Iraq’s Shiite militias try to convert military victory into political power

In a calmer Iraq, political players are pushing for national unity, and Shiite militias who were key to defeating ISIS are swapping their fatigues for suits. But can they have broad appeal if their main claim to fame is military?

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Campaign posters for Iraqi parliament candidate Ahmed al-Asadi, the former spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Forces, Iraq's Shiite militias, hang near a traffic circle in Baghdad April 17. Mr. Asadi is one of 500 former PMF members trying to convert their battlefield success against ISIS into political influence.

At the entrance to one of Baghdad’s biggest amusement parks is an election banner for Hadi al-Amiri, senior commander of the mainly Shiite militias that helped vanquish Islamic State jihadists and now aim to win Iraqis’ votes.

A guard at the gate shrugs at the banner’s having been given such prominent placement, where hundreds of thousands of voters will see it before parliamentary elections on May 12.

“They own the place,” laughs the guard, tongue-in-cheek, about Iraq’s ubiquitous militias, when asked about the banner at a park run by the Baghdad municipality. “They own everything, so they are free to put it here.”

Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), known in Arabic as hashd al-shaabi, don’t “own” everything in Iraq. But since being formed from volunteers in mid-2014 to help repel the ISIS invasion, the militias – originally called to arms by a fatwa from Iraq’s most powerful Shiite cleric, and beneficiaries of support and advisers from Iran – have seen their numbers and influence grow.

As Iraq now enters its first post-ISIS election, the PMF are trying to convert military victory and popular goodwill into political appeal at the ballot box as they compete with a wide spectrum of political players. Analysts say candidates linked to the PMF will get a boost from their role crushing ISIS, but that a year after victory was declared their influence should not be over-stated.

The PMF have often been viewed, and criticized, as sectarian. But as levels of violence diminish nationwide and bread-and-butter issues come to the fore, candidates from their ranks are espousing unity between Iraq’s majority Shiites and minority Sunnis and Kurds.

Analysts say that the PMF's popularity peaked last spring, after ISIS was finally pushed out of Mosul. But some 500 candidates linked to the PMF, who traded their uniforms for smart business suits, are among nearly 7,000 people vying for the 329 seats in parliament. No uniformed members of Iraq’s security forces are allowed to stand. 

Lots of 'street cred'

“These guys are trying to cash in on their sacrifices, which have to be admired, and the fact is they have a lot of street cred now,” says Sajad Jiyad, head of the Al-Bayan Center for Planning and Studies, a think tank in Baghdad.

“They fought and spilt blood, and toiled and sweat and did not sit in plush offices. They were out there, and that is appreciated,” says Mr. Jiyad. “However, there are no grounds really to see the whole country falling in behind the hashd.

“You can’t use the credit for liberating, for winning a war, for too much,” says Jiyad. “Fact is, last year the war ended, so they rode the crest of the wave … but suddenly people are like, ‘We are liberated, but there are no jobs.’ Or some people living in Baghdad are saying, ‘OK, there is normalcy, but voting you guys in, what’s that going to do for me?’”

Mr. Amiri today heads the Fatah Alliance, the largest grouping of PMF cadres, which is expected to do well. So is Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Victory Alliance – named after the victory over ISIS. But the PMF faces the challenge of convincing voters that it can provide services and bolster national unity just as well as it held ground on the front lines.

Amiri has a head start as a politician, as a former Iran-based commander of the Badr Brigades, the Iraqi militia that fought Saddam Hussein, and later as an Iraqi minister of transport who has visited the White House.

Yet these days the PMF must carefully navigate their desire to be seen as postwar nation-builders without appearing to clash with the role of the Iraqi state, even as they maintain their own parallel command structure and autonomy. To broaden their electoral appeal, the PMF’s engineering units have been actively working on infrastructure projects, which are highlighted on their websites.

'Who liberated the country?'

The election “is going to be about who liberated the country,” says an Iraqi analyst close to the government who asked not to be named. “They will say, ‘We had this many martyrs, and so-and-so cities were liberated,’” says the analyst, noting that Prime Minister Abadi, and his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki, who was in charge when ISIS invaded, are also claiming credit.

“That’s going to be the flavor of the election, despite the fact that people don’t really want to hear about that. People want to hear about services and job creation,” says the analyst. “Once again, it’s all about the economy. But what are these folks going to talk about? The military.”

