Popular Mobilization Forces
Established By: Unknown;
Also Known As: People’s Mobilization Committee (PMC), Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), PMF;
Country Of Origin: Iraq;
Leaders: Falih Alfayyadh;
Key Members: Falih Alfayyadh, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis;
Operational Area: Iraq, Syria;
Number Of Members: 150,000;
Involved In: Armed Attacks, Bomb Attacks, Assassinations;
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The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), also known as the People’s Mobilization Committee (PMC) and the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) is an Iraqi state-sponsored umbrella organization composed of some 40 militias that are mostly Shia Muslim groups, but also including Sunni Muslim, Christian, and Yazidi individuals as well. The popular mobilization units as a group was formed in 2014 and have fought in nearly every major battle against the Islamic State.
It has been called the new Iraqi Republican Guard after it was fully reorganized in early 2018 by its then-Commander in Chief Haider al-Abadi. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi issued “regulations to adapt the situation of the Popular Mobilization fighters,” giving them ranks and salaries equivalent to other branches of the Iraqi military.
With regard to the official native name, the Arabic word (ash-Shaʿbī) translates as “people’s” or “popular”, as referred to the people; the Arabic word (al-Ḥashd) translates as “mobilization”, as in the group of people mobilized rather than the process of mobilization. In other contexts, al-hashd may translate as other terms such as “crowd”, “horde”, “throng”, “gathering”, or “mob”.
Background and formation:
Originally, there were seven militias in the PMF, which had been operating with Prime Minister al-Maliki’s support since early 2014. These were:
– Badr Organization,
– Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq,
– Kata’ib Hezbollah,
– Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada,
– Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba,
– Kata’ib al-Imam Ali, and
– Kata’ib Jund al-Imam
According to Faleh A. Jabar and Renad Mansour for the Carnegie Middle East Center, al-Maliki used these forces to combat the emergence of ISIL and maintain his influence in predominantly Sunni areas.
The People’s Mobilization Forces (PMF) were formed by the Iraqi government on 15 June 2014 after top Iraqi Shia cleric Ali al-Sistani’s non-sectarian fatwa on “Sufficiency Jihad” on 13 June. The fatwa called for defending Iraqi cities, particularly Baghdad, and to participate in the counter-offensive against the Islamic State, following the Fall of Mosul on 10 June 2014.
The forces brought together a number of Shi’ite militias, most of which receive direct support from Iran, along with a small number of Sunni tribesmen by uniting existing militias under the “People’s Mobilization Committee” of the Iraqi Ministry of Interior in June 2014.
The forces would fall under the umbrella of the state’s security services and within the legal frameworks and practices of the Ministry of Interior. On 19 December 2016, Iraqi President Fuad Masum approved a law passed by parliament in November that incorporated PMU in the country’s armed forces.
With this incorporation, the PMU are now subject to the supreme commander of the national armed forces and will no longer be affiliated to any political or social group. The PMU became regarded as an official force with similar rights as those of the regular army. In the course of events, some of these groups embarked on a different path, operating independently.
On 21 March 2017, the PMU announced the launch of a special forces course, in order to create a Special Forces Division. The training program covered a variety of missions with direction from the Iraqi Special Operations Forces. On December 11, 2017, the PMU began to be entirely consolidated under the Iraqi Armed Forces, following a call by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to integrate. However, as late as May 2018, this integration has yet to take place, and PMF members remain without the same wages and privileges as soldiers in the regular Iraqi Armed Forces.
According to some sources, the Popular Mobilization Forces have made a fundamental difference on the battlefield, as they have undermined the superiority of ISIS at the level of guerrilla warfare, as well as at the level of the psychological operations.
Composition and organization:
While there are no official data about the strength of the Popular Mobilization Forces, there are some estimates, differing significantly; around Tikrit are believed to be about 20,000 engaged militiamen, while the grand total ranges are from 2–5 million to 300,000-450,000 Iraqi armed forces, including about 40,000 Sunni fighters, a figure evolving from early 2015 one, which counted 1,000 to 3,000 Sunni fighters. By early March 2015 the Popular Mobilization Forces appears to be strengthening its foothold in the Yazidis town of Shingal by recruiting and paying local people.
