Iraq is emerging form an existential crisis that was caused by the self-designated Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL), a terrorist group with an extremist ideology that invaded several Iraqi provinces and established a caliphate on the captured territories with the cooperation of elements in the local population, the acquiescence of many others, and a great deal of undeniable regional support. The causes of ISIS success to defeat the Iraqi forces in a record short time have been widely debated. Most important of these causes is the wide-spread corruption in Iraq’s body-politic and the weak civil-military relations. Iraqi politicians received a poorly-prepared military from the U.S. Administration and did more to weaken it. The U.S. formed a military with a philosophy that placed ethno-sectarian inclusiveness and quotas ahead of cohesion, and the successive Iraqi governments reshaped it later by placing loyalty to the commander-in-chief ahead of professionalism and qualifications. The result was a military that could not hold its ground.
In the face of a catastrophic military failure and a collapsed national morale, Iraqis were hoping for international help, but the international community did not step forward to save Iraq from a dreadful fate. The only help came from the ordinary Iraqi civilians who signed up in an historic show of patriotism and faith in country. Tens of thousands heeded a fatwa (binding religious decree) by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who called on Iraqis “to defend the country, its people, the honor of its citizens, and its sacred places.” Although the original fatwa was calling on Iraqis to join the military forces, this was practically impossible, because of insurmountable structural problems in the military forces and the lack of government’s capacity, and competence, to act. Iraqis had no choice but to take matters into their own hands and form their own fighting units to fight the danger of ISIS that reached the gates of Baghdad in a matter of days. The first to face ISIS were re-established militant groups that existed in the period between 2004 and 2011 and fought against the U.S. forces, either to further their own political agendas or on behest of Iran, but dropped their arms as of 2012 in a deal with the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Also re-instated was the Badr Organization that was turned into a political organization shortly after their return to Iraq, from Iran, where they were formed. Their leader, Hadi al-Amiri, is a member of Iraqi Parliament.
These groups recruited thousands of fighters and accomplished a lot to stop ISIS from advancing to more territories, but the land where the terrorist group and its sympathizers and supporters threatened to take was too large for them to cover, and the rehabilitation of Iraq’s Military Forces was too slow to ensure the survival of many territories. Some villages and towns, unable to receive outside help and unwilling to submit to ISIS, decided to put their civilian lives in a dangerous gamble and fight on their own. The bravery of these small Shia and Sunni communities in Amerli, al-Alam, and Haditha will be remembered as symbols of valor. These small communities fought and prevailed, pulling all their resources including women and children, while large cities welcomed ISIS or submitted without a fight. Sensing the need for more fighters and fighting units. The formation of many fighting groups took place as necessity dictated, and almost always without government control or involvement. Government role was merely acknowledging these groups as their formation became a fait accomlpli. The government did create the Popular Mobilization Directorate, which reported to the Commander-in-Chief and acted as a liaison with the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs). It took more than two years until the Iraqi Parliament passed in November 2016 a law legalizing the PMUs and designating them as part of the Iraqi security forces, outlining their current rights and responsibilities, their chain of command, and their future relation to the state.
The PMUs have a wide range of political and social authorities: the Shia Seminary Leadership of Iraq, the various Holy Shrines in Najaf and Karbala, some Iraqi political parties, certain Iraqi Shia and Sunni tribes, and some were formed and directed by Iran to serve Iranian interests. The last element that reports to Iran, while a minority in the PMUs, received most attention and became the generally accepted, and almost always used, designation for the entire PMUs. The words “Iran-backed Shia militias” became a standard term in most Western and regional media, political analyses and other forms of discourse without regard to the reality on the ground, some was motivated by political interests and most by sheer ignorance and lack of true expertise or ability to attain first-hand knowledge. This generalization in using the term disregards the facts that most PMUs have no direct relations to Iran, that they are part of Iraq’s armed forces according to a law passed by Iraq’s Parliament, and that more than one third of them are not Shia (Sunnis, Christians, Yezidis, etc.), not to mention that its contradiction with the patriotic history of Iraq Shia.
