Iraq’s security dilemma and the intractable problem of the PMF

An Iraqi police man walks towards the remains of the Al-Nuri mosque, where the Islamic State caliphate was proclaimed, in the old city of Mosul, Iraq, 21 September 2017. After almost nine months of heavy fighting Mosul was declared liberated from the so-called Islamic State in July 2017 leaving its western part mostly reduced to rubble and inhabitable. Oliver Weiken/DPA/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Nearly a year on from legislation to integrate the
Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, or al-Hashd al-Shaabi) into the
Iraqi security apparatus, they now constitute half of the security forces nominally
under governmental control.

The predominantly Shia PMF were once the most
important players in preventing the ISIS advance of 2014 on Baghdad and played
a widely acknowledged role in subsequent efforts to liberate ISIS-controlled areas. 

Yet, as the threat of ISIS recedes and stabilization
becomes the number one priority in Iraq, political disputes over the future of
the PMF are intensifying in Baghdad and reverberating throughout the country.

The reasons for the dispute lie with concerns about
the true loyalties of those that command the PMF. Those concerns centre on
enduring sectarian loyalties that may trump the national effort to rebuild the
country for all its citizens.

On the ground in Mosul

The PMF debate is particularly striking in Mosul.
Efforts to rebuild security here have drawn a significant amount of
international interest. For Iraqi and coalition security professionals, Mosul
is seen as a ‘canary in the mineshaft’ for the success of on-going efforts to
defeat ISIS and create stability in Iraq more broadly. 

As one of the conflict epicentres and a majority Sunni
province, the security situation in Mosul today is exceedingly fragile and
exacerbated by the presence of sectarian-oriented Shia PMF elements.

Beyond the obvious sectarian tensions that dominate
the discourse around the PMF, the presence of these groups constitute subtler
but perhaps even more profound challenges.

Unity of command

Iraqi and US commanders see things similarly but
through different lenses. From the US perspective, one of the biggest
challenges to providing security and stability is the necessity to achieve
unity of command.

During the clearance of Mosul, the unlikely coalition
of PMF, Kurdish Peshmerga, western Coalition forces, and other Iraqi security
forces merged around the ouster of ISIS. 

With ISIS militarily defeated, the more complicated
stabilization efforts are suffering from a lack of coordination between units
contributing to the ‘hold’ mission in Mosul. Hold responsibilities, which
include operating checkpoints, targeting suspected ISIS sleeper cells,
investigating criminal networks, and detaining criminals, now fall to a motley
crew of subsidiary organizations. 

The political fault lines that emanate from their
parent ministries in Baghdad determine their loyalties. The PMF is believed to
be heavily influenced by the Ministry of the Interior (MoI), which is dominated
by the pro-Iranian Badr Organization. MoI organizations, in turn, have proven
unwilling to cooperate with security forces operating under the Ministry of

To complicate matters further, it is widely recognized
that there are deep political and ideological fissures between groups within
the PMF, with individual groups loyal to various (and often opposing) political
and clerical leaders and seeking different political dispensations in a
post-ISIS Iraq.

Operationally speaking, this means that coordination
among and between PMF units and adjacent security organizations is difficult
and in places, non-existent.

For these reasons, and despite a task organization
that places PMF units in Mosul nominally under Iraqi army control, some senior
security leaders have
indicated that they have little influence in how
or where they operate, and the spectre of malign Iranian influence weighs

The relationship between the security forces and the

Iraqi security leaders in Mosul see a separate but
related issue as their main concern in the post-ISIS stabilization effort.

In an interview, Major General Najim al-Juburi, the commanding general
of the Ninewah Operations Command (NOC), strongly asserted that the most
important factor in preventing Mosul from becoming a safe-haven once again
for takfiri-jihadism is to ensure there is a good relationship
between the security forces and the local population.

Towards this end, among senior Ninewah political and
security leaders today there is a desire to move quickly towards
community-based policing and the removal of non-local and militarized security
elements from Mosul proper. This includes relocating the Iraqi Army outside of
the city limits.

