In June 2014, the so-called Islamic State (IS) occupied about one-third of Iraq’s territory, including Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. It meant the radical islamists were close to capturing Baghdad and imposing its authority over all of Iraq. At that point the Iraqi government recognized the real danger of the situation and started forming militia units to liberate the country from IS. The Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) played a decisive role in that process.
The PMU (Al-HashdAl-Sha’abi) are pro-government forces operating under the formal leadership of the Iraqi military and consisting of about 70 factions. They were formed at the directive of Iraqi religious authorities after IS seized large swaths of territory in several provinces north of Baghdad in 2014.
One of the internal political factors which led to the PMU’s appearance in Iraq was the failure of state capacity in the realm of national security, against the backdrop of the rise of IS influence. The fall of Mosul due to massive corruption and Iraqi army’s inability to carry out its key functions meant then-PM Maliki lost faith in the armed forces. According to former Minister of Interior Mohammed Al-Ghabban, “The PMU is a unique, successful and necessary experience that was produced by the period.”
Having armed loyal Shia militias, in contrast to the doubtfully reliable multi-ethnic Iraq units, turned out to to be a far more effective means of restoring order.
On June 15, 2014, the leader of Iraqi Shia Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani issued a fatwa calling for struggle against IS and establishing the PMU. One should note here that Sistani did not limit his fatwa to Iraqi Shia. He insisted on characterizing the national mobilization forces as a national institution with the participation of all ethnic, religious, and social groups.
The core of the PMU are such armed Iraqi Shia formation as the Badr Organization, Asaib ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hezbollah, Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, Harakat Hezbollahal-Nujaba, Kata’ib al-Imam Ali, and Kata’ib Jund al-Imam. These units collaborate with certain Sunni tribes in the Salaheddin, Niniveh, and Anbar provinces that were occupied by IS. In addition, PMU includes units consisting of Christians, Turkmen, Kurds, and Yazidis.
Badr Organization. This formation was created in 2003 from the Badr Brigades, the paramilitary organization of the Shia Islamist party “Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq” (ISCI). Its leader is Hadi Al-Amiri. At present it is not only a military organization but also a political party with 22 seats in Iraqi parliament. Its military units are 10 to 15 thousand troops strong. Its units were spotted in every PMU operation against IS.
Asaib ahl al-Haq (League of Righteous People). This group was formed in 2006 and is closely tied to Lebanese Hezbollah. Its ideology supports the official line of Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Its leader is Qais al-Khazali. As of 2016, it had about 10 thousand troops. Its subunit, called Haidar al-Karar Brigades, is operating on Syria’s territory.
Kata’ib Hezbollah (Battalions of the Party of God). This organization was formed in 2003 in order to resist the US invasion of Iraq. Led by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and has up to 30 thousand troops. Its fighters also support government forces in Syria.