Polls indicate the PMF enjoy widespread popularity, certainly among Shiites and even among some Sunnis who credit Iraq’s security forces – backed up by the 150,000-strong PMF – with helping rid them of the ISIS menace that seized control of one-third of the country.

A nationwide poll of more than 1,000 Iraqis in March found that the Iraqi Army had the highest level of trust among state institutions – 88 percent of those polled in Baghdad and 91 percent in “liberated areas” – a leap from 2014 when the US-trained force crumbled before the ISIS advance.

Mr. Abadi’s leadership saw a 79 percent “high favorability” rating, according to the poll commissioned by the 1001 Iraqi Thoughts organization, though two-thirds of Iraqis had not yet decided for whom they will vote. Amiri rated the third most popular figure, with a 60 percent favorability rating.

Outside of the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq, the PMF were the second-most trusted organization in Iraq. And most surprisingly, according to this poll, 65 percent of residents of “liberated provinces” – nearly all of them Sunnis – had “high confidence” in the PMF.

Such results come as Iraqis frequently describe how tired they are of the sectarianism that has torn apart their society since 2006, especially, and how today they reject those divisions. Some PMF groups have been accused of severe human rights abuses, targeting Sunnis suspected of being ISIS members or sympathizers. But PMF officials point out a degree of sectarian balance in the group itself, and state that one-quarter of their members are Sunni.

Fine line on Iran

Jiyad, of the Al-Bayan Center, says that appeal will work with some voters. “They are liked in Sunni areas, and Sunnis will vote for Sunnis on the hashd lists,” he says, adding that “people in the south will vote for hashd politicians who they sent their sons to fight and die with.”

But he suggests the PMF do have a fine line to walk regarding their tight links to and faith in Iran.

“Are elements of the hashd, maybe 50 or 60 percent, under the heavy influence of Iran, if not the control of Iran? Yeah, that is true,” Jiyad says, but he adds: “Would they, right now, come out and clash with the PM and the government, or act against Iraq’s interest? No they wouldn’t.…

“The fact is, they are a component of Iraqi society,” Jiyad continues. “They aren’t Iranians. They are people who believe in this country, but who also believe that Iran is acting in Iraq’s interests – and that’s the vision they have.”

So then where does the PMF sit in the imagination of Iraqis?

“In the heart,” says Ahmed al-Asadi, a former PMF spokesman and MP for Baghdad who, wrist wrapped with prayer beads, wears the carefully tailored suit and large watch typical of many Iraqi politicians.

“We have achieved success with hashd al-shaabi, but we are not using this achievement as our main principle,” says Mr. Asadi, who, like a number of others, was a politician long before joining the PMF. He says it is “natural” for militia members like him to finish their “mission” fighting ISIS and then return to politics.

“The role of hashd is known to everyone, but we don’t want to use it for our purposes…. We want to keep hashd away from the political process, because hashd is a military enterprise,” he says.

But is it possible to separate the military and political in Iraq, postwar?

“No, it’s not. It’s very hard. We know that, and the other [non-PMF candidates] know that, and that is why they are angry,” says Asadi, chuckling at that political reality in Iraq that benefits PMF-linked candidates.

Manifestation of 'things that are wrong'

It remains to be seen whether the PMF will win electoral success in a country where armed groups don’t traditionally do well when they move into politics, says Renad Mansour, a research fellow at the Chatham House think tank in London.

He notes that the PMF have maneuvered themselves into a unique legal position, in which they have a seat on the Iraqi National Security Council – alongside the ministers of interior and defense – but do not fall under the formal Iraqi military chain of command.

The government paid the PMF $1.63 billion last year, he says, and a law passed in late 2016 allows its 50-plus brigades to keep their militia names, flags, and leaders.

“The problem with the PMF isn’t the PMF as such, [but as] an extreme manifestation of the many things that are wrong in Iraq,” says Mr. Mansour, contacted in northern Iraq.

“Even though you have this mantle of Shiite militias entering politics, Iraq has been very much warlords and business people intersecting with politics; that defines the Iraqi power process,” says Mansour.

“In that sense, the PMF represents a problem for Iraq because it symbolizes the weakness of the state to be able to control these blurred boundaries,” adds Mansour. “The PMF itself is not one group, it’s so many different actors and interests and ideologies competing with each other. But at the core it represents one of the main things that has been wrong since 2003.”

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