The Future of PMU’s in Iraq

ipelekis Analysis

6 minute read

There has been a long history of arming third party groups in conflicts providing significant blowback for states. With the end of the battle of Mosul in sight, and the near complete eviction of tangible ISIS elements in Iraq (there will probably be sleeper cells and insurgents for years to come), how will the Iraqi government handle the reintegration of Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs)? The problem here is two-fold, the PMU’s are, for the most part, Shi’a with little allegiance to the Iraqi government but to Iran. Second, why would they give up their power and influence after fighting so hard to attain it? This problem is made even more complex, when taking into account the weakness of the Iraqi government, whom have had to give autonomy to the Kurdish regions, and integrated the PMU’s in the first place to combat ISIS. Add to this the fear that a new Sunni government will be established in a Shi’a majority state and the chance of the PMU’s giving up their arms and power becomes bleak. The PMU’s themselves seem to be gaining a strength of their own, with numbers ranging from 100,000 to 120,000 troops among the various militias. Dismissing and disarming the PMU’s will be an ugly process that is most likely not feasible. Even if accomplished, when the Iraqi army was dismissed after the American Invasion it led to disastrous results as the amount of unemployed, combat soldiers was absurd. What are the possible options and most likely outcomes?

The first and most obvious path seems to be a return to sectarian violence. Many of the main militias are the same forces that were part of the sectarian violence before ISIS, for example the Mahdi Army (Renamed the ‘Peace Brigades’). These brigades do not take orders from the Iraqi army and have few links to the government in Baghdad. After seeing the Kurds gain an autonomous region of their own from a weakened Iraqi government, the Shi’a militia’s most likely see the Iraqi government’s weakness, especially when coupled with their need to assimilate the militias to fight ISIS. Yet this can easily be the very reason the conflict spiral degenerates: the Iraqi government will be equally aware that if it does not stand strong now it could lose control of the state to multiple factions, hence a need to stand strong in the face of the PMU’s demands.

The second path which may be driven by PMU ambitions and Iranian influence and need for proxy forces, would be the export of fighters to other warzones of Shi’a/Iranian interest. Many militias have already claimed there desire to fight ISIS to the bitter end in Raqqa, with following accompanying chants of “We Are Coming, Raqqa; We Are Coming, Aleppo; and We Are Coming, Yemen,” basically every Shi’a proxy conflict ongoing in the Middle east right now. This would not only help Iran in their proxy wars, but also allow the militias substantial growth of their political, and physical identity as they carve out a new regional role for themselves in conjunction with the Shi’a forces around the region. In fact, this could be a revolutionary new development of fighting in the region, as the forces are no longer guided by states but an export and import of fighters according to religious alignment. While this in no way is a new tool, it would be a first for Iran to be able to organize these militias officially and export them, creating a new powerful component to their IRGC forces. Regardless, this export of fighters might actually save the Iraqi government by acting as a drain for PMU numbers to other regions. The tragedy of this option is it is a short-term solution that will most probably lead to strengthened PMU’s that could return as they see fit, due to increased recruitment from validity gained and successes in other warzones.

A third option would simply be to bargain with them now, rather than let it degenerate into violence or await a strengthened PMU return from fighting regionally, expecting them to lay down their arms. One path is to give them political power, and ability to be involved in the political process through other means than force. While originally, they were not allowed to run for parliament or for cabinet, this was rectified in November 2016 with a new law allowing PMU commanders to run. While this is a sizeable political concession, it does not address what PMU commanders will do if they lose or feel like they were cheated of a victory or their contributions to fighting ISIS are not recognized.

Another way to bargain with them that would also speak to their goals would be to allow the establishment of Hezbollah-like organizations in Iraq by the militias. The problem here is three-fold. First, there are many militias vying for power, not a single organization. Second, Hezbollah has come to dominate the Lebanese politics and become a powerful entity projecting itself into the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts, if the Iraqi government is paying attention they will look at the Lebanese model and realize that this can quickly spiral out of control and lead to them losing political control anyways. Third, it doesn’t serve Iran’s interest of influencing other regions or attaining proper control of Iraq; it would be a middle ground that provides a mechanism to put pressure on the Iraqi government, but fails to control it.

As is demonstrated, the options at hand to find a solution to the PMU problem are numerous but what can be assured is that it won’t be a simple affair of these groups dropping their weapons and going home now that ISIS is near defeat. This short-term solution in the face of ISIS has ironically led to yet another strengthened Iranian proxy in a new state; Iraq. All three of the options will lead to an increase in Iranian influence and a weakened Iraq.