Over the past seven years, while most of the Middle East was unstable or even at war, Iran has been doing well by comparison. In Yemen, it has supported the Houthi rebels in their war against the regime and Saudi forces, tying up the resources of the Saudis, one of Iran’s historical rivals. In Syria, it has propped up the regime of Bashar Assad in a civil war that recently dragged in neighboring power Turkey. It has massive military and political influence in Lebanon via its proxy group Hezbollah.
All told, Iran operates a Shiite foreign legion that over the years has trained 200,000 fighters in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. And one part of that foreign legion – the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq – has helped provide Iran with the influence in neighboring Iraq that makes much of the rest of its strategy feasible. The militias of the PMF all but control northern Iraq, which Iran has transformed into a land bridge to supply its other proxy groups in Syria and Lebanon.
For decades Iraq and Iran counterbalanced each other, preventing one another from dominating the region. From 1980 to 1988 they fought the bloodiest war of the second half of the 20th century. And then in 2003, the U.S. swept in and overthrew Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, inadvertently making Iran the dominant power of the region. Iran is determined to keep it that way, and Iraq’s ethnic makeup works to Iran’s advantage. Iraq is two-thirds Shiite, which means Iran – which is almost entirely Shiite – doesn’t have to look too hard to find sympathetic ears for its unique system of Islamic governance.
But Iraq’s sizable Sunni and Kurdish populations, combined with its shared border with Iran, mean that if Iran were to be too heavy handed, it could trigger a dangerous backlash. Iran cannot just back one faction to the hilt with as many guns and as much money as possible, as it has done in Syria. Instead, it has had to cultivate a more nuanced strategy, similar to its approach to Lebanon (with some important differences). Central to Iran’s strategy in Iraq is the capture of Iraqi state institutions, while avoiding civil war, in hopes of ultimately making Iraq into a weak and Iran-dependent border state. While this requires careful diplomacy and politicking on Iran’s part, it would be impossible were it not for Iran’s substantial military presence in Iraq in the form of its militias. This Deep Dive will discuss the origins of those militias, which exist under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces. It will break down the various PMF factions and the role they play in supporting (or resisting) Iran’s influence. And it will consider their place in today’s and tomorrow’s Iraq.
The Popular Mobilization Forces and Its Factions
Iran has backed militias in Iraq for decades – it helped create one, the Badr Organization, in 1982 to carry out anti-Iraq operations during the Iran-Iraq War – but they have grown in number since the U.S. invasion and, in particular, since the Islamic State’s capture of Mosul in 2014. When IS started to advance on Mosul, the Iraqi security forces fled. American support was practically nonexistent, and the Iraqi government was defenseless. A group of militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces formed and came to Mosul’s aid.
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 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.
According to a report by the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, an American think tank, there are 67 unique PMF militias, approximately 40 of which are pro-Iran in some form or another. Estimates of the total size of all PMF groups vary from 100,000 to 140,000 fighters. Most of these are Shiite fighters, but not all – approximately 25,000-30,000 are Sunnis, and minorities like Yazidis, Kurds and Turkmen also fight in PMF militias.
Broadly speaking, there are three main factions within the PMF: those loyal to Iran and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, those loyal to Iraqi Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, and those loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, another Iraqi Shiite cleric known for his populism. Notably, all three of these factions are majority Shiite, meaning the Sunni-Shiite fault line that often defines Middle Eastern conflicts hardly applies in this case. The more relevant division is between Iraqi nationalists and Iran loyalists. Groups that side with al-Sistani and al-Sadr are in the Iraqi nationalist camp. (Though about a decade ago, during the U.S. occupation and Sunni uprising, al-Sadr’s groups were pro-Iran. At the time, their interests – eliminating the U.S. presence in Iraq – were aligned with those of Iran.)
The pro-Iran groups advocate and fight to further Iran’s interests regardless of whether they conflict with the interests of Iraq. In addition to the funding they get from the PMF Commission, they are usually funded by Iran and report either directly or indirectly to the Quds Force, the foreign expeditionary arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Further, they support Iran’s vision of a pan-Islamic state that is governed by Iran’s Islamic institutions and, importantly, reports to Iran’s supreme leader (a religious-political theory known as wilayat al-faqih, or Rule of the Jurisprudent).
Other Shiite groups, such as those loyal to al-Sadr, advocate a system similar to that in Iran but with a strictly Iraqi nationalist flavor and its own leader. (Al-Sadr would be his own choice as Iraq’s version of supreme leader.) Al-Sistani’s focus, meanwhile, was on defeating the Islamic State, and in the past he has called for the forces loyal to him to demobilize after beating IS. He has since seemed to backtrack, recognizing that PMF factions are perhaps the best way to resist Iranian influence, not to mention the risk of an IS resurgence.
