Militiamen in pick-up trucks kitted out with weapons speed through Iraq’s western desert on a mission to Al-Qaim, a border town that was one of the last Isis strongholds to be liberated. In the video members of the paramilitary Popular Mobilisation Units, known in Arabic as the Hashd al-Shaabi, clamber up a rocky hill in the town, some brandishing US-made M16 rifles, others with Kalashnikovs. A voiceover describes the “bravery” of the PMU and the “fierce war” it fought with Isis in Iraq.
But this time, the battle-hardened men are not hankering for a fight. Instead, the video boasts of their role helping rebuild a local hospital after the jihadis were driven out of Al-Qaim in November, just a month before Iraq declared victory over Isis.
The video was posted on the PMU’s website, days before the paramilitaries’ recently formed political alliance — Fatah, or Conquest — stormed to second place in Iraq’s parliamentary elections in May. Now, as politicians jockey over the composition of the next government, both the video and Fatah’s strong electoral performance point to one of the most polarising questions in Iraq: will the estimated 120,000-strong PMU force have a constructive or destabilising role in the post-Isis era?
To supporters, PMU fighters are saviours who defended their nation in its darkest hour as Isis seized roughly a third of the country — about 8,000 of its members died in the three-year battle, officials say.
But to detractors the PMU has become a powerful Iranian proxy and a potentially subversive force in a country that has endured appalling violence over the past 15 years — much of it at the hands of militias that exploited the state’s weakness to stoke sectarian tensions after the 2003 US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.
Some Iraqi and western officials fear the predominantly Shia paramilitary groups could become a shadow force, modelled on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps or Hizbollah, the Lebanese movement that has political and military wings.
“It’s an Iranian creation led by people who follow Iran: Iran has the guards, Iraq has the PMU,” says an Iraqi general.
Hadi al-Ameri, a veteran paramilitary leader-cum-politician who led the PMU into battle, bristles at such suggestions. “We [do] not accept this. This is the wrong mentality,” says Mr Ameri, who ditched his camouflage uniforms for sober suits to lead Fatah. “This is the same thing as the National Guards in America . . . this is an internal affair.”
The truth lies somewhere in between. Unlike the IRGC and Hizbollah, the PMU, which includes several dozen factions, is not a homogenous movement. And neither Washington nor Tehran want Iraq to become a theatre of conflict, analysts say.
Political and economic grievances: protests in Baghdad in mid-July © Reuters
As regional tensions mount, with the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia intensifying pressure on Iran following President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Tehran, the future role of the PMU is garnering more scrutiny. Some elements of the more pro-Iran militias in the PMU have dispatched forces to Syria to fight alongside the regime of Bashar al-Assad and have issued threats against US interests in Iraq.
Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, has accused Tehran of sponsoring “Shia militia groups and terrorists to infiltrate and undermine the Iraqi security forces and jeopardise Iraq’s sovereignty”.
Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the PMU’s deputy leader, was designated for sanctions by the US Treasury in 2009 “for threatening the peace and stability of Iraq and the government of Iraq”, and his Hizbollah Brigades militia is designated a terrorist organisation. The Treasury said he was an adviser to Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, and as recently as October a state department spokesman described Mr Muhandis as a “terrorist”.
The most important pressure Iran has created after Hizbollah [the Lebanese Shia movement] is the Popular Mobilisation Units
Last week, Mr Soleimani warned the US against threatening Iran: “We are near you, where you can’t even imagine,” he said, according to Iranian news agencies. It was a line that seemed to imply that Iran is prepared to use its troops and proxies outside the Islamic republic to fight the US.
Yet for three years, the US, the PMU and, indirectly, Iran, were in effect partners in Iraq with the shared goal of defeating Isis. It is what happens to the PMU next that has a “huge question mark” hanging over it, says a western diplomat in Baghdad.
Robert Ford, who was briefly kidnapped by a Shia militia in 2003 during the first of his three stints in Iraq as a US diplomat, believes Mr Ameri would prefer not to take sides between Iran and the US. But if hostilities between the foes “escalate sharply”, his loyalty would be to Tehran.
“Ameri and nearly all the Iraqi Shia understand that the American influence in the region sooner or later will diminish, but Iran will always be their neighbour,” says Mr Ford, a fellow at Washington’s Middle East Institute.
Iraq locator map
The PMU militias were born after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shia cleric, issued a call to arms in June 2014 following the humiliating collapse of the Iraqi security forces that the US had spent more than $20bn equipping in the face of Isis’s onslaught. As the jihadis blitzed across northern and western Iraq, advancing towards Baghdad, young men lined up behind pick-up trucks and outside military bases to be ferried to the front lines.
Some were volunteers. Most were members of Shia militias that had been keeping low profiles, such as Mr Ameri’s Badr movement, formed in Iran during the 1980s to fight Saddam’s regime; Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a radical offshoot of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, which attacked US troops after Saddam was ousted; and the Hizbollah Brigades.
The PMU gradually drew in fighters from other communities, including Sunnis, Christians and Yazidis, taking on a less sectarian profile. They supported offensives led by the rebuilt Iraqi security forces and the US-led coalition that finally defeated the jihadis.
‘Nearly all the Iraqi Shia understand that the [US] influence in the region . . . will diminish, but Iran will always be their neighbour’
Robert Ford, former US diplomat in Baghdad
Since then, the paramilitaries have reduced their presence on Baghdad’s streets. But PMU leaders have resisted prime minister Haider al-Abadi’s efforts to integrate them into the armed forces. In November 2016, parliament passed a law making the PMU an independent force, which now has its own $1.6bn budget and ostensibly answers to the prime minister’s office rather than the interior or defence ministries.
