforming the paramilitary structure into a highly agile but still reliable and internally cohesive force capable of responding to the government’s disparate security needs.
Commenting on the global surge in paramilitarism beyond Iraq’s immediate neighbours, this report seeks to interrogate the rubber‑stamping of state‑endorsed mechanisms originally meant to delegate authority only conditionally to a variety of para‑institutional wielders of violence – be they civil defence forces, pro‑government militias, national and royal guards, or tribal groups.
The first chapter seeks to provide an analytical framework for placing an empirical case study of the PMU in context. Its opening section discusses the structural challenges of pursuing piecemeal Security System Reform (SSR) and Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) interventions in inherently fragmented, post‑conflict environments. Elaborating on the gamble of compromising the traditional military chain of command, the second chapter presents a comparative approach to state‑sanctioned paramilitarism and its various forms, seen in Latin America, Africa and across the Middle East. Focusing on Iraq’s highly “diversified” armed forces portfolio, the third part of the chapter seeks to highlight structural parallels between other formally endorsed Iraqi forces and the PMU. To demonstrate the PMU’s unique leverage, chapter three then traces the group’s incremental institutional entrenchment within the occasionally state‑brokered security marketplace and comments on the recent implications of the intrinsically motivated consolidation efforts.
Returning to the initial debate, the last chapter summarises the risks associated with a top‑down rationale of empowering security providers outside the structures of the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Defence. The accountability gap this creates can further undermine public trust in the legitimacy of the state security sector as demonstrated by the controversial involvement of unidentified armed personnel in the violent crackdown of the October protests across Iraq. Moving beyond the short‑term reputational damage for elected governments, the report aims to sensitise its audience to the systemic politicisation of praetorian elements, whose professedly ‘pro bono publico et patria’ services often come at the expense of the state’s contested, if not illusionary, monopoly on the legitimate use of force.
In addition to the academic and think‑tank literature on the field of armed politics, pro‑government militias and state‑sanctioned paramilitarism, the research findings draw on primary Arabic sources, Iraqi legislative documents, official government statements, and fifty semi‑structured interviews with government officials, Iraqi analysts and representatives of Iraq’s security sector, conducted during six field trips over the course of 2018 and 2019.