On the pro-Iran side, the most prominent PMF groups are the Badr Organization (the group that’s been around under various names since the early 1980s), Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah. Badr claimed in 2017 to have as many as 50,000 troops, though other estimates go as low as 10,000. Some of these groups are entirely independent of Iraqi influence. The leader of Harakat al-Nujaba, which split off from Asaib Ahl al-Haq, once said that if Iran’s supreme leader so ordered, he would overthrow the Iraqi government.
The State of State Capture
Iran’s strategy in Iraq, like its strategy with Hezbollah in Lebanon, is to gradually exercise greater control over Iraqi state institutions. It has already succeeded to a degree, although Iran’s influence is not yet as pervasive in Iraq as it is in Lebanon, in part because of the sheer number of competing factions.
Several pro-Iran figures have found ways to formally enter Iraq’s government in positions of strategic value to Iran. One of them, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, started his military career in the Revolutionary Guard in 1983, was instrumental in establishing Kataib Hezbollah, and recently served as head of Iraq’s PMF Commission. Iraq’s Ministry of Interior, which appears to have substantial influence over the PMF Commission, is headed by Qasim al-Araji, a senior Badr leader who in 2007 was held in a U.S. detention center for 23 months. Hadi al-Amiri, Badr’s current leader, serves in the Iraqi parliament and was once Iraq’s transportation minister. Before that, he was chief of staff for Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force. A new Iraqi law proscribes leaders of militia groups from running for public office, but most militia leaders have simply been abdicating their roles in the lead-up to elections in April, even though it’s widely expected that they will continue to influence, if not control, their former militias once in office.
These positions indirectly give Iran a tremendous amount of influence over some aspects of Iraqi policy, including battle plans. During the PMF’s siege to retake Mosul from IS, al-Amiri 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 late 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.
Legitimacy and Funding
But we shouldn’t overstate Iran’s power. The prevalence of anti-Iran factions within the PMF means that Iran does not exercise unimpeded control over the PMF, let alone the Iraqi government itself. Nouri al-Maliki’s 2014 decree that created the PMF Commission was illegal under the Iraqi Constitution, which prohibits “the formation of military militia outside the framework of the armed forces.” Nevertheless, al-Maliki faced no resistance at the time given the weakness and lack of independence in the state’s judiciary branch and the precarious situation the country found itself in when its constitutional security forces disintegrated before the Islamic State.
In 2016, Iraq’s parliament passed a law legitimizing the existence of the PMF, making it a legal entity that remains separate from the Iraqi military’s chain of command. Critically, however, the law did not permanently guarantee funding to the PMF; it placed it under the jurisdiction of the prime minister’s office and required yearly approval of its funding. The goal was to minimize the PMF’s permanency as an institution, limiting its power over the Iraqi state by making its funding contingent on political outcomes.
In theory, this puts PMF-related funding decisions at the discretion of the prime minister’s office. In reality, the prime minister’s office exercises less control over the distribution of funds than was intended. For starters, the Ministry of Interior, led by a member of the pro-Iran Badr Organization, apparently has greater power over the PMF Commission than does the prime minister’s office. Even within the PMF Commission itself, Iran has substantial control over the allocation of funds. First, the Iraqi parliament decides to allocate funding to the PMF Commission, then the prime minister approves the transfer of the funds. It is up to the commission, however, to decide how those funds are distributed and which PMF groups receive money to pay fighters’ salaries.
Further, the PMF Commission is controlled by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Hadi al-Amiri, who are both pro-Iran. (Technically, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi demoted al-Muhandis to deputy head of the commission, but he effectively still has control over it.) This means that the $1.6 billion allocated to the commission in 2017 (Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute, cites this figure at closer to $2 billion) is distributed at the discretion of two men who are staunchly in favor of increasing Iran’s control over Iraq. That amounts to roughly 1.9 percent of Iraq’s total 2017 budget of $86 billion (or about 2.3 percent if Knights’ figure is correct). As a point of comparison, Iran allocated approximately $7 billion to $8 billion to the Revolutionary Guard in its 2018-19 budget, or about 2.0-2.4 percent of its total budget of $340 billion. In other words, Iraq spends about the same percentage of its budget on its militia network as Iran spends on its elite military force.
Al-Abadi has waffled on how much of a presence Iran should have in Iraq but has generally opposed it. He tried to decrease Iran’s control of the PMF Commission by demoting al-Muhandis and appointing someone more favorable to his funding decisions, but al-Muhandis remains in control, referred to as head of the PMF by the commission’s own announcements. Al-Sistani and al-Sadr, the leaders of the two Iraqi nationalist camps within the PMF, have complained that the process for allocating funds is unfair and favors pro-Iran militias over their own.
