ACIS Iran Pulse no.99





Iraq's High Stakes Attempt to Exert Control over Iranian-backed Shiite Militias

Micha'el Tanchum*

ACIS Iran Pulse Number 99 | September 2, 2019 



Iran's ability to project power across the geographic heartland of the Arab world will be determined by the extent to which the country can dominate neighboring Iraq. At the center of Iran's strategy for regional hegemony are Iraq's Shiite militias loyal to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The foundation of the so-called Shia Crescent, stretching from Iran's western borders to the Mediterranean via Syria and Lebanon, is the military presence of the IRGC-backed Shiite militias in Iraq's Mesopotamian plain.  A presence that simultaneously brings Iranian hard-power to the land borders of Saudi Arabia.


The recent spate of attacks on various militia arms depots highlights how the militias are a flashpoint for the region.  Beginning on July 19, 2019 there have been four or five mysterious air strikes, targeting militia munitions stores that likely included Iranian missiles based on the nature of the explosions. 


In mid-May,  reports emerged of Iran's deployment of ballistic missiles in Shiite militia camps in Iraq, and have been the reason for U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's unannounced May 7th visit to Baghdad to confer with Iraq's prime minister.  While no one has claimed responsibility for the operations against the Shiite militias' arms depots, the most recent  of which was August 20, 2019,  suspicion has fallen on the United States and Israel, the latter of which has conducted a series of air strikes on Iranian missile sites in Syria.


Pressure on the Shiite militias is not coming only from the air, but also from Baghdad itself. The Iraqi government's current attempt to rein in the Shiite militias and assert Iraqi state authority over them, if successful, may prevent the militias from igniting a wider conflict in the already tense stand-off between Iran and the United States.


On July 1, 2019, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi issued a decree ordering Iraq's militia coalition Hashd al-Shaʻabi, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) to become fully integrated into the state security forces. The PMU militias collectively number approximately 140,000 fighters, the overwhelming majority whom belong to Shi'ite militias.  The most powerful of these militias such as the Badr organization and Kata'ib Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, are closely linked to the IRGC's expeditionary al-Qods force and its commander Major General Qassem Soleimani.


The PMU was formed in 2014 following the collapse of the U.S.-trained Iraqi army in the face of the ISIS invasion of northern Iraq. As the Sunni jihadist movement swept across Iraq from Syria and threatened Baghdad itself, Iraq's revered Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa calling for the formation of popular militias to defend Iraq.


The initiative was quickly co-opted by the IRGC Qods Force and its long-time Iraqi proxies along with Lebanese Hezbollah, which was operating in Iraq and Syria in coordination with the IRGC.  The IRGC and Hezbollah-led militias helped prevent ISIS from taking Baghdad and played a key role in driving ISIS out of strategic areas. Several PMU militias under IRGC-Hezbollah direction then assisted the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against Sunni rebels in the Syrian civil war.


Exploiting their popularity in the wake of ISIS's defeat, the Iran-backed PMU coalition has made a concerted  effort to expand its military, economic, and political power. The paramilitary coalition's expanding influence over the organs of the Iraqi state have raised fears of a 'Hezbollah-ization' of Iraq.  


In late 2016, the PMU pressured the previous Iraqi parliament to adopt legislation making the militia coalition a separate branch of the Iraqi military. In 2018, the PMU ran as a political party in Iraq's first post-ISIS parliamentary elections.  The PMU list headed by Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri received the second largest number of votes, close behind Muqtada al-Sadr's reformist Sairoun party. Sadr, who positions himself as a reformer and an Iraqi nationalist, wants Baghdad beholden to neither Tehran nor Washington.


Leading the rival parliamentary bloc to the Sadrist-led reformist bloc, the PMU succeeded in preventing the formation of a reformist coalition government, forcing Iraq's deadlocked parliament to select a compromise candidate as prime minister, the technocrat Adil Abdul Mahdi. Not having run as a candidate in the 2018 elections and without a political base of his own, Abdul Mahdi is beholden to the PMU bloc, as well as the Sadrist bloc, in order to remain in power.


Reflective of the PMUs political leverage, the parliament allocated the paramilitary coalition $2.19 billion in the 2019 Iraqi national budget, representing a 20 percent increase over its 2018 allocation despite the defeat of ISIS in Iraq. Put in perspective, the PMU's budget allocation was more than two and a half times that of Iraq's Ministry of Water Resources that is responsible for managing Iraq's response to the severe droughts that are devastating parts of the country.


With legal cover and state-funding, the PMU also earns money through racketeering, extortion, and embezzlement of funds. Among its many black market and gray market activities, the PMU charge "tolls" at the checkpoints the militias manage on highways that enter and leave the territories retaken from ISIS.  The militias earn upwards of $300,000 per day from such illegal taxation.  PMU-affiliated financial institutions such as the al-Bilad Islamic bank traffic millions of dollars for the IRGC Quds Force. Al-Bilad and its chairman were placed on the U.S. global terrorist designation list and sanctioned for funneling money from the Central Bank of Iran to Lebanese Hezbollah.