Yet when Mr Abadi tried to obtain an independent audit of their numbers, PMU leaders pushed back, says one Iraqi politician. Today, the paramilitaries patrol areas liberated from Isis, including the strategic border with Syria around Al-Qaim, and operate checkpoints across the country.
Renad Mansour, an analyst at the Chatham House think-tank who has researched the PMU, says Mr Ameri “plays the game of the state when it suits him”. He adds: “The PMU’s endgame is either to take control of the state, or, if they can’t, [to at least] be part of the state.
“But they also have a plan B. If the state one day decides it needs to integrate or disband the PMU, they can gain power or influence through contesting the state economically and politically.”
Hadi al-Ameri on the campaign trail in the southern city of Basra before Iraqi elections in May © AFP
Experts say it is unrealistic to expect tens of thousands of armed men to simply pack up and go home. Indeed, such a move in a country awash with weapons and blighted by widespread joblessness would only risk exacerbating instability: Iraqis point to the chaos that erupted after the US’s decision to disband security forces in 2003. The vacuum allowed militias to flourish, including the rival Shia and Sunni groups that fought coalition forces and sectarian battles, and Peshmerga fighters loyal to the two main political groups in autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan.
“Armed groups linked to political parties or individuals is a problem throughout the whole country; the PMU may be the biggest example of it now,” Mr Mansour says. “This is part of the bigger issue of how to end the monopoly of legitimate violence throughout Iraq.”
Elements of the PMU were accused of committing abuses against Sunnis in the war with Isis. Amnesty International last year alleged the paramilitaries “executed or otherwise unlawfully killed, tortured and abducted thousands of men and boys”. US equipment supplied to the Iraqi army, including Humvees, M113 armoured personnel carriers and small arms, was being deployed by the militias, the report said.
Some Iraqis and analysts say PMU groups are also expanding their business interests and allegedly engaging in similar smuggling rackets that Isis once operated, from sheep to grain and oil. “Where Isis controlled territory, PMU groups have emerged manning checkpoints so smugglers taking stuff through Turkey or Syria must go through them,” says an Iraqi analyst. “Each of these groups are gangsters involved in looting this county,” says a rival politician.
The PMU’s website offers an alternative narrative. Statements highlight its work providing medical services, reconciling tribes and repairing mosques, roads, bridges and schools in liberated areas. Its leaders speak of their desire to establish a “martyrs university”.
Nathaniel Rabkin, a security analyst, says the attempted push into academia is an example of how the PMU wants to have an ideological role in “shaping the way Iraq goes forward”.
Part of that is curbing western influence, he says. “They are smart enough to understand it would be a mistake to make it exactly like the IRGC,” he says. “But you watch interviews with Ameri and he’s talking about how the PMUs are an ideological army and Iraq is in an ideological war and . . . it becomes clear he sees this project as about something much grander and longer-term.”
Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state © AFP
Much will depend on where power lies in the next government. Mr Sadr, the Shia cleric whose Sairoon political alliance is leading talks to form a coalition after winning the largest share of the vote at May’s election, has previously called for the PMU to be disbanded and has railed against Iran’s influence. But he also has his own militia, the Mahdi Army. It retreated from the streets after a crackdown by the Iraqi and coalition forces in the late 2000s, and has since been rebranded the “Peace Companies”.
Last month, Mr Sadr and Mr Ameri said their blocs were creating a “national alliance” to lead talks on forming a government.
“Some PMU commanders are becoming politicians, but they are serving Iraq to protect the state,” says Karim al-Nouri, a Fatah politician, as pictures of him in uniform on the front lines of the battle against Isis hang outside his office. “We are going to enter parliament in civilian clothes, not uniforms.”
Another Iraqi analyst says that if the PMU’s gains are not threatened it could be a “good force”. “But they will have many demands and they will put their nose into everything, just like [Iran’s] IRGC,” the analyst says. “The most important pressure Iran has created after Hizbollah [the Lebanese Shia movement] is the PMU.”
Mr Ameri, a stocky man in his 60s, is having none of it. “Get rid of your Iran complex,” he says. “Go and disband the National Guard in America and Saudi Arabia and come back to me.
“If you disband the Peshmerga we will disband the PMU, but you accept the Peshmerga and cheer for them. This is double standards.”
Additional reporting by Asser Khattab in Beirut
Politics Water and fuel protests expose rising anger
A wave of protests across southern Iraq have exposed the weakness of the state and the mounting resentment many Iraqis feel towards their leaders.
Demonstrators have in recent weeks targeted government buildings and political party offices, including those belonging to the Badr movement and other groups on Hadi al-Ameri’s Fatah list. The protests began over electricity and water shortages in Basra, the country’s oil hub. But they are also symptomatic of growing anger over the dire state of public services and the economy.
The predominantly Shia southern provinces avoided the worst of the violence from the three-year battle with Isis in Iraq’s north and west. But families from the south provided the majority of sons, fathers and husbands who filled the ranks of the Popular Mobilisation Units from 2014. Now there is a sense that despite the sacrifices made by the south, it has been neglected by Baghdad.
There is also widespread anger about rampant poverty and unemployment in a region that is the country’s economic lifeline — oil exports from Basra account for more than 95 per cent of state revenues. Some protests have targeted oil and gasfields as people demand that companies provide more jobs.
The anger felt by many Iraqis towards their leaders was reflected in a record low turnout of 44.5 per cent at the May 12 elections. That worked in the favour of the Sairoon alliance, led by Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric, and the Fatah bloc, which came first and second in terms of seats won in parliament, according to initial results.
They, and other groups, are now in talks to form the next coalition government, a process that typically takes months given Iraq’s fragmented political system. But the continuing unrest underscores the challenges the next administration will face.