The Popular Mobilization Forces consist of both new volunteers and pre-existing militias, which have been grouped within the umbrella organization formally under the control of the Ministry of Interior Popular Mobilization Units directorate. Among these militias there are the Peace Companies (formerly known as the Mahdi Army), Kata’ib Hezbollah, Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, Kata’ib al-Imam Ali, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organization.
The militias are trained and supported by military advisers from Turkey (for Sunni and Turkmeni troops), Iran and Hezbollah, including prominent Quds Force figures such as Qasem Soleimani. The PMF also appeared to have deployed at least a regiment under the command of Colonel Jumaa al-Jumaily in Al Anbar Governorate. They are also said to have their own military intelligence, administrative systems, a sort of “media war team” that provides morale boosting, battlefield updates and propaganda videos, and a court of law.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered on April 7, 2015, that the Popular Mobilization Forces be placed under the direct command of the prime minister’s office, thus giving a further official status to the militia.
The chairman of the Popular Mobilization Committee in the Iraqi government is Falih al-Fayyadh, who is also the National Security Adviser; the Popular Mobilization Committee is under the Office of Prime Minister. The PMF are allegedly led on the battlefields by Jamal Jaafar Mohammed, also known as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the head of Kata’ib Hezbollah, but the chain of command runs through pre-existing leaders. According to Iraqi sources, as well as to the London-based pro-Saudi Asharq Al-Awsat, the different militias rely on their own chain of command, and rarely work together or follow regular Iraqi Army’s orders.
Alongside Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, other people in charge of the PMF include Qais al-Khazali, commander of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and Hadi Al-Amiri, the chief of the Badr Organization. According to The New York Times, such organizational autonomy may present a challenge to the consolidation of Haider al-Abadi’s authority. Volunteers include Shiite Arabs, Iraqi Christians, Sunni Arabs, and Shiite Turkmen.
Sunni Arab component:
In early stages of the PMF, the Shiite component was almost exclusive and the Sunni one was negligible, since it counted only 1,000 to 3,000 men. In January 2016, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi approved the appointment of 40,000 Sunni fighters to the Popular Mobilization Forces.
According to Al-Monitor, his move was decided in order to give a multiconfessional image to the Forces; however, Sunni fighters began to volunteer even before the al-Abadi’s decision. Adding Sunni fighters to the Popular Mobilization Units could set the stage for the force to become the core of the envisioned National Guard. According to The Economist, as of late April 2016 the Hashd had approximately 16,000 Sunnis.
It has been observed that the Sunni Arab tribes that took part in al-Hashd al-Shaabi 2015 recruitment are those which also had good relations with Nouri al-Maliki during his tenure as Prime Minister. According to Yazan al-Jabouri, a secular Sunni commander of anti-ISIS Liwa Salahaddin, as of November 2016 there are 30,000 Iraqi Sunnis fighting within the ranks of PMUs.
Shiite Arab component:
According to a Sunni newspaper, there are three main Shiite components within the Popular Mobilization Forces: the first are the groups that were formed following Sistani’s fatwa, without political roots or ambitions; the second are groups that were formed by political parties or are initially the military wings of these parties, with definite political characterization; the third are the armed groups that have been present in Iraq for years and have fought battles against US forces and also participated in operations in Syria.
According to Faleh A. Jabar and Renad Mansour for The Carnegie Foundation, the Popular Mobilization Forces are factionally divided into three Shiite components: a component pledging allegiance to Supreme Leader of Iran Ali Khamenei; a faction pledging allegiance to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani; and the faction headed by Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The main Shiite faction in the Popular Mobilization Forces is the group which maintains strong ties with Iran and pledge spiritual allegiance to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The pro-Khamanei faction would consist of already established parties and of relatively small paramilitaries: Saraya Khurasani, Kata’ib Hezbollah, Kata’ib Abu Fadhl al-Abbas, the Badr Organization and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.
These groups serve as a kind of border guard—a sort of Iranian insurance policy against threats on its immediate border. Their leaders publicly take pride in such affiliations, professing religious allegiance to Khamenei and his notion of Vilayat al-Faqih.
