The Popular Mobilization

Challenges and Solutions

Hisham Al Hashimi

Security expert

The liberated Sunni provinces suffer from the loss of confidence in the central government, dominated by the Shiite National Alliance in Baghdad, and fear of Tehran's influence in Iraq, which may deprive them of power and wealth and weaken Sunni Arab resistance to ISIS, although Sunni Arab leaders in Saladin, al-Anbar, Diyala, Nineveh and Kirkuk are still adversaries of ISIS.


However, the question they often ask has to do with whether the bloodshed in the battle is really worth it, because the Shiite Popular Mobilization will eventually come to power and exercise its power the administration and distribution of functions, wealth, projects, services and infrastructure. Of course, this ?winner? mentality hampers initiatives for the return of the displaced and the reconstruction of the liberated cities under the control of ISIS.


When the Sunni provinces fell into the hands of ISIS in June 2014, the authority and legitimacy of the Sunni provincial council members, which collapsed as soon as ISIS and dozens of other officials started to take full control, was put into doubt because the province could not resist ISIS attack.


However, the modest efforts made by al-Abadi  failed to satisfy the Sunnis. One year after the liberation of eastern Tikrit, the percentage of Sunnis who believed that his government was more inclusive decreased, especially with regard to supporting and arming al- Jabour tribes in both al-Alam and Dhuluiya areas and al-Swamrah tribes in Samarra and al Baiyat tribes in Sulaiman Bek and Shammar tribes in Adhaim river.

Even in the post-liberation era, the Sunni Arab community still faces problems in its relationship with the central government. A good example of this is tempting Ahmed al-Jubouri (Abu Mazen) to assume the position of governor of Saladin governorate after the abolition of his position as minister of parliament and the provinces?  affairs. Although he was a governor, he was not given the necessary powers in the management of the security file and the imposition of the rule of law. The security file then was under the control of security leaders from Baghdad and the popular mobilization leaders. This new situation made him look very weak before Al-Buhishmah tribes in Yathrib and the Ad-dawryeen tribes in Ad-Dawr town and Al-mujamaa tribes in Ishaqi town, where he was unable to assure their return to their homes except by paying large sums of money to the Shiites.


The Sunnis in Iraq fear that the central government will encourage reprisals, ransoms and tribal evictions of the families to which the elements of ISIS belong, and all Sunni politicians believe that these actions are mostly due to allegations of persecution of dissidents without respect of due legal procedures and without amnesty measures to reduce tension and revenge just as al-Maliki did when he was a prime minister. While the Sunni tribes oppose ISIS, it is difficult for any observer to find a tribe in the Sunni provinces that has no members associated with ISIS.


Given the events that the cities witnessed as they  had to go through the two stages of occupation, the pre- and the post-ISIS periods, namely, the news that relate to the return of the displaced; the evacuation of those elements who are affiliated with ISIS; the development of the interrelations among the Shiite popular mobilization militants and the tribal mobilization in al-Anbar and Saladin; the emergence of a tribal and regional popular movements with each one controlling its region in the unstable Sunni provinces; and the disturbance of local governments in response to those variables. Along with these events, there emerged a group of influential figures who tried to make a popular majority under the umbrella of popular mobilization factions to change the means and methods of politics towards their regions and cities at least, where the issues of war on ISIS and the resulting issues were top political priorities in Saladin and al-Anbar provinces. The most important of these issues is the identity of the alternative that will achieve security and service stability and help these cities overcome the stage of occupation by ISIS and move ahead to the stage of liberation and reconstruction.


Many of the figures that emerged in the post-war era have been deprived of the financial ability to establish political parties, and therefore have been forced to harmonize with the large popular mobilization groups such as Asa'ib Dhuluiya and Asa?ib al-Alam as ?independent?. Since the alternative that preaches the political stability and security  of a given city is often a byproduct of the discourse of the city?s political parties and organizations, that are better be dealt with as independent Sunni organizations only primarily restricts their role to opposing the government and then makes them only temporary. This is on the one hand. On the other hand, these Sunni figures who work under the guise of political Shiism and the Popular Mobilization Authority will end someday, either by merging with these parties or by disappearing for any other political or nonpolitical reason.