Despite their accomplishments and role in saving Iraq from collapse in the early weeks of the ISIS invasion, there remains a set of problems with the PMUs that must be highlighted. Most important of those is the loose structure and lack of a unified chain of command. Although the PMUS have certain faces that appear to be in charge of the general operations, the ins and outs of daily field operations are not following a single master plan. There are evident leadership incoherence and rivalry, turf disputes, competition over resources, insufficient interoperability, and conflicted priorities. There is also the problem of PMUs or individuals within in them, who are designated as terrorist groups. The Iraqi government needs to deal with this issue urgently and take it seriously and reconcile the legal standing of its security forces with international law and the laws of key allies. Another pressing problem, due to the open opportunity for anyone to form their PMU or attach themselves to them, has been the emergence of obvious cases of corruption committed under the cover of the PMUs or in their name. It is not uncommon to see individuals or small groups putting on PMU uniforms and, instead of fighting ISIS in front lines, roam the government offices and social circles pursuing side agendas, including agendas that run against the interests of Iraq. It was very hard to combat these practices while the war on ISIS was going on, but bringing this practice to a halt is important now. Perhaps the PMUs should be the ones to support this effort if they don’t want the work of these opportunists to be pinned on them. But most of these issues, and many others, will be eliminated once the Iraqi government moves to implement the PMU Law, which authorized the Commander-in-Chief to take all necessary measures to integrate the PMUs into Iraq’s security forces, including the authority to alter their structure and designate new commanders, among other prerogatives. Under the PMU Law, all current civilian commanders of the fighting groups will be replaced by military officers, each will be placed in the position allowed by his military rank. Main commanders will be nominated by the Commander-in-Chief and confirmed by the proper authorities, in the same fashion of approving regular Iraqi military commanders. The Law will also keep only the groups that comply with the Iraqi and international laws, including the military laws, laws of war conduct, laws against terrorism, and maintain a pure Iraqi loyalty. Also, certain PMUs that are either designated as terrorist groups or certain individuals in the overall PMU body cannot remain, once the PMU is implemented. Otherwise, the entire Iraqi security forces will face problems whenever they require aid, weapons, and training. There will be one force under the Commander-in-Chief, led by military generals and other ranking officers as appropriate to their new structure. All the current names of individual PMUs will be eliminated and their structure will be re-shaped as the government will deem appropriate and according to the new purpose they will be needed for.
The continuing calls to dismantle the PMUs, initially made by local politicians and regional governments, and now are echoed by Western leaders, run against the reality of Iraq. Many reasons can be cited for keeping the PMUs and ensuring government control over them. First, these are lawful forces according to a law passed by Iraq’s Parliament. Demanding that Iraq’s government dismantle them is no different than a demand to dismantle Iraq’s Army or Air Force. It is up to the Iraqi government to decide what armed forces to keep and what to dismiss. However, it is important that the PMU Law is fully implemented to put them fully under the control of government and ensure their discipline and command structure. The second reason is that Iraq is still not safe from the possibility of another terrorist threat in the near future and, in fact, even not sure that ISIS is fully defeated. Iraq is still threatened by domestic extremist forces, by the Syrian chaos, and by regional religious extremism and political hostility. Without the PMUs, Iraq will not stand a chance to survive when the next wave of terror arrives. It will be a long time before the Iraqi Armed Forces sufficiently gain the ability to defend the country and overcome their inherent structural and capability problems. Iraqi Armed Forces and the governmental institutions that oversee them are still suffering from massive corruption, mixed loyalties, and many other problems that brought the ISIS catastrophe in the first place. It would be irresponsible to go back to Iraq’s security safeguards, or lack thereof, that were in place in June 2014.
Finally, despite the diversity of internal loyalties and chains of command, the PMUs have a supreme patron, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose historic fatwa was, and still is, the source of legitimacy and guiding principle of the PMU effort. And, while the Iraqi government is the political and constitutional authority in Iraq, the PMU fate and role have been, and will continue to be, the de facto prerogative of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who is not convinced at the present time that the rationale for having the PMUs is no longer valid.
Instead of calling on Iraq to dismantle an important force that acquired great combat experience in the past three years and send tens of thousands of lethal fighters into the life of unemployment and brutal economic conditions of Iraq, where many of them can be recruited to fight side wars in Iraq or elsewhere in the region, the smart thing to do is to call on Iraq to implement the PMU Law and put the vast majority, who are compliant compliant, to good use in the security forces, where they will continue to serve their country and will not feel being used and betrayed. Meanwhile, Iraq can put together a plan to transition them over the coming years into civilian life again through well-planned programs of employment opportunities.
Haven’t those who call for dismissing the PMUs learned anything from the U.S. blunder of categorically dismissing the Iraqi military in 2003?
* Abbas Kadhim is Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. (Twitter: @DrAbbasKadhim).