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1.2. Popular Mobilisation Units and Tribal Mobilisation Militias

Last updated: January 2021

The Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), also referred to as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) and al-Hashd al Shaabi, can be considered as complex umbrella organisation, consisting of many different militias, the majority of which are Shia militias. Sources from 2016 and 2017 reported that PMU include from 60 000 to 140 000 fighters, registered in about 60 - 70 groups. [Targeting, 1.1.2]

Since 2016, under the Popular Mobilisation Law, the PMU are formally and legally part of the State's security apparatus. They are defined as an 'independent military formation' and not part of the Ministry of Defence or the Ministry of Interior. They are not subordinate to the ISF and nominally report to the Prime Minister as the Commander in Chief, through the PMF Commission and the National Security Council. Although PMU are legally a State institution, in practice they retain autonomous control and influence, some of them with close links to the most important political parties. Therefore, government control over the militias is limited and PMU often act outside of the State’s command and control structures [Actors of protection, 5.4; Targeting, 1.1.2, Annex I; Security situation 2019,].

The Shia PMU largely fall into three main groups, with varying political agendas:

Iran-backed militias with strong relations to Iran and its security apparatus, particularly the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. These militias are considered the most active and most capable in Iraq. The militias mainly include influential groups like the Badr Organisation, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah and Saraya Talia al-Khorasan. 
Other politically affiliated militias linked with Shia political parties, but not aligned with Iran, such as populist Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades) and the Islamic Supreme Council.
Hawza militias, which are smaller groups affiliated with the Najaf-based Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (Iraq’s supreme Shia cleric) and not connected to political parties.

Although the most prominent groups are Shia forces, the PMU also include sizeable Sunni forces [Security situation 2019,].

There are also a number of minority militias, such as Yazidi and Christian militias, Turkmen brigades and Shabak forces linked to the PMU. However, the link to the PMU might not always be clear-cut and may be loosely based on financial, legal or political incentives [Targeting, Annex I; Security situation 2019,].

The Tribal Mobilisation (TM) militias, or Hashd al-Asha’iri, are composed of fighters from Sunni tribes. The TM are generally active locally in their own places of origin and have played an increasing role during the fight against ISIL and in securing the areas once they were recaptured. The nature of these forces is difficult to categorise because some take orders directly from Iraqi forces and local authorities while others strongly affiliate with and respond to orders from larger PMU militias [Targeting, Annex I; Security situation 2019,].

Since 2014, elements of the PMU have been engaged in unlawful killings, disappearances, extortion and revenge attacks in the course of the fighting against ISIL. Sources report that PMU make arrests and detain suspects in ‘secret prisons’. PMU have also regularly forcibly disappeared men with perceived ISIL ties directly from IDP camps. Sexual exploitation of women in IDP camps by members of the PMU was also reported. In the context of protests, PMU have reportedly used excessive force against protesters resulting in numerous deaths [Security situation 2020, 1.2.3]. PMU members have also reportedly targeted individuals in relation to the protest movement by means of assassinations, abductions, beatings, intimidation, etc. [Protesters, 3.1] Forced evictions, abductions, destruction of property and summary executions were also reported. It is reported that militia members enforce public morals, punishing, for example, persons who drink alcohol, gamble or hire prostitutes. PMU have also been engaged in criminal activities and other abuses against civilians. Forced displacement, evictions, arrests, looting of homes, demolition of houses, threats, sexual abuse, harassment and discrimination by PMU and local militias were also reported [Targeting, 1.1.2, 1.2.2, 1.4, 3.1.2].

During the Iraqi takeover of the disputed territories from the KRG in October 2017, members of the Peshmerga and Asayish from the disputed territories have been targeted by the PMU and ISF forces. Especially in Kirkuk, denial of returns of Kurds was also reported [Targeting, 1.1.2; Security situation 2019, 2.4].

 The PMU are generally considered State actors, although the State is unable to exert full control. Depending on the level of affiliation with the State in the particular case, other militias may be considered State or non-State actors.