New approach to rectify PMF status in Iraq

Firas Elias

After the end of the war against ISIS in December 2017, the issue of security sector reform in Iraq has dramatically come to the fore  in order to avoid the major failures experienced by the Iraqi military forces, which hadq been the cause of military setbacks in the clashes with ISIS since its emergence in June 2014. During the era of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the Iraqi government concluded many agreements with the international coalition to combat ISIS. These agreements were to provide  the Iraqi troops with trainings and to support them on both  military and security levels. On the other side, the Iranian troops  dubbed as Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)  began to impose itself strongly in the Iraqi security equation and to establish its forces and military capabilities away from the Iraqi government with assistance from Iran who played a major role in this field.

Actually, the issue of normalization of the PMF situation as part of the security reform process in Iraq, has begun to be applied through many executive orders issued. The most notably orders were those numbered (237-331-328) that were issued in 2019. Actually, these decrees  emphasized the need for revisiting the structural and functional role of the PMF in away gets the Iranian militias more integrated functionally with  other sectors of the Iraqi Armed Forces and also under the leadership of the Commander in Chief of the Iraqi Armed Forces.

Virtually, the pro-Iran factions consider these reform efforts  part of the US strategy schemed against Iran. Therefore, they underlined  in more than one occasion the necessity of taking the lead in any reform process, noting that the reform must be while frankly   rejecting any initiative taken  in this regard by external side, which highlighted a challenging aspect in the issue of normalizing the PMF situation. This issue is firstly subject to internal Iraqi variables and secondly affected by some regional and international obligations.

Last June, head of the PMF Al-Sayyed Al-Fayad issued a memorandum in form of a letter addressing the Prime Minister’s Office. The document suggested the reactivation of the reform process under the new cabinet headed by Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, with reference to the PMF relevant Law No. 40, 2016 and the executive order number 237, 2019. Indeed, the letter included some significant clauses such as  the cancellation of the combat troops’ labels,  the integration of the PMF tribal forces and other legal, administrative and political reforms, however,  there is a need for enough governmental courage in order implement these suggestions on the ground.

There are many variables contributed to the acceleration of the reforming process of the PMF situation in Iraq. These variables are topped by the absence of Abu Mahdi Al- Muhandis and Qassem Soleimani, the launch of a strategic dialogue with the United States, which may encourage the Iraqi government to adopt this reformation option, the support provided by some international partners “NATO and the European Union” who tend to apply a new approach to reform the security sector in Iraq by supporting the efforts of the Iraqi government in this direction to get it functionally integrated within the Iraqi military structure.

The administrative and military changes that Al-Kadhimi made in recent times, specifically those changes that occurred in the National Security Agency and its advisors, and the re-imposition of the power of the state on the sources   influenced economically by the dominant factions within the PMF may make them in the future unable to fulfill the dues of their fighters and will decrease the financial support to Iran due to the US sanctions and even the support rendered to the religious authority in Najaf through multiple data  launched  eaearlier.

Any governmental measures clearly target the limitation of arms and weapons to be only in the hands of the state, and to control the movements of  the factions that can’t be controlled by the state authority.

As a result of its disagreements with the state factions, the transfer of the shrines belonging to Ali  Al-Sistani from the PMF to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense uncovered the possibility that the Sunni crowds might move in the same direction, especially since they are suffering today from the same problems and challenges, which may make the state factions in direct confrontation with the Iraqi stat, then this situation may make these factions without financial and military cover, and thus they may find in the Iraqi state the only way to preserve its gains whether through the merging or dissolving processes.

In return, there are many great difficulties that stand in the way of reforming the PMF , the most prominent of which are: the great military and economic power that the PMF factions have acquired , especially the pro-Iran factions,   in addition to the ideological and the indoctrination   that is received by the fighters of the PMF, which makes the process of integrating them into the Iraqi military institution difficult. In this regard. Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of Badr Organization said that we can’t merge  between a fighter who fights out of his belief in brotherhood and spirituality, and a soldier who fights on professional and occupational basis .

Moreover, the Iranian side has a vital role in rejecting any reform process that affects the PMF, considering this as a breach of regional balances, of which the axis of resistance is a part.

Important proposals to proceed the reform process

The process of transforming the PMF into a more professional institution is indeed a hard process, and it should take place through medium and long-term programs, especially in the light of the difficult political, security, health and economic situation in Iraq today. Thus, a set of mechanisms aim at taming the pro-Iran factions that reject any single reform may happen to the PMF, such as :

  1. In fact, the doctrinal and sectarian disagreement as well as the functional and armament disharmony among the PMF factions that form the IMIS are the main obstacles in the way to the normalization process, so these factions should be reformatted culturally, militarily and intellectually, in a way that makes it a professional Iraqi institution  that can easily assimilate into the Iraqi military establishment.
  2. Reconsidering the economic resources obtained by the pro-Iran factions within the PMF, which are done through illegal mechanisms and ways, and ending the role of economic offices, through gradual administrative procedures.
  3. Neutralizing the Iranian influence  through clear and strict policies adopted by the Iraqi government and ending the current divisions prevailed in the group of Khamenei and the group of Al-Kadhimi’s recent visit to Tehran can be a first step on this way.
  4. Empowering the crowds affiliated to the Najaf reference and the Sunni crowds within PMF Authority in order to achieve more balance and  justice will certainly figure out that  the centralization that has been designed for the state factions, specifically the Hezbollah Brigades , a trend that may facilitate the task of the Iraqi government in the foreseeable future.
  5. Emphasizing the role of the Najaf authority in any reform process that affects the IMIS, as it is the author of the fatwa that established the IMIS, and the legitimate basis for it.
  6. Adopting policies that would convince the pro-Iran factions of the necessity of abandoning heavy weapons, including tanks, missiles, and others and of the necessity of placing them in secure camps supervised by the Iraqi Ministry of Defense.
  7. Convincing the Shiite political party that sponsors the PMF that the process of reforming the PMF does not mean prejudice to their political entitlements they could get after 2003, and that there is an international commitment to protect the political system in Iraq from any internal or external threats, and that it will sponsor the democratic process in Iraq in the future.
  8. Freezing the status of the PMF, as well as reviewing the nature of the military roles played by the pro-Iran factions, with the possibility of forming a new ministry in the Iraqi government known as the Ministry of the IMIS, in order to impose government tutelage on it, in the framework that gives it a civilian dimension, which may be overshadowed in the future .
  9. Improving the living conditions of fighters, integrating them in educational courses in line with those to which the soldier in the army or the anti-terrorist agency is subject to, and their inclusion in the Military Penal Code No. 19 of 2007, in a way that makes them more professional fighters in the future.
  10. Subjecting the Directorate of Doctrinal Guidance in the Popular Mobilization Authority, which is controlled by the pro- Iran¹ factions, to the supervision and control of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, for its role in entrenching the military doctrine in the minds of the fighters, through many educational studies and pamphlets that are not compatible with the orientations of the Iraqi state.


[1] Michael Knights And Hamdi Malik, Hashd Reforms İn Iraq Conceal More Than They Reveal, Polıcywatch 3325, The Washington Institute For Near East Policy, June 2020.https://Bit.Ly/3evıkgd

[2] Michael Knights, Hamdi Malik, and Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, Honored, Not Contained: The Future of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 2020, p22.


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