Iraq’s Shiite militias have reached the pinnacle of power and politics in recent years, in large part because of the emergence of the so-called Islamic state (IS) and the collapse of the Iraqi army but also because of the diminished capacity of the Iraqi state after more than a decade of corruption and political instability.
The Shiite militia network in Iraq is impressive, underpinned as it is by an array of informal socio-political, cultural and security structures that have developed and emerged from the disorder of the post-2003 political order. However, whilst it can ascend to the pinnacle of Iraqi politics through the popular support it generates during major crises that are prompted by threats like IS, the reverse can also be true. The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) are dependent on the social legitimacy they are able to generate among different sections of Iraqi society. Their ability to deliver security, services and, in the current crisis, healthcare to the local population is critical to its ability to tout themselves as an alternative to formal state authorities.
Indeed, armed non-state actors across the globe take advantage of failures in governance and the breakdown of institutions to exploit the resulting voids both by mobilising their fighters and by providing services and protection to local communities. In normal circumstances, COVID-19 constitutes a public health crisis that would give Shiite militias another opportunity to enhance their reputational standing and position themselves as a viable alternative to formal authorities, particularly as the political class has failed to adequately respond to the pandemic. Indeed, the PMF has initiated a series of campaigns focused on the pandemic, providing medical support to victims, burial services and distributing food to the vulnerable. It has also built temporary and mobile hospitals, drawing on its experiences of providing medical aid and support in times of crisis from the anti-IS military campaign.
However, these are also extraordinary times for Iraq and the PMF. Iraq has been engulfed in widespread social unrest as a result of the government’s failure to deliver services and jobs to its population. A reform-focused protest movement that emerged in October 2019 and has since rocked the political class to its core has been brutally suppressed by state-aligned security forces. Shiite militias and, specifically, the PMF have been implicated in the violence against the protest movement, whose supporters have lamented the role it has played in the violence and the backing (as well as encouragement) it has received from Iran. The implications of reduced social legitimacy could be far-reaching for the PMF (and its Iran-aligned factions in particular) since its ascent in recent years has been a direct result of its ability to win the support of the citizenry, which no longer has faith in Iraq’s institutions and has longed for an alternative to a political class that is perceived by many as being deeply corrupt and incompetent.
Losing the support of the public adds to the long list of challenges the PMF faces, including its rivalries with some segments of the Iraqi political class that want to see it either disbanded entirely or integrated into the Iraqi army so it can fall under civilian control. The social legitimacy that has been central to the PMF’s success was further eroded after a number of rival factions within the PMF aligned with Ayatollah Sistani withdrew from the organisation and placed themselves within the control and ambit of the Iraqi state. These groups have for long been discontented with the emergence of the PMF as an effective front for Iran’s proxies. Although the PMF emerged as a result of a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Sistani, it was subsequently abused by Iran’s proxies to enhance their operational monopoly over the conflict landscape amid the dramatic collapse of the Iraqi army when IS seized Mosul in 2014.
Sistani lamented this soon after and lambasted Iran’s proxies for operating outside of the state’s control and exploiting his fatwa to further their own political ambitions. The decision to withdraw from the PMF was almost certainly necessitated by the PMF’s implication in the violence against the protestors but it also comes amid a series of other chinks in the armour of the organisation, prompted by the assassination of Qassem Soleimani in January, the loss of its de facto leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (the head of Ketaib Hezbollah who was inadvertently killed by the US when it struck the convoy in which Soleimani was travelling) and the failure by the Iran-aligned factions to find a suitable replacement that can unite the disparate groups within the PMF and reconcile their differences.
COVID-19 does not bode well for the formal and conventional authorities in Iraq who have attempted to contain the influence and legitimacy of militias, especially since the Iraqi state and government are suffering from limited bandwidth as they grapple with other political and socio-economic challenges, including the decline in oil prices, the protest movement and ongoing tensions between the US and Iran. However, although COVID-19 may potentially present the PMF with an opportunity to repair and revive the reputation that saw it come second in the 2018 elections, it is also the case that the organisation has lost its veneer of Iraqi nationalism as a result of its complicity in the violence against protestors and its lack of response to Iraq’s array of socio-economic challenges.
Whether this will have long-term consequences for the PMF will, ultimately, depend on whether the Iraqi state and its institutions can position themselves as the only viable and legitimate channel that can offer Iraqis respite, namely by addressing their urgent needs and concerns. In other words, the question is whether the government and political class can capitalise on the credibility deficit that the PMF is currently suffering from.