Fighters from the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia in Basra.
The role and influence of Shia militias in Iraq, long associated with anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, have been increasingly apparent over the past two years. This has increased with the re-activation and emergence of myriad units following the fall of Mosul to ISIS and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s call to arms in June 2014.
The call, initially and officially aimed at defending the country against ISIS' brutal expansion, quickly turned into uncontrolled mobilisation. Over the past two years, this manifested in a rapid rise of sectarian-related crime in the south and extra-judicial killings in the north and centre. It culminated in November with the parliamentary vote legalising the predominantly Shia Hashd al-Shaabi militias, or Popular Mobilisation Unit (PMU).
While this may be too simplistic a picture – retribution attacks by the other sectarian and ethnic forces have also been reported in northern Iraq – it nevertheless illustrates the worrying pace at which the Iran-backed PMU was left to develop and gain momentum. Allowing the PMU the room to grow was part of a panicked attempt to respond to an immediate threat, regardless of the long-term repercussions on political stability and national security.
For those, especially Sunnis, who were hoping that the war against ISIS would be an opportunity to take stock of the country's many security failures and fractures and avoid a repeat of the sectarian political agendas that contributed to the rise of ISIS, November's PMU law was evidence that the status quo would prevail. The bill recognises the PMU as a government entity operating alongside the military, thereby giving the militias full legal status and placing them on an equal footing with the Iraqi army. Sunni politicians and lawmakers, most of whom boycotted the vote, described the bill as evidence of "dictatorship" of the Shia majority. A large number of Iranian and Iraqi officials have praised the law, which grants the militias increased legitimisation and funding, with five billion US dollars allocated to the PMU in Iraq's 2017 budget as part of military spending.
The destabilising potential of the law is high. It presents a number of challenges related to responsibility, oversight, and accountability. While increased legitimisation would in theory mean the PMU is more liable to prosecution, the some 40 militias that comprise the PMU have acquired considerable power over the past two years. It is difficult to see how the government could curb its deeply-entrenched influence in the country. Beyond security implications, reports of local populations being displaced in the Tal Afar area, where the PMU has been making significant advances over the past three weeks, raise concerns that the militias are actively altering the ethnic and sectarian balance in strategic towns and cities, with such displacements being used as a means of manipulating future demographics in key areas in the wider north once ISIS is defeated.
The militias' increasing activity and successes in northern Iraq have also unnerved a number of other state actors in the region, particularly Turkey, which views the presence of the militias as a direct threat to its area of influence in northern Iraq. This is especially so in majority-Turkmen Tal Afar, which Ankara insists should only be liberated by Turkmen. While Baghdad has repeatedly said that, as for Mosul, only Iraqi army forces will enter the city itself, with the PMU securing the perimeter, militias are getting close and Turkey may seek intervention.
Many of these groups are directly trained, armed, and funded by Iran.
Such postures, however, remains somewhat mitigated by the political accord, albeit opportunistic, brokered between Russia, Turkey, and Iran in Syria in December. Turkey is also unlikely to risk direct confrontation with powerful regional player Iran, although Ankara will want to counter the latter's influence in Iraq. Turkey has cited concerns over the future of Sunni Arabs and Turkmens in Mosul and neighbouring areas to justify its military presence in Iraq, based on Turkey's "historical responsibility in the region." But Ankara is worried that Shia forces in Mosul and Tal Afar – and in the case of Sinjar, the PKK – could hamper Turkey's regional ambitions.
While some of the militias report directly to Sistani and therefore remain under Iraq's responsibility and influence, most of the formations, in particular the three largest militias in the PMU, the Badr Organisation, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and Kataib Hizbullah, answer to Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). As such, these are loyal to Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who recently described the PMU as Iran's "national treasure." These groupings are directly trained, armed, and funded by Iran and most of the leaders in the three militias have direct connections with the IRGC's Quds Force and its leader, Qassem Soleimani, who is widely believed to be coordinating the PMU's operations.
Concerns surrounding the militias' long-term intentions in northern Iraq are compounded by recent statements by IRGC's second-in-command, Hossein Salami, who threatened to launch further "wars of conquest" in the region after Aleppo is fully recaptured, singling out Bahrain, Yemen, and Mosul. The leader of the AAH, Qais al-Khazali, has also made threatening noises against the Kurds, describing KRG President Massoud Barzani, as "the biggest problem after ISIS." Bellicose rhetoric from the AAH against the Kurds is a strong indication that the militias intend to maintain control over disputed areas, paving the way for conflict between the different forces in place after Mosul is won.
Iraq is likely to see the emergence of multiple local Sunni militias in a bid to counter the PMU, elevating the risk of a gradual escalation of sectarian violence across the country. This scenario comes amid concerns that, beside retribution attacks against Sunnis, some hardline Shia militias such as the AAH, Kataib Hizbullah or the Imam Ali Brigades might be intent on avenging 'historical wrongs.' The PMU law is also providing the emboldened Shia militias with a pretext not to demobilise once ISIS-held territories are liberated, either to exert control and prevent a return of militants – and of Sunni Arabs – to those areas, or to be utilised as proxies in regional conflicts involving Iran. The growing influence of the PMU will severely hamper efforts towards political inclusion, with talks of reconciliation and national cohesion now a remote prospect in an eventual post-ISIS environment.
The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.