The masses of the liberated areas prefer the political figures who carried the weapons and secured the return of the displaced and provided post-liberation services. These figures have construed their power out of their close relationships with the factions of the mobilization and have become popular thanks to their concrete and practical help, which is very dear to the hearts and minds of the people. Not only that, but it is assumed that actions rather than parties speak for any public figure.


Related to this also is how individuals differ, for some might be preferred over others depending on how many services they have generally provided and how much they partook of the struggle and resistance against terrorism. Preference cannot be acquired with mere media promotion for someone at the expense of another. In the context of struggle and resistance, there is no room for those who fail to act or are reluctant to provide services or to carry on till the end. There is no place for those who try to use an idea, a party, a movement, or a faction as a trojan horse for the sake of mere propaganda in trash magazines that are published here and there and for the sake of achieving some very low and base worldly ends or whatsoever.

The involvement of tribal people in the popular mobilization through the mediation of some figures has made the people of these tribes more confident for and respectful of a given figure. In addition, partaking in the provision of services and relief boosts the level of popularity, and increases that figure?s chances in elections. Also, the socially responsible Sunni leader has certain qualities and various behavioral characteristics, including: Assuming responsibility for relief in periods when displacement is widespread; thinking about the security and stability of the city, being able to accomplish the tasks entrusted to him correctly and accurately. In fact, demographic, tribal, relief and counterterrorism factors determine the choice of the masses and tribes for influential leaders. The results showed that there were differences of statistical significance in the degree to which influential leaders bear responsibility for their cities during ISIS occupation and the post-ISIS occupation periods. This can be explained by the nature of the social background itself which imposes significant social restrictions on how individuals must be committed to their tribe during war, so it is obvious that they assume responsibility towards their tribes first.


Motives for volunteering for the Popular Mobilization: -


The volunteer for the popular mobilization sees that he has been for a long time complaining about the lack of employment opportunities and the monopoly of job positions in favor of certain partisan groups in the government system and the fact that there are no solutions for his grievances and concerns. In addition, the spread of unemployment and the feeling of economic instability among different social groups, particularly young people, made them compete to volunteer to take up arms. Many of these volunteers have been exploited by movements and factions fighting outside the borders of the Iraqi state.


Many religious institutions, along with political discourse, have always played a prominent role in containing these large numbers of young people from different social groups and creating armed political and partisan loyal factions at the expense of the rule of law and the supreme interest of the nation. One of the most important factors that are used to motivate young people to volunteer is religious discourse, which calls for the defense of Shiite sacred places and political, sectarian and national gains. The volunteer still believes that the religious discourse is highly influential, accompanied by manipulating political agendas. The volunteer who is lured by religious ideology believes that he represents a solid typical shield against ISIS fighters who have been recruited by means of their belonging to a particular sect or religion by allowing for the misinterpretation and misappropriation of the Quranic text thus tainting religion with cultural and discursive differences.


In Southern and Central Iraq, home to the majority of the popular mobilization volunteers, the community believes that religious discourse through mosques, Husseiniyyas and the media , including alternative media, is one of the major reasons that contributed to the creation of an environment and a culture that facilitates containment by popular mobilization factions, according to the sectarian and political manipulation processes adopted by these religious and political institutions. Thus, the Shiite religious discourse was and still is the matrix and origin of all events in Iraq.


