EXPLAINER: Who are Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces hit in alleged Israeli strike?

EXPLAINER: Who are Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces hit in alleged Israeli strike?
Government leaders in Iraq are now tied to the PMF for their own survival. / CC: Tasnim News Agency
By bne Gulf bureau April 20, 2024

Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), also known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, is an official component of the country's security apparatus. In the early hours of April 20, the PMF reported a significant explosion at its Kalso military base, located approximately 50 kilometres south of Baghdad near Babylon.

According to two security sources, the base was subjected to an airstrike believed to be from Israel, but neither confirmed nor denied. The large airstrike resulted in the death of one PMF fighter and injuries to six others while also leaving a huge crater in the middle of the base, according to bne IntelliNews investigations.

Although relatively new on the regional battlegroup scene, the PMF have been prominent in recent news for being targeted by Israel and the US while also launching rockets back at Israel’s port in Haifa. With Iraq becoming the pitch in which Iran, the US and Israel face off, who are the groups which have been the target of several attacks in recent weeks?  

The Popular Mobilization Forces have a complex and significant history within Iraq's recent socio-political landscape, deeply intertwined with the country's security issues and sectarian dynamics. Here’s an overview of the PMF's history:

The PMF were officially formed in June 2014 following a fatwa (religious decree) issued by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (a counterweight to Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei), which called for volunteers to fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This decree was a response to the fall of Mosul and the threat ISIS posed to Baghdad and other regions. The volunteers were predominantly Shi'a Muslims, and the force quickly became an umbrella group for various militia groups, some of which had existed before ISIS's rise and fully supported by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

The PMF played a crucial role in the fight against ISIS, participating in several key battles, including the liberation of Tikrit and other strategic towns. Their involvement was critical in regaining territory from ISIS control, which eventually led to the declared defeat of ISIS in Iraq in December 2017.

The PMF's effectiveness in these operations was attributed to their local knowledge and the commitment of their fighters. Still, these battles also raised concerns about sectarian violence and human rights abuses.

Recognising their role in combating ISIS and their growing influence, the Iraqi government sought to institutionalise the PMF as a new security layer for the country. In 2016, the Iraqi Parliament passed a law incorporating the PMF into the country’s security forces. This law aimed to bring the PMF under state control, giving them salaries and a formal role in Iraq's military structure. However, some groups within the PMF maintained independent operations and allegiance primarily to their commanders or external backers, particularly Iran, which has caused constant tension about who this group is now fully intergrated in the military structures left by Saddam Hussein and the US occupation preceding the Iraqi government.

Following their battlefield successes, the PMF rapidly transformed into a significant political entity. In the meantime, leaders and representatives of various PMF militias have gained considerable political power, winning seats in the national parliament and influencing Iraqi politics. This political ascendancy has raised concerns about the potential for a militarised political system and the challenges of disbanding or fully integrating such powerful militias into the regular armed forces.

The April 20 attack by Israel on one military base outside Babylon is the latest incident of low-key attacks on Iraqi sovereign territory in recent months since the initial Hamas attack on Israel on October 7. However, the origins of the PMF have been long in the making, and what they have become is not what many people understand.

Earlier on February 9,  militia group Kata’ib Hezbollah, a group affiliated to the PMF, said the US and other coalition forces in the region will be held responsible for the consequences of the killing of two leaders of the group in a drone attack east of Baghdad, Alsumaria News reported. Explosions were heard on April 17 in the evening in the East of the Iraqi capital, which later turned out to be drone strikes by US forces on a car carrying four members of the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), including two leaders and a driver.

The headquarters of the US Central Command, CENTCOM, officially claimed responsibility, saying the attack was carried out in response to the killing of American soldiers that Washington blames on Iran-backed militias in the region. CENTCOM confirmed in a statement that one person was killed in the strike, claiming the person was involved in attacks against American forces in the region.

In early January 2024, a US airstrike targeted a PMF base in eastern Baghdad, resulting in the deaths of two commanders and injuries to six others. This attack has been widely attributed to US forces, although the specific details and justifications for the strike remain subjects of controversy. That event is part of a broader pattern of confrontations, with the PMF frequently accusing the US of aggression and violations of Iraqi sovereignty.

In response to US actions, the head of the PMF, Faleh al-Fayyad, confirmed in 2023 a retaliatory stance against what is perceived as US aggression, particularly concerning attacks in the regions of Akashat and Al-Qaim in western Anbar. This has been framed as a defence of national dignity and sovereignty, with the significant public and governmental backlash against the US presence and actions in Iraq​.

The Iraqi government has also been vocal about these incidents, with the Iraqi Foreign Minister explicitly stating that recent US military actions, including airstrikes on PMF sites, represent a violation of Iraq's sovereignty. This has led to a strained relationship between Iraq and the United States, further complicated by the broader geopolitical tensions in the region, including the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, which influences US military policies in the Middle East​.

The PMF has slowly but surely emulated the Iranian IRGC in several ways, becoming increasingly connected to the military and economic structures of post-ISIS Iraq. Similarly, the organisation was created as a bulwark of offensive military operations, but it has evolved into a power base outside the realms of the post-American occupation. This is quite apparent with the sheer lack of control the central Baghdad or regional Kurdish governments have over the group in recent months, where it is clearly in confrontation with the Al-Sudani regime in Bagdad and has been in a string of meetings in Washington, including with President Joe Biden. To say the PMF is an extension of Iran’s IRGC would probably be disingenuous to the group, which is the only serious force in Iraq besides the Iraqi army, which was shown to be weak on the ISIS takeover a decade ago when many of the troops fled fighting the group leaving the task to the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters until the creation of the PMF.  That said, the PMF’s role in the offence and defence of the post-war Iraqi state is now pretty secure, with the official government structures increasingly relying on the group for their own survival.