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1.2. Popular Mobilisation Forces and Tribal Mobilisation Militias

Last updated: June 2022

The Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), also referred to as the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) and al-Hashd al Shaabi, can be considered as a complex umbrella organisation, consisting of many different militias.

Although the PMF fall officially under the command of Iraq’s prime minister, some prominent (Shia) militias answer directly to Iran. Prime Minister al-Khadimi tried since his coming to power to curb the influence of the militias by arresting militia members and bringing them to justice or by undercutting the flow of resources, obtained mainly through smuggling activities at the border areas with Syria and Iran. Despite these attempts the Iraqi Government continues to have major difficulties in containing the Popular Mobilisation Committee (PMC) or to hold its fighters accountable for their actions.

There is an internal rift between the ISF loyal to the prime minister and the PMF. The PMF showcase their (military) capacity by organising parades, calling for the dismissal of the prime minister or symbolic deployment to the capital. Incidents of ISF perceived as loyal to the prime minister being intimidated, attacked and driven away by the PMF are reported [Security 2022, 1.3.1].

The total manpower of the PMF is 165 000 members of whom 110 000 are Shia, 45 000 Sunni and 10 000 minorities. On 10 October 2020, the Iraqi Resistance Coordination Commission (IRCC), came to existence following the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis. It is an influential entity that claims to speak on behalf of a coalition of PMF groups inter alia Kataib Hezbollah (KH) and Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq (AAH). The PMF groups were forced to collaborate in this framework and gave Iran the opportunity to consolidate a semblance of control over the PMF groups. [Security 2022, 1.3.1]

The Shia PMF largely fall into three main groups:

  • 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. The wala’i, PMF affiliated with Iran’s Khamenei operate under the umbrella of the PMF or are incorporated in other security apparatuses. Tensions arose between the wala’i and PMF affiliated with Iraq’s supreme Shia cleric Al-Sistani.

The withdrawal of US Troops from Iraq influenced the presence and expansion of Iranian-backed militias in different provinces. The Iranian backed militias have access to heavy and advanced weaponry that they showcase to demonstrate their power. These militias adopted a new strategy to evade accountability for the targeting of US assets in Iraq, the targeting of coalition logistical convoys and other activities like raiding venues deemed as westernised and the targeting of activists. To this end, the PMF, like KH en AAH, created façade groups that were not officially affiliated with the PMF such as Usbat Al-Thaireen (League of the Revolutionaries) and Rab’allah (Followers of Allah). These groups take on accountability for the attacks and so avoiding retaliatory attacks on the Iranian backed PMF. Another strategy is to attribute their attacks to third parties like ISIL or other armed actors [Security 2022, 1.3.1].

  • 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. These PMF became integrated in the Iraqi armed forces since April 2020 [Security 2022, 1.3.1].

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. Their role has increased during the fight against ISIL and in securing the areas once they were recaptured [Targeting 2019, Annex I; Security 2022, 1.3.1].

There are also a number of minority militias, such as Yazidi and Christian militias, Turkmen brigades and Shabak forces linked to the PMF. However, the link to the PMF might not always be clear-cut and may be loosely based on financial, legal or political incentives [Targeting 2019, Annex I; Security 2022, 1.3.1]. In Sinjar, the YBS (Sinjar Resistance Unit) is officially part of the PMF. PKK fighters joined the ranks of the YBS. The PMF is providing political cover for the presence of the PKK in the region [Targeting 2022, 4.3.1; Security 2022, 1.3.1].

The PMF were still active in conducting counter-ISIL operations, drone surveillance, raids and clearing operations [Security 2022, 2.4.3].

Since 2014, elements of the PMF have been engaged in unlawful killings, disappearances, extortion and revenge attacks in the course of the fighting against ISIL. Sources report that PMF make arrests and detain suspects in ‘secret prisons’. PMF 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 PMF was also reported [Targeting 2019, 1.1.2, 1.2.2].

The PMF manned checkpoints, engage in extortion, detain Sunni on false charges, and smuggle weapons, force displacement of Sunni resulting in demographic change along the border with Iran, turn Sunni mosques into headquarters and operate in Sunni areas against the will of the local population. Furthermore PMF are reported to control checkpoints and road traffic and issue their own authorization letters that allow passage through checkpoints across the country [Security 2022, 2.4, 2.4.3].

PMF and security forces are accused of threatening family members of (suspected) ISIL members to return home to provide information [Targeting 2022, 4.2.2].

PMF are reported to have committed violence against ethnoreligious minorities, to be engaged in illegal income-generating activities, setting up of illegal checkpoints, and causing displacement of minorities [Targeting 2022, 4.2.2]. PMF are responsible for blocking returns, attempt to induce demographic changes and secure illegal economic benefits, and confiscate property [Targeting 2022, 4.1.2, 4.3.2]. PMF are said to perpetuate ethnic conflict and displacement, ignite tension between the local Sunni and Shia communities and, in the case of ISIL, increasing ‘Sunni disillusion with and isolation from the Iraqi state, deepens mistrust between Sunnis and the Iraqi government and risks radicalization of the Sunni population’. PMF are also said to continue aiding, perpetuating, and taking advantage of ISIL-initiated ethnic population displacement in order to gain a demographic and electoral advantage [Targeting 2022, 2.2].

During the protests, PMF members used excessive violence against protesters such as assassinations, abductions, beatings, intimidation. Forced evictions, abductions, destruction of property and summary executions were also reported [Protesters, 3.1; Targeting 2022, 5.3].

It is reported that militia members enforce public morals, punishing, for example, persons who drink alcohol, gamble or hire prostitutes. PMF 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 PMF and local militias were also reported [Targeting 2019, 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 PMF and ISF forces. Especially in Kirkuk, denial of returns of Kurds was also reported [Targeting 2019, 1.1.2; Security 2019, 2.4].

The PMF 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.