The security operations in the liberated areas of ISIS in al-Anbar and Saladin indicate the weakness of the regime security service which is one of the reasons why it was very easy for these unskilled and unprofessional factions to take control. This includes their control over the management of external roads administration and collecting money using different pretexts and imposing their own accounting and punishment conditions. In addition, some of these armed factions use the sectarian discourse and impose it in areas such as Yathrib, Jurf al-Sakhar, al-Sadiyah, Sulaiman Bek, Baiji, Nineveh, and Tuz Khurmatu. Also, activities and practices that contribute to giving sufficient power and authority to the tribal and regional Sunni factions in those areas or activities that contribute to coexistence and tolerance are absent. On the contrary, there is adoption of extrajudicial means to impose the law of the armed faction that controls the region which cannot allow the widening of the circle of coexistence and national reconciliation.  


Political leaders and Shiite religious authorities in Iraq see the factions of the Islamic resistance and popular mobilization forces and volunteers as a cornerstone of national security and believe that their continued existence maintains the security and gains of political Shiism and the security of Baghdad and Karbala and Najaf and Samarra, centers of its religious influence in the southern and central region of Iraq. Furthermore, maintaining their armed factions is a cornerstone of this security that can never be forfeited or compromised in any way, especially after the painful lesson they have learnt from ISIS occupation and the collapse of the regime forces in June 2014, particularly upon reaching Samarra and Baghdad provinces.


Since the early days of the occupation of Mosul, the supporting parties have tried to coordinate with Iran and Baghdad government to achieve this goal. As a first step, the government of Baghdad has tried to open its military camps and weapons stores to these factions and to logistically support their operations. It has also tried to establish official channels of communication with them in an attempt to bridge the gaps caused by the defeat in Mosul, Saladin, al-Anbar and parts of Kirkuk and Diyala. The first strategy the government adopted was to attract the Shiite youth first after this large number of religious young people has been neglected for years and to declare the ?Sons of Iraq? movement. These efforts culminated in the recent legislation with a law announced by the Council of Ministers in 25 In July 2016, in which the popular mobilization was considered a force parallel to the anti-terrorism service affiliated to the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. A proposal was presented by MPs in the parliament?s Security and Defense Committee and former justice minister Hassan al-Shammari, who demanded to the Popular Mobilization leaders at a press conference on September 18 ?not to engage in conflicts and fight in the cities occupied by the terrorist ISIS, only after ?recognition of immunity?, warning of "the possibility that the votes, which demanded the intervention of the popular mobilization to expel ISIS?, would charge the mobilization after liberation with violations.   

The Deputy Chairman of the Security and Defense Committee Iskandar Tut said to al- Monitor that "about 70 deputies signed the draft law of immunity to fighters of the popular mobilization, which ensures their legal soldier-like treatment in the Iraqi army." He said: "This immunity defines the rights of the soldiers of the mobilization and their duties legally, and prevents the consideration of their participation in fighting against ISIS as informal ".   


The second step of the supporting parties in this regard, however, is to try to impose all the rules of the popular mobilization as a de facto government on the Iraqi government and its allies in the US-led coalition and to present it as a strong counter-terrorism service that Baghdad and its allies can rely on in a clear message to the Gulf and Turkish parties and their allies within Iraq that the allies of Iran are the parties responsible for the imposition of the status quo in the Iraqi arena. Furthermore, despite al-Abadi?s need for the US-Gulf-Turkish support to stand up against his rivals who are close to Iran, this does not mean that these agreements can turn out to be coordination operations to reduce Iranian interference, especially the way it manipulates the decisions that the popular mobilization factions take in Iraq. The Shiite-dominated popular mobilization factions cannot be close to countries that Iran does not want them to be close to. With regard to the reference doctrine, 65% of the popular mobilization factions depend on the authority of Khamenei (Wali al-Faqih) and 25% of them rely on al-Sistani authority since the ideological structure of all the parties of the ruling Shiite National Iraqi Alliance is based on a Shiite jurisprudence that believes in the unity of the sect first and then comes nationalism and patriotism. Therefore, al-Abadi alone cannot stray out of this course, although this saying does not apply relatively to all of the Shiite parties politicians in Iraq, especially the Sadrist movement and Arab Shiites and leaders with non-religious political orientations.


