The Popular Mobilisation Forces are often difficult to define – for some in Iraq, they played a vital role in the US-led coalition to drive ISIS out of Iraq. And yet for many other Iraqis, the PMF symbolises great problems in their country, primarily weak government institutions and non-state actors serving interests not always aligned with the greater good.
An alliance of about 65 militias, the vast majority of which are Iran-backed Shiite Islamist groupings, the PMF has proven to be a potent force, helping to push Isis out but also posing a threat to those who challenge their power. In 2016, the militias were formally said to be integrated into the Iraqi security forces, and yet remain out of government control.
Many of the PMF militias remain a symbol of Iranian interference in Iraq. Indeed, in last year’s inconclusive elections, about 500 PMF members and associated political figures ran for office, their coalition winning second place in the polls. The mixture of armed groups with political power can prove disastrous for a country’s stability.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi this week stepped in to curb their power, forcing the PMF to be more closely integrated into the country's army and preventing its members from taking up both political and paramilitary roles. This could be an important step designed to protect Iraqi stability and sovereignty and to curb Iranian meddling – if implemented.
The PMF emerged in 2014, when Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani issued a call to arms to fight ISIS in northern Iraq. Existing militias and those formed at the time clubbed together, recruiting unemployed or impoverished fighters in areas such as Basra. The PMF’s role in dismantling ISIS will not be forgotten. Yet some of its constituent groups have played a troubling role within Iraq and face accusations of kidnappings and extrajudicial killings. One militia leader even declared support last July for the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are fighting the internationally recognised government of Abdrabu Mansur Hadi.
Earlier this year, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly asked Iraq to dismantle the PMF but, given the scope of Tehran’s political and military influence in Iraq, such an ambition lacked teeth. However, just as South Sudan’s warring sides are currently attempting to do, further integrating the PMF into the Iraqi army to ensure they fight under one banner is a shrewd move.
Iranian influence in Baghdad has grown considerably since the 2003 US-led invasion. Iraq's economy is dependent on Iranian produce and power, which Tehran has used to flex its muscles within its fragile neighbour's borders. This is a tense moment for the region, as the US and Iran escalate their rhetoric. Just a fortnight ago, shells landed on the Balad military base in Iraq, which hosts US troops and a US energy company. As Iraqi President Barham Salih told an audience in London last week, Iraq finds itself in the eye of the storm but still needs to press on with its stabilisation and reconstruction efforts. Curbing the influence wielded by Iran through the PMF is a vital piece of that puzzle.