The September 25, 2017 bid for Kurdish independence in northern Iraq, a life-long dream for many Iraqi Kurds, collapsed into armed conflict, a loss of both territory and crucial oil revenues for the Kurdistan Region. After a reported 92 percent of voters chose independence, Baghdad sent in the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) on October 16 to retake Kirkuk, an oil rich city viewed by many Kurds as an integral part of the Kurdistan Region, from the Kurdistan Regional Government. It was a show of federal government force wrapped in claims of protecting Iraqi unity. After Kirkuk’s loss, Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Region, was forced to resign.
Since the reinstatement of federal authority in Kirkuk, reports that Iranian-backed militias, known as Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), participated in, and even pushed for, the launch of the Kirkuk operation have emerged. According to these reports, the PMU militias were key to the city’s takeover, including securing the Baba Gurgur oil field, the K-1 military base, other Kurdish military bases, police stations, and the airport. Two of the PMU’s most prominent military and political figures, Hadi al-Amiri and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, were reportedly in Kirkuk on the day of the assault and, after it ended, toured oil fields and other military and government offices taken from the Kurds. Photos and videos also show the PMU militias raising Iraqi flags above outposts previously occupied by Kurdish Peshmerga forces and defacing Kurdish flags and symbols.
Despite this evidence, Western media has largely downplayed the PMU’s participation in the Kirkuk offensive, while also misunderstanding these militias’ larger sectarian goals within Iraqi political and military affairs, as well as their ties to Iran. The PMU’s role in the Kirkuk conflict highlights the increasing influence in Iraq of Iran and its proxies, threatening political stability and reform efforts in the country.
The Evolution of the PMU
Known as the hashd al-shaabi in Arabic, the PMU first rose to prominence in 2014, following ISIS’s takeover of Mosul and its seeming expansion towards Baghdad. With the collapse of the ISF in 2014, then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki formally established the PMU Commission as an armed force aimed at preventing ISIS’s expansion and leading the fight to liberate cities under its control.
The PMU is an umbrella organization of roughly sixty militias comprising around 141,000 fighters, the majority of which are Shia and receive funding, training, and military equipment from Iran. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) coordinates a significant portion of the PMU’s military operations, and many PMU leaders enjoy a close relationship with IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. While the PMU is not a unitary force, together, its militias represent the largest and most powerful Iranian-backed Shia armed group in Iraq.
Since 2014, the PMU has been solidifying its political influence in Iraqi politics, thanks to its military victories against ISIS and immense popularity among Iraqi Shia, who view these militias as more effective and legitimate than the Iraqi armed forces. Many of the PMU’s military leaders are also politicians, who control key government ministries and hold roughly a third of seats in parliament. In November 2016, the PMU was formally institutionalized as a legal military corps, separate from the Iraqi armed forces, by the Hashd al-Shaabi Commission Law. Yet, despite its new official status, the PMU has remained a relatively autonomous body able to pursue its military and political objectives. Iraq’s current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, retains only limited control over the PMU’s actions.
The PMU as a Political Force
Iraqi opinion on the PMU is varied. Shia Iraqis are widely supportive of the PMU, not only because the militias have been instrumental in defeating ISIS but also because they see them as more representative of their political interests. There are, however, also numerous documented cases of abuse and human rights violations committed by these militias against Sunni Arabs and other minority communities in Iraq, raising concerns about their increasing political power and propelling calls for their demobilization.
Nevertheless, the PMU’s general popularity has allowed the group to push for Iranian and sectarian interests in Baghdad, thereby undermining the political process and hindering reform efforts in Iraq. The PMU has pushed for increased funding for its militias, has challenged Abadi’s efforts to reform government by installing technocratic ministers, and has led impeachment efforts against cabinet ministers who do not support its interests.
The PMU militias, and their Iranian benefactor, saw the Kurdistan referendum, which was generally unpopular in Iraq, and subsequent crisis in Kirkuk as an opportunity to further strengthen their political position in Iraq by presenting themselves, once again, as liberators of Iraqi territory. For Iran, in particular, the referendum was also a significant threat that needed to be defeated.
Iran had three major concerns about possible Kurdish independence. First, Iranian leaders feared a similar push from their own Kurdish population. Iranian Kurds number around 7 million and are concentrated in northwestern Iran, along the border with Iraqi Kurdistan. Videos on social media showed Iranian Kurds celebrating the referendum results. Fearing this spirit of solidarity, Iran sought to minimize the vote’s potential spillover effects. The day before the referendum, Tehran ceased all flights from Iran to the Kurdistan Region and began military exercises along the border.
Second, Iran hopes to promote a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad that is sympathetic to Iranian interests. It feared an independent Kurdistan would weaken the federal government’s authority, and, thereby, hurt Iran’s interests.
Finally, Iran is concerned that an independent Kurdistan could lead to an increased U.S. military presence along Iran’s border. The Kurdish Peshmerga, the region’s military force, enjoys a close relationship with the United States, receiving military aid, training, and financial support in its fight against ISIS. Iran is wary of this close relationship and fears that an independent Kurdistan could bring the United States to its doorstep.
In light of these concerns, the PMU and Iran took aggressive positions against the Kurdistan referendum. Such rhetoric not only bolstered the PMU’s reputation among Arab Iraqis angered by the referendum but also heightened pressure on Abadi to act against the Kurds, ultimately leading to his decision to officially launch an attack. In the days leading up to the offensive, several prominent PMU leaders with known ties to Iran argued that Baghdad should deploy troops to retake Kirkuk in retaliation for the referendum. PMU spokesman Ahmad al-Assadi told the Lebanese news outlet al-Mayadeen that the PMU will “not allow separatists to take the Kurds from their Iraqi brothers,” and even denounced those who fight against the ISF as “the same as ISIS.” According to The Washington Post, Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the Badr Organization, the strongest PMU Shia militia, and a member of parliament, called on “our brothers of the Peshmerga to hand over these areas and not to drag the country into civil war.”
However, until October 13, the day before the offensive, Abadi refused to comment on a possible attack on the city, even claiming that such reports were “fake news.” Despite Abadi’s reluctance to order the attack, the PMU was reportedly mobilizing on the outskirts of Kirkuk as early as October 12. On October 13, Interior Minister Qassim al-Araji, a Badr Organization member, claimed that a “process of redeployment” was in the works in order to restore federal authority in Kirkuk. Through these statements and its mobilization, the PMU effectively pressured Abadi into sending in the ISF, and his weak position vis-a-vis the PMU’s popularity and military strength left him with few alternatives but to launch an attack. The offensive officially began on October 16, with Abadi calling for the reinstatement of federal authority to protect Iraqi territorial integrity.
The PMU’s Political Prospects After Kirkuk
While the PMU had already attained significant popularity and political influence from their military victories against ISIS, their position as defenders of Iraqi unity in Kirkuk has only added to their influence in Iraq. With parliamentary elections currently scheduled for May 2018, members of the PMU who intend to run may be in a favorable position to win because of these events.
If the PMU militias are able to secure significant electoral results, these powerful, yet still widely misunderstood, militias are likely to destabilize Iraqi politics, as they push for Iranian and sectarian interests and impede much-needed political reform.