Iraq’s militia groups have been around for many years. However, their presence and indeed, their power, has recently become more evident, which in turn has been a severe setback for Iraq’s democracy. The most powerful militia groups have successfully been able to infiltrate parliament, preventing a good governance of the country. They have been able to silence any of their critics through the formation of pressure groups, as well as posing as a threat to the ongoing anti-government protests. Their network of influence in Iraq must be curbed if a true state of democracy is to be seen in the country.
After the fall of Daesh in Iraq, the militia groups were able to capitalise on the absence of stability in Iraq, filling the vacuum that Daesh left behind. They have now become a threat from within, a roadblock to Iraq’s democratic future.
Militia organisations are by no means unique to Iraq. They exist on a global scale and often arise in times of crises; they often fight on behalf of or as part of a state’s government. In Iraq, the origins of some of these militia groups can be traced back to 1933, during the rule of King Faisal I. During the time of Saddam Hussein, Arab and Kurdish militia groups were created to combat local forces outside of his control. By contrast, State-backed militia included the Ja’ish al-Shabi, or People’s Army, a paramilitary organisation composed of civilian volunteers to protect the Ba’ath government against internal opposition. The 2003 fall of Saddam spawned an insurgency conducted by militia groups, which lasted until 2011, when the American forces were officially ‘withdrawn’ from Iraq.
Once Daesh took over Mosul in June 2014, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani issued a ‘fatwa’ calling for Iraqis to volunteer and join forces in the fight against Daesh. Collectively the groups involved were known as The Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), also known as Al-Hashd Al-Sha’bi, comprising of roughly forty of Iraq’s militia groups (given official recognition as a force by the Iraq government on 15 June 2014). The PMF comprise “a spectrum of actors”; predominantly Shiite, but also Sunni, Christian and Turkmen. Because of the PMF’s role in defeating Daesh in Iraq, they were officially incorporated as an independent unit into Iraq’s security services in 2016.
Within the heterogenous umbrella of the PMF, the Badr Organisation (Brigade), Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and the Peace Companies (also known as the Peace Brigades, and formerly known as the Mahdi Army) have fought as counterinsurgents. Three of the leaders of these militia in 2014 also made up those within the overall chain of command of the PMF; Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the former commander of Kata’ib Hezbollah (later assassinated by America); Qais al-Khazali, commander of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq; and Hadi al-Amiri, the chief of the Badr Organisation. These four militia groups are currently the largest players on the militia field in Iraq, and understanding their background and motives is important when looking at the way forward for democracy in Iraq.
Although the PMF was formally accountable to the Prime Minister in Iraq, the real commander was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and his assassination in January 2020 brought uncertainty to the future of the PMF. Many have called for the dismantling of the unit, due to the fractious relationships within the group itself since the assassination, and due to the division it has caused in Iraq. As aforementioned, there are a range of militia groups within the PMF, and many have remained loyal to each of their factions rather than the State. Indeed, many of the calls for the abolition of the PMF have come from the US, whose forces have endured many attacks over the past few months at the hands of the PMF and other allegedly pro-Iran militia. However, the dismantling of the PMF is much easier said than done, with groups such as Kata’ib Hezbollah remaining armed and well-funded, and the PMF having a great impact on politics in Iraq.
The Badr Organisation (also known as the Badr Brigade) is one of Iraq’s most powerful “pro-Iran” Shiite militia groups, headed by Chief Commander, Hadi al-Amiri. The group was originally formed in 1982 by Iraqi exiles to fight against Saddam Hussein, and at that time, was supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Badr Organisation is now an official political party in Iraq and leads the second largest political bloc in the Iraq parliament. The group is incredibly powerful, with control of the Interior Ministry and an influence across all of Iraq’s politics. The Badr Organisation still benefits from the support of Tehran, and has an estimated 50,000 fighters in its ranks.
Perhaps the most prominent militia currently, Kata’ib Hezbollah, was formed in 2006, by military commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. This militia group is closely associated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and is another one of the most prominent Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq. As aforementioned, their former founder and military commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was assassinated in a US airstrike in January 2020, alongside Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani. Currently, the group is being led by Ahmad al-Hamidawi.
Kata’ib Hezbollah have been involved in many recent attacks against US forces. They have become the Iranian proxy fighting the US within Iraq, as their group ideological belief includes an aspiration to defend Iran’s interests against their ‘enemies’. The organisation has also been accused of several grave crimes, such as the killing of 24 protestors in December 2019 and the capture and torture of many more, in demonstrations against Iran’s involvement in Iraq’s politics. More recently, Kata’ib Hezbollah were behind the July 6th assassination of Hisham al Hishimi, who was critical of the militia group. Hisham al Hishimi had also pledged his support for the current Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who had sent Iraq’s forces to raid Kata’ib Hezbollah bases in June 2020; his killing may have been to send a message to al-Kadhimi.
The Peace Brigades are a revival of the former Mahdi Army, which was formed and led by Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, in 2003 and disbanded in 2008. In 2014, the group reformed to create the Peace Brigades. The Mahdi Army were part of the Shiite uprising against US forces in Iraq, until Muqtada al-Sadr called for a ceasefire and the disbandment of the group. Muqtada al-Sadr is an incredibly influential figure in Iraq; for many, he is seen as a symbol of resistance to foreign occupation. Most recently, al-Sadr criticised attacks on foreign missions in Iraq, and called on the perpetrators to cease these attacks. Despite his ties with Iran, he was against Iran’s involvement in Iraq’s politics. This position seemed to change after the assassination of Soleimani in January. His position has also shifted in response to the anti-government protests; what he once supported and provided aid to, he condemned. His erratic U-turns are not unknown, however, after his recent changes in position, he may be losing his influence in Iraq.
Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq is another prominent “pro-Iran” Shiite militia group, who have claimed responsibility for over 6,000 attacks on US and Coalition forces in Iraq. They were formed by Qais al-Khazali in 2006. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq has been described as another violent Iran proxy in Iraq and estimates in 2014 stated the militia group was receiving up to $2 million USD per month from Tehran. The militia group has been accused of many heinous crimes in Iraq, including abductions, forced disappearances and the torture of Sunni Iraqis. In December 2019, the group was thought to have murdered nine protestors during the anti-government protests. Alongside Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq is an incredibly strong and well-armed group, and one that still has a tight grip on Iraq.
The pressure on Mustafa al-Kadhimi to tackle these militia forces is mounting. Not only does the continued presence of strong, armed militia pose a serious threat to next year’s early elections, currently still planned for June 2021 (but likely to be postponed), attacks by militia groups also may lead to the closure of the US Embassy in Baghdad. There are a plethora of issues that these actions could exacerbate, such as the current economic and political crises facing Iraq. Furthermore, the continued prevalence of “pro-Iran” militia groups in Iraq also means the continuation of the profound influence that Iran has over Iraq’s security and politics. Kata’ib Hezbollah, along with other militia groups, stated last week that the attacks against US forces would stop, but only if the Iraq government will present a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops.
The Iraq government has now pledged to the US forces that they will take further measures against the militia organisations, however, it is still unclear what these acts will entail; direct confrontation with the militia groups may well result in further death and instability in Iraq. In such a volatile environment, the road to peace and free democracy in Iraq is not a simple one. It requires good governance, action, and a true balance of interests.