Threat from the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq

In recent months, concerns have been rising over the role of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), as the number of attacks that have likely been perpetrated by one of militias in Iraq has increased. On June 19, a rocket attack in Basra hit a compound housing workers of several large oil firms, including ExxonMobil. A few days prior, a separate attack north of Baghdad hit a US military base. In addition, a US intelligence source claimed on June 28 that the May 14 drone attack on the Saudi oil pipeline originated in Iraq, not Yemen. All these attacks highlight the capabilities and willingness of these militias to carry out attacks against foreign targets. Over the past month, a series of drone strikes have been carried out against PMU targets, likely by Israel, highlighting the rising concern Iran’s adversaries have about the strength of Iranian backed militias in Iraq, and the possibility that these groups may be used to transfer weapons to other Iranian proxies in the region, or that they will launch more attacks of their own.

In discussing Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units, it is important to consider that the PMU is not a monolithic entity. It is an umbrella organization constituted by a patchwork of militias which were formed by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in June of 2014 following the fall of Mosul to IS. While the majority of these militias are Shiite, there are also small Sunni, Christian and Yazidi militias. In addition, not all Shiite militias are supported by Iran, most notably Saraya al Salam, a militia loyal to Muqtada Sadr, which Iran cut off funding to after Sadr distanced himself from Iran in 2016. This report will focus on the larger and more capable Shiite militias that continue to receive clear backing from Iran: the Badr Organization, Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al Haq.

Formerly known as the Badr Brigades, Badr has a long history of connections to Iran back to its formation in 1983. The group began its existence fighting for the Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war, and continued sporadic attacks against Saddam Hussein’s regime after the war. In the aftermath of the fall of Saddam, Badr relocated to Iraq and carried out sectarian attacks against Iraqi Sunnis from 2004-2006. Badr joined the fight against IS during the formation of the PMU is 2014, and contributed significant forces to fight against IS in important battles such as Tikrit and Mosul.

Since the Badr Organization integrated its fighters into Popular Mobilization Brigades in 2014, the group’s strength and influence has only grown. Estimates vary widely on the group’s true strength, but at a minimum, the group has 10,000 fighters, while higher estimates place the number of fighters as high as 50,000. In addition, the leader of the group, Haidi al Amiri, has significant political influence. He has served in ministerial roles in the Iraq government in the past. Most recently, he served as part of the Fateh Alliance, a coalition of Iranian backed militias’ parliamentary representation in the government. The alliance won 48 seats in Iraq’s 2018 election, giving Badr and its fellow Shiite militias significant political influence.

Kataib Hezbollah (KH) was founded in 2007 primarily as an anti-American Shiite militia. The group was responsible for numerous deadly attacks on US and coalition forces in Iraq. In the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, KH sent fighters to support the Assad regime in Syria, likely at the behest of the Quds Force commander, Qasem Soleimani. Notably, the group has maintained its anti-American sentiment despite sharing IS as a common enemy with the US in recent years. KH frequently refused to participate in battles against IS when the Iraqi forces were supported by American airpower and advisors.

Like the Badr Organization, KH has significant political influence. KH also part of the Fateh Alliance, and the group’s head Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, is the deputy commander of the PMU. The strength of the group is more difficult to determine as the group is more secretive than other PMUs, with the group claiming to have 30,000 fighters.The US State Department report puts KH’s strength at only 400 fighters. KH is also the only PMU to be officially designated as a terrorist organization by the United States.

Much like Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al Haq (AAH), was founded in 2006 during the Iraq war as a Shiite militia seeking to bolster Shiite control of Iraq and to target western forces in the country. It is estimated that from the time of its founding until the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, AAH launched more than 6,000 attacks on American and Iraqi forces. AHH has also sent forces to fight for the Assad regime in Syria, and has formed several affiliate groups in Syria that operate under the command of the Quds Force. The group also expanded its forces and profile significantly after integrating into the PMU in 2014.

The strength of Asaib Ahl al Haq’s forces is estimated to be around 10,000 fighters, with approximately 1,000-3,000 fighters operating in Syria. AHH has followed the example of Hezbollah in Lebanon, branching out from being strictly an armed militia by establishing social services for Shiite communities in southern Iraq such as religious schools and a television channel. AHH also joined the Fateh alliance during the 2018 elections.

All three groups have publicly acknowledged close ties to Iran in the past, and have received training and financial assistance from Iran. The leaders of these groups in particular have highlighted their close personal ties with Qassem Soleimani, with al Muhandis claiming he was a “proud soldier” of Soleimani, while Amiri has described Soleimani as “friend, a good man and a good fighter”. In addition, all of these groups have in the past pledged allegiance to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and KH and AAH have stated their goal is to implement wilayat-e faqih in Iraq, rule by clerics based on the Iranian model. While some of these militia leaders have tried to distance themselves publicly from Iran, such as by withdrawing their public pledge of support for Iran and claiming they would not get involved in any regional conflict in support of Iran, their past statements and continued financial support from Iran shows that in practical terms, little has changed.

