By 2018, the Popular Mobilization Front (PMF) was estimated to have up to 150,000 men at its disposal, playing a significant role in defeating Daesh and recapturing many towns and cities in Iraq, but without controversy.
The group of militias were optimal when, faced with Daesh, the Iraqi army was fleeing from positions all over Iraq, with the terrorists’ vicious reputation turning the tide against the country’s military.
As Daesh quickly captured territory, the Iraqi army’s reputation deflated, and numerous young men started looking up to other figures and institutions for protection. The armed recruits-to-be started looking elsewhere to defend themselves and their communities from terrorists.
Rather than enlist with Iraqi state forces, many viewed local militias as a more attractive form of resistance. Yet the curse of sectarianism was rife, and the cracks caused by foreign influences were beginning to show.
Following the Fall of Mosul in 2014, the militias banded together to form the PMF through a so-called “non-sectarian” fatwa, issued by Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani and endorsed by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki.
The great bulk of the PMF was formed by Shiite militias, many with formal and informal ties to Iran.
Human Rights Watch documented systematic abuse and demolition of Sunni villages after “liberation,” with houses and businesses destroyed and Sunni men, young and old, disappearing or detained under the pretext of being Daesh suspects.
The leverage of the PMF within Iraqi politics is beyond evident. Militias within the PMF have parliamentary wings, such as the Badr Organization and Kata’ab Hezbollah, that hold seats in the parliament with other militias.
What is troubling for some Iraqis is the Iranian influence these organizations levy upon Iraqi politics.
When Daesh was thrashing through villages, towns and cities, Iran saw a perfect chance to increase its already growing influence in Iraq.
The parties’ connections to Tehran are well documented, with many of their politicians being former exiles in Iran during Saddam Hussein’s regime. Iran replicated its “Lebanese Hezbollah model” in Iraq, wherein all militias are directly funded by Iran, trained in cohesion with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and conduct operations with Qasem Soleimani’s Quds force all over Iraq, and even Syria.
The case is the same for Syria. Media channels of the militias frequently engage in anti-Saudi rhetoric, reminiscent of Iran’s stance on the Kingdom.
When the dust began to settle against Daesh, militias began to see the need to conduct less action on the battlefield and more within the government sphere. Militiamen quickly became politicians, forming the Fatah party, headed by Hadi Al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Organization.
The clutch of influence was particularly emphasized during the 2019 floods in Iran, in which hundreds of organized units from the PMU were crossing the border into Iran’s Khuzestan Province to help with flood relief.
The extent of influential control of the PMU from a foreign entity is troubling for the internal political process within Iraq and its future stability.
With such a seemingly centralized command structure among these militias and parties, it would be hard for Iraq to wrestle the grasp on its sovereignty.
There has been no action to block funding from foreign entities such as Iran or denounce allegiances to foreign individuals such as Ayatollah Khomeini. Moreover, the Iranian proxy is now becoming an integral part of the Iraqi army.
There has been push-back from the opposition, such as the nationalist Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada Al-Sadr, who leads the Peace Corps within the PMU, a sign of uneasy alliances between some Shiite militias and Iran.
The sentiments of independence create a need for Iraqi nationalists, such as Al-Sadr, who can sway popular opinion and capitalize on the declining attitudes of Shiites toward Iran. They are, in turn, able to dictate Iraq’s independence as a state that can play a bigger role in the Arab world, and the wider Middle East.
Iraq needs more “independent” parties, who outwardly voice Iraq’s main interest at hand. Iraq should no longer be committing young men to fight on behalf of a foreign nation where they die on foreign soil, to further a proxy conflict they need not be involved in.
Iraq needs nationalists, nation builders and secular voices from the religious and liberal communities that push for independence of the people and the political process itself, not fascists or Islamists who vote and sway parliaments on behalf of Iranian Mullahs, who line their pockets and bid for control of state institutions.
• Ibrahim Alkhamis is an expert in media and Gulf politics who focuses on issues and controversies in modern media, with a special emphasis on fake news.