There is little that al-Abadi can do to stand up to al-Muhandis and al-Amiri’s control of the commission. He tried once before to cut them off, delaying the transfer of funds to the PMF Commission, but the move backfired. Al-Muhandis wrote a public criticism of the prime minister, and given that the PMF is popular for having defended the country when the Iraqi security forces were weak, the public sided with the PMF and al-Abadi capitulated.
Iran’s Splinter Strategy
Why, though, are there so many PMF groups – almost 70 – in the first place? Part of it has to do with the way PMF leaders have either come into or maintained power over time. For example, before al-Sadr fled to Iran to avoid a U.S. crackdown in 2009, he commanded a militia, called the Mahdi Army, that fought against U.S. occupation as well as the Sunni uprising. His PMF militias are essentially a reconstitution of the force he used to lead. Al-Sistani militias responded to his fatwa and have followed him as a religious leader. The pro-Iran faction, however – which constitutes about 40 of the PMF groups – has its own dynamics.
Iran operates a splintering strategy with its PMF groups, frequently breaking off small subgroups from existing militias to form new groups. This accomplishes three goals. For one, it prevents any single group from becoming powerful enough to challenge Iran’s authority. This positions Iran as the power center of all its foreign Shiite militias. Second, when radicals emerge and challenge the existing mission of any particular group, they’re directed to create a new cell, which keeps them from endangering Iran’s control of the original group. Iran can then pursue a new objective through the splintered group without losing control and continuity of the first group’s mission.
Finally, Iran has used this strategy to weaken its opponents within the PMF by providing funding for new groups and targeting members who have become disaffected with their group’s strategic objectives. For example, it tried to weaken al-Sadr by peeling off members of his militias who wanted a greater Iranian presence in Iraq and felt al-Sadr stood in the way. It worked, to a degree, on the military side, but al-Sadr is still popular among the lower class in Iraq in part because of his unique ability to provide for social welfare programs, which other PMF groups have not been able to match.
However, there are downsides to having so many proxy groups in Iraq. There is frequent competition between pro-Iran groups and their leaders, who themselves are jockeying for more power within Iraq and its government. Indeed, the vast number of Iranian proxy groups in Iraq differentiates it from Lebanon, where there is only one pro-Iran militia: Hezbollah. The result is that it is highly unlikely that the model of state capture that Iran used in Lebanon, where Hezbollah is now an integral part of Lebanese state institutions, can be replicated in Iraq.
Additionally, Hezbollah is known not just for its military capabilities but also for its social welfare spending, which is subsidized by Iran. Social welfare was built into the Lebanese Hezbollah model from the start, and it has remained a central part of its mission to garner and maintain support. In Iraq, no PMF group has a social welfare operation as extensive or as well-established as Hezbollah’s. The only groups that are able to claim similar capabilities are those loyal to al-Sadr, the Iraqi nationalist who opposes Iranian intervention.
Iran wants a weak, but stable, Iraq. The first part is easy to pursue, but not without endangering the second part. Iran does not want Iraq to be strong enough and nationalistic enough to challenge it outright, which would put its supply routes to Syria and Lebanon at risk and could threaten it with another general war. But if Iran pushes too far, Iraqi state institutions could be imperiled, potentially providing the opportunity for a re-emergence of an IS-like group. Iran also risks triggering a concerted pushback by the Sunnis – either in the form of, again, an IS-like group, or simply staunch electoral opposition. And Iran doesn’t want Iraq to become so divided that secession of any group becomes a possibility. Secession would set a worrying precedent for Iran, which is facing its own domestic political challenges and difficulty in spurring more equitable economic growth.
An ideal situation for Iran is one in which, even if the Iraqi government is not fully under its control, it is weak enough to allow for the ongoing presence of pro-Iran militias. Even if Iran’s militia groups do not become fully incorporated into the Iraqi government as Hezbollah is in Lebanon, Iran could use its groups to launch attacks in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. Given Iran’s splintering strategy and ability to create new PMF groups, it is extremely unlikely that Iraq could fully stamp out the pro-Iran faction of the PMF. At most, Iraq may find a way to absorb the PMF officially into the rest of the Iraqi security network.
Whether Iran is able to maintain this degree of control will depend on Iraq’s ability to do things like regain control of the funds currently administered by pro-Iran leaders, or develop its security forces enough that the PMF militias are no longer necessary. This would not eliminate Iran’s militias in Iraq, but it would change the relationship they have with the Iraqi government. That is good news for Iran. As long as Iran has guns in Iraq, it will have influence over Iraq’s actions.