The term “Popular Mobilization Forces” was first used in 2013 by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to refer to the Shiite militias in Iraq, but it wasn’t until the fall of Mosul in 2014 that the PMF really came into existence. As IS flooded into the city, Iraqi Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani issued a fatwa calling on all able-bodied men – regardless of sect – to mobilize and oppose the invasion. Around the same time, al-Maliki signed a decree mandating the formation of the PMF Commission, which administers Iraqi state funds for PMF groups. Iran also discreetly funds some of these groups, and many pro-Iran militia leaders today occupy important positions within the Iraqi government, giving them substantial control over funding decisions – and even battle plans.
When IS started to advance on Mosul, the Iraqi security forces fled. American support was practically nonexistent, and the Iraqi government was defenseless. The Popular Mobilization Forces came to Mosul’s aid. During the PMF’s siege to retake Mosul, Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of a major pro-Iran PMF militia and an Iraqi member of parliament, ordered a significant adjustment at the last minute.
The original plan was to enclose the city on three sides, leaving open an escape corridor to the west for civilians to flee. Of course, this would also allow IS fighters to escape in the direction of Syria, whose borders are only some 110 miles (180 kilometers) from Mosul along the road through Tal Afar. But Iran did not want IS fighters flooding into the Syrian theater and making the fight harder for Bashar Assad just as he was beginning to turn the tide of the civil war. Under al-Amiri’s revised plan, PMF forces completely enveloped Mosul, forcing IS to fight to the death. The move also gave pro-Iran PMF groups control of more territory in northern Iraq, which solidified Iran’s supply lines through Iraq into northern Syria. The intervention of an Iraqi politician was therefore instrumental in securing Iran’s control of a northern land bridge through Iraq and into Syria.