For all these reasons, the Shiite public opinion in Iraq considers any move to curtail popular mobilization in terms of number and equipment by al-Abadi as a betrayal of the doctrine, which represents political suicide in particular, especially that Iraq is at the threshold of new elections.


The Shiite Islamic Media Union, which is a gathering of dozens of media organizations with Iranian support and funding, condemns any Iraqi political or media party that accuses the mobilization of terrorism or supporting terrorism through media attacks that cannot be legally held accountable.


Popular Mobilization Components:


It is possible to define the popular mobilization as a group of armed factions of different denominations: national, political, financial and military. It is an organization that is not regulated with the contexts and instructions of the Iraqi military and police schools and is based on the experiences and exercises of hybrid wars; it?s a group of diverse Sunni, Shiite and minority groups from the Northern Iraqi regions, it consists in fact of three main categories in terms of date of establishment:


1. The category of the Islamic resistance factions, founded after 2003, except for the Badr forces, which was founded before, all of which share the tradition of depending on Khamenei authority and have a systematic and partisan connection with Iran and have the largest share in the administration and leadership of the directorates and sections of the Popular Mobilization Authority. In addition, most of them are factions fighting outside the borders of Iraq and carried weapons against the regime of Saddam and resisted the US occupation of Iraq and are linked to Iran in terms of reference, politically as well as financially, except for the Saraya al-Salam faction affiliated to the Sadrist movement.   

2. The category of mobilization factions, formed after the withdrawal of US forces in 2011 and later on defined as the new awakenings. They were formed under the executive order (No. 9 /s) that was issued under the Prime Minister's Office number: M.R.N / D / 2 / S /520 /14 on April 23, 2014, and therefore they are called Al-Maliki crowd, they are crowds of national, religious, regional and tribal diversity.

3. The category of volunteers of Jihad Fatwa, which was founded on 13 June 2014, all of whom are followers of Mr. Sistani's reference from the Iraqi provinces and the military doctrine under which it was based. They came up with religious fatwas that were devoted to a specific purpose and were not based on a doctrinal structure subjected to supervised training run by directorates of moral guidance in the military establishment.


The purpose behind the formation of the factions of this category is supposed to be a transitional phase and not to strengthen the authorities and not for strategic objectives that are added to the formations of the Iraqi security and defense system. Therefore, some of the brigades of Abbas combat group, the largest military formations of this category, started integrating with the military forces in the Iraqi army. Therefore, Sadr's initiative came in August 2017, after his visit to Saudi Arabia, which stated that the mobilization is to be integrated with the military, but this necessarily needs to subject the mobilization formations to the training institutions of the army and not to rely on the basis of quick voluntary work, which would shake military discipline and end the educational and intellectual system upon which the work of military forces is based. This is costly and will also force the government to bear political conflict with the formations and parties that reject the initiative to integrate the mobilization in the system of military and security system.

4. Factions of Tribal or Local Sunni Mobilization, or the Defense Mobilization, all linked to the Popular Mobilization in Baghdad. They coordinate with the leadership of each province according to its geographical location. In Anbar, the international coalition forces have contributed to arming and training these factions, a number of which have about 25 thousand members with 43 armed factions that are spread in the provinces of Diyala, Kirkuk, Saladin, Nineveh, Anbar and Baghdad Belts. Some of them were established according to the executive order for the new awakenings and others were established according to executive order 91 on 24 February 2016.

5. Factions of the mobilization of minorities and elements, the mobilization of Yazidis, the mobilization of Christians, the mobilization of Turkmen, the mobilization of Shabak and the mobilization of Kaka'i, some are related to the popular mobilization, others are related to Kurdistan Iraq and few of them are related to the international coalition forces.

Popular Mobilization law:

The Law of the Popular Mobilization Authority was approved by the Iraqi Council of Representatives in November 26, 2016 despite the disapproval of the Sunni MPs. The Mobilization Law stated that the Mobilization Forces would be an auxiliary force alongside the Iraqi armed forces and would be linked to the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. This law was approved in honor of all the Iraqi people who volunteered in defending Iraq by protecting the Iraqi state from ISIS attacks and from all of those who are against it and its new regime; to honor those who contributed in preventing the various conspiracies, in helping prevent armed conflict among Iraqi forces, preserving the law, the power of the State and its security and preserving weapons under the exclusive supervision of the state; and also in honor of all those who were killed in defense of Iraq including volunteers, Popular Mobilization and Tribal Mobilization.

The adoption of the Popular Mobilization Law came under political pressure and in an urgent manner, which was not militarily and legally studied.

 Even though the Popular Mobilization Authority was linked to the Office of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces in Iraq, the law lacks instructions that will be the cause of disagreement between the three Mobilization categories. Armed popular organizations lack the reference chain system and hierarchy because they do not have sufficient academic officers for disciplinary dealings that define tasks and responsibilities among individuals within small and large formations. This is followed by the complexity of the agreement on military discipline and on the number of each faction, on age, irregular camps, irregular factories and development workshops, warehouses, weapon types, deployment, geographical distribution, honorary ranks, uniforms, level of training and armament, names of brigades and flags, problematic cross-border factions, political participation, and statements outside the context of diplomatic outlets. The Popular Mobilization Authority does not have a Joint Staff and a General Staff, which is linked to the Chief of the Army Staff and the General Commander of the Armed Forces. Its work will be outside mobilization and the general context of the regular armed forces.

A debate in Iraq has been raised since September 23, 2014 about the fate of the Popular Mobilization Factions after the victory over ISIS, what action would they take? What direction will they follow? What are their reactions after colliding with the US laws and will? What will their supporters and the Iranian leadership do in Iraq? Among many other questions raised by the Shiite community first and then the rest of the other components and the general public, and for which political and cultural elites seek to know the answers.

After sweeping ISIS out of Iraq, these factions, headed by the Badr Organization, will take more than one direction. The options will diverge as it always happens at the end of any beneficial results and joint actions. They will be divided into several directions, while acknowledging the danger of weapons being outside the law. Generally, whatever formations can there be, the directions they will take might be as follows:


1. Regional National Guard: They are the armed elements who have participated in the war against terrorism. They have chosen to merge into the regular institutions. Loyalties and elements had to declare their allegiance to the law instead of the faction or the current. They will end up being insulted and possibly threatened or even eliminated and detained by the radical wing of that faction.


2. Armed Doctrinal Factions: They consider themselves as Marja? soldiers and protectors of the creed. They are often characterized by fanaticism and extremism. They refuse disarmament and merging into the regular establishment and continue instead recruiting elements and putting them in training camps to fight and hold arms. These are the natural heirs of the Iranian wing in Iraq or the secret organization to which most of the faction leaderships belong. These armed elements have established strong and joint relations with the Iranian government.


3. Some of the factions would be more open and tolerant in the way they deal with law, if they succeed to build-up a mass majority. They will work to establish a political movement and may also establish a new political party, which will be engaged into broad alliances and characterized by high pragmatism. It will seek to adapt to the new situation in Iraq and with all of the Iraqi state?s form and power balances after ISIS!!


According to Carnegie Center?s study, which revolves around ?Popular Mobilization and the future of Iraq,? the Prime Minister al-Abadi has been unable to wrest control of Popular Mobilization funding from al-Muhandis and al-Amiri?s hands. In February 2016, al-Abadi attempted to regain some administrative control by replacing al-Muhandis with retired Lieutenant General Mohsen al-Kaaby. Although al-Muhandis lost his functional title within the Popular Mobilization, he remained a prominent figure and still has an impact on resource allocation. The reason behind his ability to maintain this influence is the support he is receiving from Khamenei loyalty group, including influential figures such as al-Maliki and al-Amiri. Actually the Popular Mobilization committee?s website is still reporting news about al-Muhandis and his statements, and rarely mentions al-Kaaby. Instead of referring to him as vice president, the website identified him as ?a leader in the Popular Mobilization.?