 Adil Abdul Mahdi's order for the integration of the PMU into Iraqi security forces does not dismantle the militias but seeks to remove their separate identities and strip them of their political and economic activities.  Each militia is required to become a regularized unit by replacing its militia name with Iraqi battalion and brigade numbers and by severing its political affiliation.  As Iraqi security services units, the militias are required to close their headquarters, cease immediately all economic activity, and place themselves under the command of the prime minister as commander in chief. 


Under Abdul Mahdi's decree, in essence, each militia must decide between its political and paramilitary roles.  In this way, Iraq's prime minister seeks to prevent the PMU from becoming an Iraqi version of Hezbollah.  All militias that fail to comply with the decree will deemed illegal organizations.


Skeptical observers have cast doubts on the efficacy of Abdul Mahdi's program, with several suggesting that it may actually promote the Hezbollah-ization of Iraq by shielding the militias through an Iraqi government identity.  With the July 31 deadline for compliance with his decree extended, it is feared that the hard-core, IRGC-directed militias will simply create the legal fiction of being neutral regularized units of the Iraqi security services while maintaining all their political and economic activities.  In such circumstances, the Shiite militias would be able to penetrate more deeply Iraqi state institutions, increasing their ability, and that of the IRGC to control the direction of Iraqi policy.


The skepticism is based primarily on the perceived political weakness of Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi who is seeking to improve on the failure of a similar although less far-reaching 2016 decree by his predecessor Haider al-Abadi. The 2016 decree allowed the militias to keep their corporate identities and headquarters, enabling the militias to continue their political and economic activities.


Abdul Mahdi's decree is designed to do the opposite. If he can succeed in coopting a sufficient number of fighters, the initiative could actually become the way for Abdul Mahdi to develop an independent power base by creating something akin a federal security force under his direct command.  Such a force could deter or defeat armed rebellions by militias that refuse to comply.


In this regard, Sistani's support for Abdul Mahdi's initiative is essential if the initiative is to serve as a means of preventing from IRGC-backed militias constituting themselves a parallel military under Tehran's command. While not issuing a fatwa requiring the militias to disband, Sistani has welcomed Abdul Mahdi's initiative and called on the "volunteers" to integrate into the Iraqi army.  Several of the militias have followed Sistani's call and have complied.


Muqtada al Sadr immediately signaled his support, hailing Abdul Mahdi's initiative as the "first step for building a strong state." Although Sadr expressed his concern that the measure should be fully implemented, the reformist politician promised that his own militia, Saraya al-Salam, would comply with the decree.  In contrast, the IRGC-backed Kata'ib Hezbollah immediately slammed Abdul Mahdi's decree, claiming it would weaken Iraq's? security and strengthen the U.S. presence in the country.


However, the contest over PMU integration is more complex, as Tehran has an interest in the partial success of Abdul Mahdi's initiative. The PMU has become unpopular even among segments of Iraq's Shiite population as a result of the criminal activities and sometimes brutal treatment of the civilian population by some of the militias. With the commanders of these militias possessing the financial wherewithal to defy the dictates of Tehran, Iran is concerned about losing control over one of if its principal levers of influence in Iraq. 


In late July, PMU chairman Falih al-Fayyadh traveled with Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi to Iran to discuss the implementation of the decree.  Closely tied to the IRGC, al-Fayyadh seeks to use the initiative to restore the PMU's popular support by ending the militias' criminal activities.  Eliminating the revenue streams that enable the militias to be autonomous will facilitate subsuming them under a unified chain of command, tightening al-Fayyadh's control – and by extension Tehran's control – over the militias.  For Iran, this control is also essential to prevent militias from taking rogue actions against the United States or its allies in the region prompting a conflagration not of Tehran's choosing.


Although Tehran would like to see Adbul Mahdi's initiative succeed to the extent that it serves Iranian interests, even a partial success of his program may give Iraq's prime minister a sufficient power base of his own to attract further support.  With such support, Abdul Mahdi could develop a more independent and neutral position for Iraq.  Much will depend on the prime minister's own political skill.  While air strikes on Shiite militia arms depots can eliminate the immediate threat of Iranian missiles, the most significant battle to limit Iran's ability to use Iraq as a base from which to project power across the Middle East is being fought in the bureaucratic corridors of Baghdad.


*Dr. Micha’el Tanchum is a Fellow at the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Hebrew University and non-resident, affiliated scholar with the Center for Strategic Studies at Başkent University in Ankara, Turkey (Başkent-SAM) 

Tel Aviv University, Ramat-Aviv 61390, Tel Aviv P.O.B. 39040, Israel   

Email:;  Phone: +972-3-640-9510 

F a x : + 9 7 2 - 3 - 6 4 0 - 6 6 6 5   

ACIS Iran Pulse No. 99 ● September 2,  2019 

©All rights reserved


Tel Aviv University makes every effort to respect copyright. If you own copyright to the content contained
here and / or the use of such content is in your opinion infringing, Contact us as soon as possible >>