According to Faleh A. Jabar and Renad Mansour, the pro-Sistani faction consists of those armed groups formed by Sistani’s fatwa to defend Shiite holy sites and by paramilitary of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. There are four major groups organized by Najaf: Saraya al-Ataba al-Abbasiya, Saraya al-Ataba al-Hussainiya, Saraya al-Ataba al-Alawiya, and Liwa ‘Ali al-Akbar, corresponding to Shiite shrines in Kadhimiya, Karbala, and Najaf. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq also swears allegiance to Sistani. After the Badr Organization left the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, its leader Ammar al-Hakim formed new paramilitary units, including Saraya el-Jihad, Saraya el-‘Aqida, and Saraya ‘Ashura.
Muqtada al-Sadr’s Peace Companies (Saraya al-Salam) were founded in June 2014 from the Mahdi Army. According to Faleh A. Jabar and Renad Mansour, the Sadrists have largely been cut off from Iranian funding.
According to Shiite P.M.F. officials, the recruitment campaign is successful also because it is administered by the religious establishment and Shia religious scholars from the hawza are instrumental in recruitment. Recruitment via Shia Islamist political party structures and even individual clerics or members of parliament is pursued more the official PMF Commission, which lacks recruitment offices.
In July 2019, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, Joan Polaschik, stated “rogue” Iranian-backed militias plan operations that could kill Americans, coalition partners and Iraqis and U.S. diplomatic facilities and continue to conduct indirect fire attacks.
This led the U.S. to remove non-emergency staff from its embassy in Baghdad and close its consulate in Basra. At the same hearing, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Michael Mulroy said that Iran’s “cynical interference” undermines Iraqi interests by supporting non-compliant militias, more loyal to Tehran than Baghdad, undermining the Iraqi prime minister’s authority, preying on ordinary Iraqis by crime and destabilizing the fragile communities liberated from ISIS.
Shiite Turkmen component:
According to Faleh A. Jabar and Renad Mansour for The Carnegie Foundation, Shiite Turkmen joined Popular Mobilization Forces in order to increase their local autonomy from Kurdistan and in order to counter Sunni Turkmen, who joined the Islamic State.
The equipment of the Popular Mobilization Forces is a major issue. At the end of January 2015, a video showed a large Kata’ib Hezbollah convoy transporting several American-made military vehicles, including an M1 Abrams Tank, M113 armoured personnel carriers, Humvees, and MRAP vehicles as well as Iranian-made Safir 4×4s and technicals with Kata’ib Hezbollah’s flags flying. According to some sources, the Iraqi government is supplying U.S.-provided military equipment to the militias.
Iraqi minister of transportation, and the head of the Badr Organization, Hadi Al-Amiri criticized the U.S. for the lack of providing arms. On the other hand, U.S. officials argue that the operators of heavy weapons allegedly taken over by Kata’ib Hezbollah were regular Iraqi soldiers who raised the Hezbollah flag merely in solidarity with the militant group, while the same source acknowledge that is generally difficult to monitor U.S.-made weapons.
Alongside U.S.-made military equipment handed over to or fallen into the hands of Popular Mobilization Forces, Iran is a major supplier; according to some sources in 2014 Tehran sold Baghdad nearly $10 billion worth of weapons and hardware. Furthermore, there is a daily supply of Iranian weapons, including Iranian-made 106 mm anti-tank guns as well as 120 mm, 82 mm and 60 mm mortars.
In May 2015, the United States started delivering about $1.6 billion worth of military equipment under the supervision of the Government of Iraq. According to some sources, the major beneficiaries of the weapons deliveries are to be the Popular Mobilization Forces.
Heavy armour seems to be operated by Popular Mobilization Forces in the operations surrounding the battle of Mosul.
The Popular Mobilization Forces have been involved in several battles of the military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant since their founding, the most important being the Second Battle of Tikrit. After the end of the battle of Tikrit, the complex of occupation forces handed over security issues to local police and security forces.
On Monday April 6, 2015, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said that, while being heavily involved in the conquest of Tikrit, the Popular Mobilization Forces will not join the planned Mosul conquest. This statement was reversed in March 2016, when al-Abadi reportedly rejected calls by Nineveh’s provincial council to prohibit Popular Mobilization Forces from taking part in retaking Mosul.
Shiite volunteers reportedly entered Al Anbar Governorate on very first days of May 2015, among heavy protests of Sunnite personalities, with limited operations continuing in 2016.
