Global policymakers failed to understand the complex and widespread power the Popular Mobilisation Forces have in Iraq, an expert on the group said.
At an online seminar to discuss his research, Dr Renad Mansour said the group was not an anomaly and was very much a “powerful actor deeply embedded in the Iraqi state government".
"The [group] is not a coherent, integrated organisation," Dr Mansour wrote in his recently published paper, Networks of Power: the Popular Mobilisation Forces and the State in Iraq.
"Instead, it remains a series of fluid and adaptive networks, some of which are closely linked to Iran."
In his piece, Dr Mansour said that understanding this is necessary to form “a clear and coherent strategy on how to deal with it".
The PMF are made up of more than 100,000 Iraqi paramilitary soldiers trained and backed by Iran.
Also known as the Hashed Al Shaabi, they were mobilised to help Iraqi government forces fight ISIS and were later made an official component of state security forces.
The group has become a powerful political party in Iraq.
After the territorial defeat of ISIS, the group's networks developed into significant security, political and economic forces that compete for power in the Iraqi state, making any attempts to curtail their influence difficult.
Their politically aligned bloc won 14 per cent of the seats in parliament in the last election.
“It’s hard to remove this group ... because of how connected they are in the state,” Dr Mansour said.
Iraq has been caught in the middle of growing hostility between Iran and the US since the US-led invasion in 2003 toppled Saddam Hussein and brought Iraq’s Shiite majority to power.
After Qassem Suleimani, leader of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force, and the PMF's chief of staff Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis were killed in a US airstrike in January 2020, the situation was close to dissolving into all-out war.
“You can’t just strike at them without an understanding of the network,” Dr Mansour said during the seminar.
He said that “military solutions [in Iraq] have often had violent backlashes".
Dr Mansour said that the killing of Al Muhandis failed to reduce Iranian influence or curb the PMF in Iraq.
Recent attacks on US-led coalitions in Erbil and ins Baghdad's Green Zone by armed groups with suspected ties to the group brought back questions about how to resolve the country's fractious and volatile political climate.
The US State Department is reviewing its Iraq policy.
Denise Natali, acting director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies and formerly of the US State Department, said the nature of the “hyper-fragmented Iraqi state” made it unlikely armed groups would willingly choose to give up authority to a centralised security structure without a clear strategy in place.
“The US can’t want security sector reform more than Iraqis,” Ms Natali said. “The strategy and will must first come from Iraqi officials."