Protesters chant slogans as they walk past a pro-Kataib Hezbollah billboard during an anti-government demonstration in Basra, Iraq, on Jan. 17. Hussein Faleh/AFP/Getty Images
In January, Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of Iraq’s largest political party, traveled to Iran’s holy city of Qom to meet with representatives of several Iraq-based paramilitaries from the hugely influential Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). That visit was part of an attempt by Sadr to position himself as the face of public anger directed against the United States over the assassination of Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani.
Sadr is an important figure in Iraq not only because of his ties to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei but also because members of his Saraya al-Salam militia turned out in significant numbers to protect anti-government protesters against Iraqi security forces, including the PMU, last year. The death of Suleimani caused pro-Iranian paramilitaries to flex their muscles by clashing more openly with U.S. troops, which could be a sign that the PMU is reimagining its future role in Iraq. Sadr’s intervention now makes the PMU’s ascendance undeniable. While he tried to navigate the wave of popular protest last year, he has hedged his influence with the PMU this year, illustrating that the organization cannot be sidelined.
The PMU’s engorged status is rooted in the war against the Islamic State. At the outset of the conflict, the powerful Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani issued a fatwa that rallied more than 100,000 young men to join the organization. Most of the volunteers were Shiites, but groups of Sunnis, Christians, and Yazidis also formed their own units under the PMU umbrella. At its core, the PMU is a sectarian organization whose leaders see themselves as allies in Iran’s broader geopolitical ambitions.
Many of the PMU militias have roots in older organizations, such as the Badr Organization, led by Hadi al-Amiri. Amiri had served alongside Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the 1980s fighting Saddam Hussein’s regime. Like Sadr, Amiri and his organization were seen as more moderate than other Shiite militias. For instance, the more radical Asaib Ahl al-Haq split from Sadr’s movement and targeted U.S. forces after 2006.
The PMU’s presence in Iraq ballooned during the war against the Islamic State, giving it large numbers of armed men and some 50 brigades that wanted to play a major role in the social, military, and economic life of the country. I saw this on the roads around Mosul in 2017. As the city’s environs were liberated from the Islamic State, the flags of various Shiite militia groups went up at checkpoints outside the city, a typical sight across Iraq. The groups had their own munitions warehouses as well and allegedly had their own prisons.
The PMU reached a turning point in 2017 and 2018, when it was integrated into the Iraqi security forces as an official paramilitary force. That could have meant standardizing its units and blurring the line between the various militias and the regular armed units, but instead the PMU solidified its status as a distinct organization within the country. The brigades preserved their sectarian and political links to various former militias. Then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi defended the role of the PMU in 2017 when U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged the militias to return home. He said they would become the hope for the future of Iraq.
As tensions between Iran and the United States escalated beginning in May 2019, so too did those between U.S. troops in Iraq and the PMU. Both sides traded attacks, including more than a dozen PMU rocket attacks targeting important bases such as Camp Taji, Ayn al-Assad, Q-West, and K-1 near Kirkuk, where a U.S. contractor was killed. The latter action sparked a U.S. airstrike on five Kataib Hezbollah positions in Iraq and Syria and the strike that killed Suleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy chief of the PMU. Further rocket attacks eventually led to an attack on March 11 that killed three members of the U.S.-led coalition and led directly to a U.S. retaliatory strike on a series of PMU-controlled warehouses on March 13. In late March, the United States withdrew from many of the bases targeted by rocket attacks, including Q-West and K-1, as various PMU group continued to make threats to remove the U.S. troop presence.
Coinciding with these events has been an outburst of tension between protesters and the Iraqi government. In late November, after numerous protesters were killed in clashes with local authorities, Sadr called for the next prime minister to be chosen by popular referendum. He issued several further statements in support of the protesters, all of which helped lead to the ouster of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi in November. Sadr has since rescinded his support for the protesters, but his influence during that critical moment is still felt.
The anti-government protests also opened an opportunity for the PMU to test its own clout in the country, and it was openly implicated in suppressing the protests. Its opposition to the protests likely stemmed from its belief that they represented a fundamental threat to its newfound power. The PMU was in the ascendant after the war against the Islamic State, and it hoped to entrench itself in Iraqi society thereafter, but the protests were broadly reflective of a younger generation that wanted sweeping change to a system that, by that time, served the PMU’s interests. Protesters targeted PMU offices as well as some Iranian consulates and other symbols linked to the PMU.
The increasing role of Sadr and the PMU during the protests is a significant development in Iraqi politics because it signals a gradual shift in power away from the civil government and toward actors that are not only unaccountable to the public but also feel they owe more allegiance to Iran’s broader ambitions than to the Iraqi government, as is the case with many factions in the PMU.
In the aftermath of the Suleimani and Muhandis killings, the PMU chose to temporarily restrain its activities in the country, but Sadr continued to foment trouble by calling for large protests against U.S. troops in Iraq.
Sadr’s politicking is one of several challenges the PMU must reconcile with. Suleimani’s death signaled the loss of a key ally in Iran that could jeopardize the organization’s unity and relationship with Tehran. Further, Muhandis’s death resulted in the loss of a significant degree of institutional and tactical knowledge that will be difficult—if not impossible—to replace. With the specter of social and political unrest in Iraq growing and the PMU’s future in the country in doubt, the organization has important decisions to make regarding its future.
The PMU could choose to continue to channel the groundswell of popular anger against the United States over its own role in Iraq. This might convince the Trump administration to pursue a political arrangement incorporating the varied interests in Iraq (which would include a troop withdrawal), similar to the deal it recently struck in Afghanistan. Alternatively, it could cause Washington to dig in as part of its efforts to counter Iran, which could serve as part of a broader effort by the PMU to take a greater stake in Iraq’s political and military affairs.
Because the PMU is both part of the security forces and is linked to prominent religious and political leaders, it now plays a key role in many aspects of Iraqi civil society. The role that some factions of the PMU played in suppressing the protests, its attempt to force U.S. troops out of the country, and its attempt to influence the appointment of a new prime minister show that it has become a central force in Iraq’s political and security fabric. As the PMU takes on a greater role in Iraqi society, it could eventually expand its influence to resemble that played by the IRGC in Iran. Its role already surpasses the one played by Hezbollah in Lebanon because it has been officially incorporated into the security forces.
As this happens, the PMU must also decide if it will take a more independent path or if it will continue to implement policies that serve Iran’s interests. This is a critical crossroads because if the PMU serves only Iran’s interests, it will rub up against large sections of the public and potentially come into conflict with either the United States or other groups in Iraq. As the country looks to an uncertain future, it is unlikely that the PMU will be content with settling into a role subservient to the security forces and disentangled from politics or, more importantly, from Iran.