On 22 April, Iraqi outgoing Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi abruptly ordered four brigades of the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) to be detached from the organisation and placed under his control.
In a decree, Abdul-Mahdi, who also serves as commander-in-chief of the Iraqi armed forces, said the militia units would no longer have any “administrative or logistical” links with the PMF command.
Abdul-Mahdi’s memo was brief and sounded like a routine operational order, but it was actually a move that shook deeply the PMF which functions as an umbrella organisation for pro-Iran militias.
Moreover, the unexpected measure read like a slap in the face of the Islamic Republic, which nurtures most of these militias and uses them to boost its interests in Iraq and extend its reach in the region.
The four militia groups in question are the Abbas Combat Division, the Imam Ali Combat Division, the Ali Akbar Brigade and the Ansar Al-Marjaiya Brigade known to be loyal to the religious establishment affiliated to Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, Iraq’s highest Shia authority.
As Iraq remains unstable, the crack within the ranks of the Iraqi militias is likely to have far-reaching implications on efforts to end the country’s political stalemate and raises concerns of a power struggle between the Shia militias.
The rift is also expected to reflect adversely on efforts to contain Islamic State (IS) group remnants that have been waging attacks in many parts of central and northern Iraq in recent months, exploiting security gaps and political turmoil.
A few days after Abdul-Mahdi’s decree, the leaders of the four units said they had formed their own command and called on other PMF militias to withdraw from the organisation and join them in setting up a new structure.
In a statement, they said the new body would be acting “according to national criteria, legal structures and constitutional obligations.” The conditions clearly aimed at discrediting the PMF’s loyalty and status.
A spokesman for Abdul-Mahdi immediately dismissed the claim, however. Abdul-Karim Khalaf warned that attempts to create a new militia institution would be tantamount to circumventing Abdul-Mahdi’s order.
The PMF, also known as the Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, was founded in 2014 as a state-sponsored umbrella organisation for dozens of Shia militias to fight the IS group alongside the Iraqi security forces after the terror group seized a large chunk of Iraqi territory.
Many of the militias had already existed, but new ones were formed after Al-Sistani put out an edict for able-bodied men to defend Iraq against IS. The PMF played a significant role in the fight against the militants and helped to push them out of cities they had occupied.
After IS was driven outside the main towns in Iraq, the PMF further expanded and assumed new security and political duties, exploiting the weaknesses of the central government and Iran’s increasing influence.
Increasingly, the line between the state security forces and the militias became blurred and marked by a diffusion of political and military roles and even by attempts by the militias to claim a monopoly of force.
The situation reached a boiling point after the 2018 elections in Iraq, when the pro-Iran militias succeeded in sending some of their members to the new parliament and began to wield enormous influence in the security forces, the government and the public sphere.
Though new Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi introduced directives to place the militias under state control, his government like its predecessor led by Haider Al-Abadi continued to pay lip service to the measures, apparently fearing a backlash.
A full record of the PMF’s rise shows that its expansion was largely due to efforts by Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani, who organised and championed the project to make it Iran’s armed and ideological arm in Iraq.
Suleimani was assisted by PMF Deputy Chief Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, a long-time Iranian ally and the architect of building the Islamic Republic’s influence in post-US invasion Iraq.
Both Suleimani and Al-Muhandis were killed by a US drone attack near Baghdad International Airport on 3 January this year in what appeared to be US retaliation for the militia bombardment of US troops in an Iraqi camp that killed an American contractor and wounded several American and Iraqi personnel.
It is not yet clear who or what is to blame for the present rupture inside the PMF that has achieved such public standing that it has been widely seen as a symbol of Iraqi Shia power.
But while the question remains to be conclusively answered, there are important signs that the split was on nationalistic lines against Iran’s hegemonic influence in Iraq.
The four breakaway paramilitary groups call themselves the Al-Marja’iya Units, or followers of the Shia religious authority in the holy city of Najaf led by Al-Sistani, and they are known to have an uneasy relationship with Iranian-backed militant groups in the country.
One of the main factors behind their resentment and separatism is the widespread feeling that the pro-Iran groups are allocated more resources and have imposed their control over the organisation as a whole.
Reports have suggested that Maitham Al-Zubaidi, the commander of the Al-Abbas Combat Division, was the driving force behind the dissent. Al-Zubaidi is considered to be one of the most respected militia commanders who have showed resilience against Iran’s influence in Iraq.
During the war against IS, his group proved to be one of Iraq’s most effective volunteer forces, and later under Al-Zubaidi it was re-organised to include some 1,000 active-duty fighters and a reserve contingent of some 40,000 members.
Al-Zubaidi reportedly opposed the appointment of Abdul-Aziz al-Mohammedawi, a militia commander trained by Iran, to take over the empty office of al-Muhandis, which pro-Iran militiamen hoped to be the answer to the killing of the PMF’s deputy chief.
According to various reports, Al-Zubaidi demanded that Al-Mohammedawi, also known as Abu Fadak, be dismissed and that pro-Al-Sistani groups be given senior posts in the PMF, allowed to be part of decision-making, and have veto power over the organisation’s operations.
The reports suggested that the commanders of the four groups have received strong backing from the two representatives of Al-Sistani in Kerbela, Abdul-Mahdi Al-Kerbalaei and Ahmed Al-Safi, who usually speak on behalf of the Ayatollah.
Iran has not commented directly, but a pro-Hizbullah Lebanese paper described the recent move as “the first chapter in rendering the PMF defunct and diluted.” Iran-aligned social media blasted the leaders of the four groups for being “opportunists.”
But the breakaway units remained defiant.
“To the free Iraqi people, religion is the homeland, and prayers are meaningless if your loyalty is not to Iraq,” wrote Hamid Al-Yassiri, commander of the Ansar Al-Marja’iya Brigade, on its website, alluding to pro-Iran groups.
The split, which has triggered the first major crisis inside the alliance, has once again raised the question of the future of the PMF and whether it is likely to be weakened by the rift.
Many Iraq’s pundits have argued that expectations of a crack should be low, warning that the PMF has been growing stronger over time and that it is here to stay regardless of the opposition it has been facing.
Some of these experts also believe that rather than weakening the PMF, the split is more likely to have the opposite effect, further entrenching Iran’s hold on the Iraqi state.
This analysis is largely based on statements made by Iraqi Shia politicians to reassure Iran and pro-Iran militia leaders that they harbour no wish to undermine them and the assumption that the PMF could become a parallel military institution akin to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Such an analysis is gravely misleading, for as long as rhetorical promises given by Iraqi Shia leaders remain utterly unsustainable, drawing on Iran’s IRGC as a model seems to be irrelevant.
Though the PMF has been officially recognised as being part of the state security forces in Iraq, it has remained a loose umbrella organisation for Shia militias with different affiliations and conflicting interests that were brought together only to fight a common enemy.
Given Shia internecine political, ideological, tribal and social differences and Iraq’s communal sectarian and ethnic divisions, it was highly unlikely that Iran or its proxies would succeed in establishing an IRGC-like body answerable to a theological institution.
As was evident during the uprising that roared across southern and central Iraq last year, the vast majority of the population was against Iran’s intervention in their country and demanded disarming the unruly militias.
By leaving the PMF and calling on other militias to join in a new structure away from Iran, the pro-Al-Sistani groups have laid down an inescapable imperative for the disintegration of the organisation.
The militia leaders have always claimed that they assembled the PMF in response to Al-Sistani’s fatwa, or edict, and now at the hour of truth his followers are breaking away from it.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly