Who are the Hashd al-Shaabi?

By Geoff Moore

The Hashd al-Shaabi, known in English as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), are a largely opaque entity to people outside of Iraq. Created in June 2014 as “a conglomeration of some 40 militias,” the PMUs were organized in response to the rapid spread of the Islamic State throughout Iraq. On June 12th of that year, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa which has been understood as a “call to arms” against IS.[1] The fatwa is a religious edict which has galvanized support for the anti-IS fight among Iraqi Shi’a. Sistani has long been one of the most influential individuals in Iraq due to his large number of followers in the country. The Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, has acknowledged that the PMUs are a part of the state, parallel to the army.[2] These militias, legitimized by Sistani’s fatwa and Abadi, are now institutionalized within the Ministry of Interior.

Soon after the United States and its international coalition invaded Iraq in 2003, the controversial de-Ba’athification program dismantled the existing military. Later, when the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) were rebuilt, it was done with the intention of preventing ethnic or sectarian tension within the military. General David Petraeus said in early 2007 that the ISF should be “relatively free of ethnic and sectarian bias.”[3] However, in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, Olga Oliker of RAND said at roughly the same time that there was “no question [that some military personnel] are also members of sectarian and ethnic militias,” including the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Shi’a Badr Corps and Mahdi Army.[4]

Clearly the situation on the ground in 2007 is far different from today. However, the ethnic and sectarian mix of the Iraqi fighting forces, be they militia or army, must be considered when their enemy is a Sunni extremist group. The very legitimacy of the ISF may depend on a battalion’s ethnic or sectarian composition or leadership in a given battle. Militias do not necessarily have this constraint. Most are homogenously Shi’a (although the PMUs do include Sunni fighters) and the existence of the PMUs under the Interior Ministry umbrella allows them to claim legitimacy while operating with little transparency. This leads to the main fear (which has already been documented) of the PMUs: that they will commit atrocities in Sunni majority areas, under the guise of fighting IS and with their actions appearing to be state-sanctioned.

The Institute for the Study of War created this helpful map of territorial control in Iraq, which shows how the Shi’a militias have advanced north of Baghdad, while the ISF presence is strong in the capital and extends through the south. However, when compared to a map showing the religious composition of Iraq, we can see how the entry of Shi’a militias into Sunni areas can create friction, resentment, or worse.

Another point of friction, and one that can also be seen on the ISW map, is the town of Tuz Khurmatu. This town sits between Arab and Kurdish Iraq, and is among the territories still disputed by the Iraqi Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government. In April, clashes broke out between the PMUs and the Peshmerga, resulting in nearly 40 deaths, mainly on the PMU side.[5] The fighting ended relatively quickly, possibly due to a cease-fire orchestrated by Iran.[6] According to Reuters, the town has become physically divided as local Shi’a Turkmen have aligned themselves with the militias rather than their Kurdish neighbors.[7] This kind of division has led to the multiplying of suspicions on each side.

Although Sistani’s fatwa has mobilized tens of thousands of Iraqi Shi’a, the militias are not a new phenomenon in Iraq. In fact, Sistani did not actually appeal directly to the Shi’a, but called for the defense of the country by its citizens.[8] This has turned out to be a highly interesting political move, because placing this milieu of militias under the umbrella of the Ministry of Interior complicates the historical relationship that neighboring Iran has with militias such as the Badr Organization, Kataib Hezbollah, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq.[9] Renad Mansour wrote in November of last year that this was part of Abadi’s reasoning behind incorporating the Hashd al-Shaabi/PMUs within the state.[10] However, this has not been smooth sailing. Badr controls the Diyala province, and holds influential positions in the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Human Rights.[11] As Michael Rubin described it, “the problem isn’t simply the Shi’ite militias per se; it is all militias answering more to politicians than to unified entities.”[12]

Recently, there has been talk of incorporating the PMUs into the Ministry of Defense. This demobilization would bring the militias into the armed forces and shift decision making authorities away from militia leaders to the Ministry of Defense and by extension to the government.[13] This is theoretically uncomplicated because the MoD and the MoI are both within the Iraqi Security Forces (MoD contains army, navy, and air force while MoI contains Border Enforcement and Police). However, it is unclear whether the militias will have any incentive to agree to such a move. A main reason they were brought into the MoI was that they were more reliable against IS after the army’s failure to protect Mosul. Yet, it should be remembered that the PMUs are not one organization, but a collection of many. This has allowed for some dysfunction including recent clashes between Sadrists and Kataib Hezbollah in the Babil province.[14]

The coming months or years will help to make clear the intentions of militia leaders such as Badr’s Hadi al-Amiri. If Rubin is correct, the future of the PMUs depends on the political ambitions and influence of individuals like Amiri. On the other hand, true integration of the PMUs within the military could vastly change the security landscape of Iraq.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/14/world/middleeast/iraq.html?_r=0

[2] http://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/iraq-abadi/ ; http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=61986

[3] Quoted in: “Stand Up and Be Counted: The Continuing Challenge of Building the Iraqi Security Forces.” US House of Representatives, Committee on Armed Services. Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. pg. 57. http://democrats-armedservices.house.gov/index.cfm/files/serve?File_id=2bfb0934-1745-4c80-8e21-205915e97cfb.

[4] Oliker, Olga. “Iraqi Security Forces: Defining Challenges and Assessing Progress.” Testimony presented before the House Armed Services Committee. RAND Corporation. Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on March 28, 2007. http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/testimonies/2007/RAND_CT277.pdf.

[5] http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/05/turkey-iraq-tuz-khurmatu-new-sunni-shiite-front.html

[6] http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/05/turkey-iraq-tuz-khurmatu-new-sunni-shiite-front.html

[7] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-town-idUSKCN0YM13O

[8] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/luay-al-khatteeb/what-do-you-know-about-si_b_5576244.html

[9] http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/02/iraq-popular-demobilisation-160224050939178.html ; http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/05/sadrist-stances-iraqi-shiites-opposing-iranian-policy.html ;

[10] http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=61986

[11] http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/?fa=61016

[12] https://www.aei.org/publication/democracies-and-militias-dont-mix/

[13] http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/02/iraq-popular-demobilisation-160224050939178.html

[14] http://www.nrttv.com/AR/Detail.aspx?Jimare=21966

 Image from: REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani (http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/ru/contents/articles/originals/2015/07/iraq-popular-mobilization-units-sectarian-criticism.html)




  1. Excellent article, really well-documented. Just a side note: the figures of Sunni/Shia population on the Columbia.edu map are very controversial, and they are arguably bent in favor of the Shia. According to other demographic sources, Sunni Muslims (Kurds and Arabs) make up more than 40% of the population. Here, they are just 31%. A comparison of the two maps, proves your point, nonetheless, as it shows the presence of Shia militias in largely Sunni areas.


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