There are two main threats from the Iranian backed Shiite militias in Iraq. One is the internal threat these groups pose to Iraq’s own security. On numerous occasions during the campaign against IS and subsequent counterinsurgency efforts, Badr, KH, and AAH fighters committed human rights abuses in the areas they were operating in, mainly against predominantly Sunni populations in northern Iraq. Human Rights Watch recorded instances of these militias carrying out summary executions, beatings and forced disappearances. Such abuses threaten to alienate the Sunni population of Iraq, a major contributing factor to the success of IS in northern Iraq. Continued disenfranchisement of the Sunnis and abuse by these Shiite militia groups could hinder continued counterterrorism efforts in these regions if the militias are not reined in. In addition, the continued independence for these militias to operate outside the command structure of the Iraqi military threatens Iraq’s security and ability to be accountable for any attacks that take place in the country which could be attributed to Iranian backed militias. In addition, these militias continued independence gives them the ability to send fighters to support Iranian goals in other countries in the region, such as fighter KH and AAH have sent to Syria, and to carry out attacks on targets inside Iraq, which further weakens the country’s stability and strengthens Iran’s influence in Iraq.

The second threat these groups pose is towards foreign interests in Iraq or neighboring countries, particularly in nearby countries that are regional opponents of Iran, such as Saudi Arabia. While so far the documented attacks against foreign interests by Iranian backed Shiite militia groups in Iraq have been relatively few, given the rather extensive history groups like KH and AAH have for attacking western targets, the possibility of future attacks remains significant. Militias like KH also have a history of training with other Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah, so it is possible that these Iranian proxies will share their methods and increase their capabilities to carry out attacks. While there has been no public evidence of the Iranian proxies in Iraq having connections to the Houthis in Yemen, it is possible that the Iraqi groups could use the same sort of low cost drones the Houthi have used to attack Saudi Arabia and US interests in the region. In addition, the mere presence of groups with strong ties to Iran operating in Iraq raises the possibility of Iraq becoming a battleground between Iran and some of its adversaries. The perception that the Iraqi government is doing little to rein in these groups may cause other regional actors to target these militias, as the strikes likely attributed to Israel over the past several weeks clearly indicate. It is also clear that the Iranian backed militias will take action against attacks against them, as evident by the announcement on September 5 that the PMU will form its own air force. This is likely an indication that Iranian backed militias will seek to acquire surface to air missiles to defend against foreign strikes, a move which will likely be seen as an escalation by Iran’s regional opponents.

While the resurgence of IS and continued counterterrorism measures against IS remains the priority in Iraq, greater emphasis needs to be placed on monitoring the activities of Iranian backed Shiite militias in Iraq. These militias continue to have significant military assets and political power in the country, and more information needs to be made available on the group’s activities. Greater information on the Iranian backed militias would put greater pressure on the Iraqi government to rein them in and more emphasis on international actors to consider the threat these groups pose.

Ultimately, in order to rein in the Iranian backed Shiite militias, the Iraqi government will have to take stronger action to keep them in check. The militias need to be absorbed into the army, and the political arm of the militias needs to be separated from the armed elements. While Prime Minister Abdil Abdul-Mahdi issued an executive order for the PMU to integrate into the armed forces or give up their arms and become purely political parties by July 31st, the deadline passed with little action having been taken to rein in the militias.

While Asaib Ahl al Haq did shut down some of its offices across the country, the group requested more time to implement the order. So far, the Badr Organization and Kataib Hezbollah have refused to comply. Given the political influence these militias now have in the government thanks to the Fateh Alliance, the Iraqi government will need stronger outside support in order to keep the Iranian backed militias in check. Harsher steps by countries that support Iraq like the United States to increase sanctions against Iranian backed militias and their leaders would be an indication to Iraqi politicians that their own steps to rein in the PMU would have outside backing. While the US has recently taken some measures to sanction PMU leaders, greater action needs to be taken by more international actors and countries that support Iraq. In addition, Iraqi allies need to continue to strongly support the Iraqi security forces so that Iraq has a military force not beholden to Iran and which is capable of providing security for the country. A stronger Iraqi military will ensure that in times of crisis, the Iraqi government does not have to turn to strengthening the Popular Mobilization Units as it was forced to do after the fall of Mosul in 2014.

The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) CENTCOM Team is actively monitoring, tracking, and reporting on various aspects within the region. They collaborate with the Historical Analysis Team to better understand the historical and cultural roots of the area; with the Weapons & Tactics Team to comprehend new strategies used by the PMUs; and the Behavior & Leadership Team concerning motives and the psychology involved.

1. Iraq rocket attack: oil firms begin evacuating staff from Basra site, The Guardian, June 19, 2019.

2. Mortar attack on Iraqi base home to US troops; no casualties, Military Times, June 16, 2019.

3. US says Saudi pipeline attacks originated in Iraq: Report, Al Jazeera, June 28, 2019.

4. “Badr Organization”, Counter Extremism Project.

5. “Part 2, Pro-Iranian Militias”, Wilson Center, April 2018.

6. “Kataib Hezbollah”, The Counter Extremism Project.

7. “Part 2, Pro-Iranian Militias”, Wilson Center, April 2018.

8. “Asaib Ahl al Haq”, The Counter Extremism Project.

9. “Part 2, Pro-Iranian Militias”, Wilson Center, April 2018.

10. “Iranian Quds Force leader reportedly in Fallujah”, The Long War Journal, May 23, 2016.

11. “Top Iraqi Militia Leader: Fighting for Iran under Soleimani's leadership Is Blessing from God”, Institute for Middle East Studies, April 5, 2017.

12. “Part 2, Pro-Iranian Militias”, Wilson Center, April 2018.

13. “Iraq: Fallujah Abuses Inquiry Mired in Secrecy”, Human Rights Watch, July 7, 2016.

14. “Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces form air force directorate”, Iraq News, September 5, 2019.

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