In Autumn 2016, they participated in the Mosul Offensive acting as left flank of the anti-IS forces, and by November had captured a number of smaller towns and villages from IS, expanding roughly along a line from Qayyarah to Tal Afar, while keeping a distance (20+ km) to the city of Mosul itself.
In October 2017, the PMF was part of the Iraqi government forces that recaptured Kirkuk, which had been under Kurdish control since 2014.
Domestic criticisms and war crimes accusations:
Some of the militias constituting the Popular Mobilization Forces have been accused of war crimes motivated by sectarian revenge: according to Amnesty International, Shiite militias have abducted, tortured and killed numerous Sunni civilians and, according to Western sources, in Tikrit militants have committed some violences, while being publicily praised; On the wake of the conquest of Tikrit, Iraqi authorities declared that war crimes will be investigated and their perpetrators punished.
High Iraqi Shiite authorities, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani or Ayatollah Hussein Al-Sadr, called on the militants in the popular mobilization forces to avoid war crimes or other despicable behaviour and ad hoc government inquiry committees have been established in order to find the truth.
Mosul Sunni dignitaries and officials accuse PMF of killings of Sunnis, takeovers of schools and the forcing of Sunnis to sell property in the prime real estate area close to the Mosul shrine. According to City council’s deputy chairman Muzher Fleih, 650 Sunnis have disappeared. On the other hand, militia leaders insist any abuses are isolated incidents, and target only captured Islamic State’s collaborators.
Alongside war crimes accusations, also some concerns regarding constitutionality and politicization of al-Hashd al-Shaabi have been raised: Sunni sources have called for depoliticization of the Popular Mobilization Forces, to be achieved under the proposed National Guard bill.
For what it regards constitutionality issues, according to some critics, the Popular Mobilization Forces are not sanctioned by the Constitution of Iraq and, nonetheless, they have a budget and are paid on regular basis by the Iraqi government, whilst the legally established Peshmerga have not received their wages.
The official status and actual dependence of the Popular Mobilization Forces on the Baghdad government and its help is not fully resolved as of late 2015. However, by the end of 2016, a law was passed bringing the PMU under the auspices of the Supreme Commander of the Iraqi National Army, incorporating PMF units into the official army of Iraq and removing any official affiliation with any social, religious or political group.
Recruitment of Yazidis in Kurdish areas is deemed to go against official Kurdish policy against the move: in February 2015, Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani asked the Peshmerga minister to stop all militia activities in the area.
Allegedly, clerics from the Najaf Seminary, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, also criticized the monopolistic conduct of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Concerns of growth:
The Popular Mobilization Forces are accused of accruing a power base in Iraq and of being Iran’s instrument to dominate Iraq. The main fears are that the permanent militia would turn themselves into enforcers of Shiite domination.
The Iraqi Police headquarters in the Muthanna Governorate announced that they were in the process of commissioning Popular Mobilization battalions with security tasks in early January. These tasks included protecting public and private establishments in open desert areas, among others. Other reports indicate that Popular Mobilization is securing border outlets and controlling security in liberated cities.
According to General Ali Omran, commander of the army’s 5th Infantry Division, P.M.F. militias are too entrenched in politics and at risk of “coming to blows” with the Armed Forces. In February 2016, militiamen refused orders to vacate a building in a military base north of Baghdad.
According to AP-interviewed government officials and militia leaders, due to the fear of another Sunni minority rule over the Iraqi Shia majority, militias forming the Popular Mobilization Forces want to remain a permanent, independent armed force; Hamed al-Jazaeery, head of the al-Khorasani Brigades militia, stated that the model is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
United Nations – In a speech of its Special Representative and head of the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), Jan Kubis on (07/22/2015) mentioned the Popular Mobilization Forces, saying that the Iraqi security forces, with the critical support of the Popular Mobilization Forces, tribal Sunni volunteers, and the International Coalition, have yet to significantly change the situation on the ground”
CJTF–OIR – Commander of the CJTF-OIR Lt Gen. Stephen J. Townsend described the PMF militias as “remarkably disciplined” allies since he arrived. He added that the PMF could make Iraq more secure – if they become a national guard-like force, and not a “puppet” of Iran.
Saudi Arabia – Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said that the Popular Mobilization Forces, the Iraqi Shiite militia, is the “religious organization,” carrying out mass killings in the country with support of Iranian generals.