The recent allegations of war crimes being committed by the 16th Iraqi Army Division are an apt
example of the strategic risk inherent in a prolonged militarized presence in
civil society. This is a risk that Najim is well aware of and wishes to
mitigate by removing both the Iraqi Army and the PMF from city centres
throughout Ninewah Province.

The risk of alienating the local population and
recreating the grievance-laden breeding ground for ISIS resurgence is amplified
by the presence of the PMF in population centres. There is broad consensus that
the PMF are regarded as outsiders.

Much of this consensus emanates from
increasing reports of kidnapping for ransom, illegal seizure of property, and
other forms of harassment allegedly perpetrated by some PMF units.

Some local sources even spoke of fears of the PMF
repopulating Mosul – moving themselves, their families and their friends from
outside the area into abandoned properties – in order to alter the demographic
balance of the city.  

The PMF are nevertheless operating under the auspices
of the Government of Iraq. To most locals, the security forces operating within
the city are the most tangible manifestation of the state, and such abuses – by
both IA and PMF units – confirm the ISIS narrative that the
Government of Iraq is a sectarian puppet of Iran.

PMF units are negatively impacting efforts to secure
the population and stabilize Mosul. Their official connection to the Iraqi
state, their overt sectarian bent, and their increasing criminality all do
lasting harm to the legitimacy of the Government of Iraq with local Maslawis.

Security dilemma

Myriad challenges to stabilizing Mosul will remain for
years, but completely removing the PMF variable from the security equation
would increase the likelihood that the Government of Iraq will be able to
consolidate the gains made in its anti-ISIS campaign.

Ultimately, PMF units comprised of non-locals should
be removed from Ninewah Province, and local Sunni units (referred to as Tribal
Mobilization Forces, or TMF) should be disbanded and their personnel absorbed
into local police forces or other public service apparatuses.

Given the current political forces in Baghdad and
security realities in Mosul, however, an incremental approach is needed – and
likely, all that is possible at the moment. The decision to remove the PMF from
Mosul will be dictated by decisions from Baghdad.  

The US-led coalition could contribute first by
continuing to provide unwavering support to Prime Minister Abadi, giving him a
visible and enduring commitment of military advisors, material support, and
access to resources for capacity building and reconstruction efforts. 

recent Kurdish independence referendum and resultant re-taking of Kirkuk by
Iraqi Security Forces have significantly complicated the United States’
political position in Baghdad, but efforts should be made to separate these
Kurd-Arab ethno-political challenges from efforts to prevent an ISIS resurgence
in the Sunni heartlands of Iraq. 

Secondly, back in Mosul, coalition advisors should
continue to engage with political and security leaders to enhance their ability
to understand their operational environment and synchronize operations between
organizations especially as it relates to the different ‘hold’ missions in the
east and west of the city.

More specifically, the US-led coalition should support
Iraqi Security Forces as they try to mitigate criminal and sectarian PMF
activities by conducting joint coalition-Iraqi patrols throughout Mosul
focusing on PMF-held sectors. This support should be conditional, however, upon
legal and ethical behaviour by the Iraqi Security Forces, and the US should
credibly signal that this support will be withdrawn if allegations of war
crimes continue to surface.

If and when PMF units begin to withdraw from Mosul, a
more granular understanding of the security gaps they would be leaving behind
would facilitate a quicker reorganization of security forces and mitigate
opportunities for ISIS regeneration.

Finally, coalition advisors should capitalize on
opportunities to verbally back Iraqi security leaders in meetings that focus on
PMF malfeasance, particularly meetings with PMF leaders present.

Together, these practices would help to shape the
security environment in Mosul by demonstrating to PMF units that they cannot
act with impunity, and would embolden Iraqi Security Forces to counter illicit
and sectarian PMF activity while simultaneously enhancing their operational
capacity to stabilize Mosul.

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