Popular Mobilization Forces
|The People's Mobilization|
Popular Mobilization Forces logo
|Active||15 June 2014 – present|
|Size||100,000 to 120,000|
|Part of||Prime Minister Office|
|Notable fighters||Abu Azrael|
|Popular Mobilization Forces|
Al-Hashd al-Shaabi |
Participant in the Iraqi Civil War (2014–present)
|Active||15 June 2014 – present|
Predominantly Shia Islam|
|Area of operations||Iraq|
|Opponents||Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant|
The People's Mobilization Forces (PMF), also known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) (Arabic: الحشد الشعبي Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi), is an Iraqi state-sponsored umbrella organization composed of some 40 militias, which are mainly Shia Muslim groups, but there are Sunni Muslim, Christian, and Yazidi groups as well. The People's Mobilization was formed for deployment against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The organization was formed by uniting existing militias under the "People's Mobilization Committee" of the Iraqi Ministry of Interior in June 2014.
With regard to the official native name, the Arabic word الشعبي (al-shaabi) translates as "people's" or "popular", as referred to the people; the Arabic word الحشد (al-hashd) 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
The PMF were formed by the Iraqi government on 15 June 2014 after Marja' Ali al-Sistani's 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. The forces would be to fall under the umbrella of the state’s security services and within the legal frameworks and practices of the Ministry of Interior. In the course of events, some of these groups embarked on a different path, operating independently.
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.
Alternative view of the creation of the PMUs
According to Nibras Kazimi, an Iraqi academic and Visiting Fellow at the Hudson Institute, an alternative view of the creation of the Popular Mobilisation Forces holds that the PMF was not formed on 15 June 2014 due to the passing of the fatwa by Ali al-Sistani, but was in fact formed several months prior. This ‘known secret’ was revealed by the head of the PMF, Hadi al-Amiri, at a meeting between Nouri al-Maliki and senior PMF leaders on 28 June 2016. Further, the minutes of the April 7, 2014 National Alliance (Shia bloc) meeting in which Maliki revealed this fact also show this.
This reading of history proves the Iraqi government was knowledgeable about the state of the Iraqi Army prior to its collapse during the Northern Iraq offensive (August 2014) in which Mosul was taken by the Islamic State.
It also proves that the weaknesses of the Iraqi Army were known to the Obama Administration. By April 2014, there were already forty US military officers embedded at various ISF command centers as ‘liaisons’ attached to the US Embassy in Baghdad. When President Obama announced his intention to send more US advisors to Iraq in August 2014, he carefully couched his words so as to suggest that the effort was a continuation of an existing program that was already underway.
By mid-April 2014, Qasim Suleimani’s efforts to create a new auxiliary force was already entering the ‘branding’ phase. Initially, the proto-PMUs were supposed to be called saraya al-difa’a al-sha’abi (‘Popular Defense Brigades’). Their logo was supposed to be similar to that of Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
There may be some evidence that the US government had an early relationship with at least one PMU that was close to Suleimani, an organization that was cultivated and propped-up by his adjunct Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. That PMU is Jund al-Imam. The Wall Street Journal once described it (during the Second Battle of Tikrit) as "US-backed".
Part of the minutes of minutes of the April 7, 2014 National Alliance (Shia bloc) meeting record Maliki as saying:
“There is a real and clear security danger that threatens the country and I have told you more than a year ago that the situation is dangerous.” “Our army cannot be counted on since it is a combination of Sunnis and Shias and Kurds. Some Sunnis are unconvinced, while some Shias are there for the salary, and it is an army that has not waged such battles before and its armaments are basic compared to that of Islamic State…”
“We have sought these days to rely on ‘Sons of Iraq’ groups [composed] of the mujaheddin and we have formed 20 groups in the environs of Baghdad so far and we are continuing to do so in Hillah and Balad and Dujail by forming such groups because they are better than the army and can fight guerrilla wars and we shall form also in Karbala.”
In the April 7, 2014 meeting, Maliki claims that the Americans “lied” about their armament commitments. A letter addressed to Maliki, dated April 15, 2014, from the overseer of the US weapons delivery program to Iraq seems to be a direct response to Maliki’s claim. It began with “We have provided you with all that you have asked for.” The significance of this letter is in the clarity that was available to the US administration as to the actual conditions on the ground in Iraq at the time. President Obama had made the jayvee analogy to David Remnick a few months earlier. Clearly, there was far more direct engagement by the US in Iraq and the consequent ability to judge the potential for a wider conflict should have been better than the public statements of the Obama administration would indicate.
This shows that the Iraqi Government under Maliki, and by extension the US, was aware of the weaknesses in the Iraqi Army, including the fact that many Sunnis had sympathy with the Islamic State, and that many Shia were only there for money. Thus the prevailing narrative that the Iraqi government and the international community were shocked, surprised and unprepared for the events of 2014 and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq is flawed.
Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland and Adjunct Fellow at the Washington Institute concurs with this theory. Writing on June 9, 2014, he notes: Starting in late-April 2014, Kata'ib Hezbollah one of Iraq’s premier Special Groups which had battled coalition forces during the Iraq War (2003) and s presently deploying forces in Syria, announced a new recruitment program and deployment of forces under the moniker of Saraya al-Dafa’ al-Sha’bi (the Popular Defense Brigades or SDS).
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 million – 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, coming 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 province. They are also said to have their own Military Intelligence, administrative systems, a sort of “Media War Team” which 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 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 Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's authority.
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.
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 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.
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 4x4s 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 120mm, 82mm and 60mm 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.
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 in Anbar Province 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.
Laws and directives
The Laws and conduct by which the PMF should abide are those of the Iraqi Government since the Iraqi Prime Minister has the final control over the PMF. Nonetheless, Marja' Ali al-Sistani issued an "Advice and Guidance to the Fighters on the Battlefields" which included a 20 points form of how the PMF should conduct themselves.
The main points were that the PMF should treat the liberated areas locals with the Islamic Law which is as quoted from the second point which is a Hadith of the Muslim Prophet Muhammed; "Do not indulge in acts of extremism, do not disrespect dead corpses, do not resort to deceit, do not kill an elder, do not kill a child, do not kill a woman, and do no not cut down trees unless necessity dictates otherwise". Other points included the same aforementioned guidance when treating non-Muslims and also not to steal or disrespect people even if they are the families of the ISIS fighters.
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.
Recruitment of Yazidis in Kurdish areas is deemed to go against official Kurdish policy against the move: Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani asked the Peshmerga minister last month to stop all militia activities in the area.
Concerns of growth
The Popular Mobilization Forces are accused to accrue a power base in Iraq and to be the Iran's instrument to dominate Iraq; the main fears are that the permanent Milita would turn themselves in enforcers of Shiite domination. The police headquarters in the Muthanna Governorate announcing that they were in the process of commissioning Popular Mobilization battalions with security tasks in early January. These tasks include 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 to come at "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 Revolution Guards 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"
- Second Battle of Tikrit (March 2015)
- Iraqi insurgency
- Iranian intervention in Iraq (2014–present).
- Private militias in Iraq
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