It seems that Prime Minister al-Abadi and his supporters, who are caught up in the contradictions of the various factions of the Popular Mobilization Forces, are undertaking a median path. With all the pressures they are facing, it has been shown that the strategy of walking in the middle of the road they are adopting is practical and feasible on short term basis. Al-Abadi seeks to exert influence on the large number of the autonomous Popular Mobilization deputies so that the state can regain control, as stated in the order issued by al-Abadi, where he defined the Popular Mobilization as a security institution that belongs to the state. He also declared in front of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015 that he considered the Popular Mobilization as part of what he called the Iraqi security forces. However, al-Abadi faced difficulties in asserting his influence on paramilitary organizations, despite issuing the order.


Since he held office until April 2015, al-Abadi had little interference in the Popular Mobilization?s financial affairs or recruitment policies. He did not intervene in the Mobilization?s pragmatism to expel the ISIS from Diyala province, areas of northern Babylon, or the town of Balad and its surrounding areas in the southern province of Saladin. In fact, the Popular Mobilization was free for a period of time, and even army units in Babylon, Diyala and Tikrit surrendered reluctantly to his will.


As for the Kurds? fears of the independence of the Popular Committee, Michael Knights, researcher at the Washington Institute, wrote about building a ?joint force? to control liberated Yazidi cities. As for Kurdistan Regional Government, the Popular Mobilization Forces? progress toward Yazidi areas represents a difficult stage. Yazidis were exterminated because of the failure of the security mechanism adopted by the Kurdistan Regional Government in areas such as Sinjar, Kairouan and al-Qahtaniyah. Although the government has been successful in liberating Sinjar, it has been in conflict since then with Yazidi Sinjar Resistance Units and the fighters of Kurdistan Workers? Party in the region. Over the past year, the Peshmerga forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) established themselves 20 kilometers away from northern Yazidi towns and have monitored the Popular Mobilization Forces and its control over the area. In the early days of the second Operation of Muhammad Rasulullah, it was reported that the head of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Masoud Barzani, told officials in Sinjar that ?the Popular Mobilization Forces must not enter these Yazidi areas.? The progress made by these forces has shown that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is in a vulnerable position. The Popular Mobilization Forces may call for the evaluation of the Kurdish control in other disputed areas such as Tuz Khurmatu, northern Diyala, and the Nineveh Plain in eastern Mosul. Kurdish leaders have suggested that a Kurdish red line may have been bypassed. The former Iraqi Foreign Affairs Minister and prominent figure in the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Hoshyar Zebari, expressed Kurdish concerns in this regard. ?We are witnessing an expansion of the Popular Mobilization Forces not only on the borders of Kurdistan Region, but also within the region itself,? he told al-Sharqiya news Channel on 30 May.


Problems impeding the application of the Popular Mobilization law:

1.               The great percentages specific for each faction and each component.

2.               Geography of proliferation.

3.               Heavy and medium disarmament.

4.               Honorary ranks.

5.               Names and banners changing.

6.               Age and physical and health condition.

7.               Educational and academic achievement.

8.               Double-function and salary.

9.               Party work and political activity.

10.   Cross-national border factions.


Popular Mobilization Committee:


The committee was formed after the fall of Mosul and was legally and financially linked to the national security adviser. The committee is run and led by national security adviser Faleh al-Fayadh. The deputy director for operations, who runs the Popular Mobilization Forces? military operations, is Jamal Jaafar Ibrahim Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. He was elected as MP in the House of Representatives of the Dawa Party list in the 2010 general elections. He is considered as the coordinator between Iraq and Iran. A number of Iranian leaders and advisers are training and providing military advice to the Popular Forces during the military operations against ISIS.