Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces and the Israel-Hamas War

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Nicolas Camargo

Nicolas Camargo is a recent George Washington University graduate, earning a B.A. in International Affairs with concentrations in Security Policy and the Middle East. He has interned at the Kurdistan Regional Government Representation in the U.S., Saudi Aramco, and the Middle East Policy Council. He has lived in Saudi Arabia and traveled throughout the Gulf States, Jordan, and Turkey.

In the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, armed groups and political parties linked to Iran have become key players in Iraq’s political environment, wielding growing power in parliament, the public, and the security sector. Under the umbrella organization of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), these predominantly Shia groups have, at times, cooperated with the United States on counterterrorism efforts, and at others, have attacked American military installations in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. Cooperation and friction between Washington and the PMF are reflective of the U.S.-Iran relationship, and the current tensions radiating from the Gaza war will influence this dynamic for the foreseeable future. 

Though the PMF was formally established in 2014 through a fatwa by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, its subgroups have been prevalent in Iraq since 2003. These subgroups, which include Katib Hezbollah, have received direct support from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) Quds Force and conducted several high-profile attacks on American forces. Because the U.S. and Iran had diverging goals within Iraq—Washington attempting to establish a new Iraqi government and Tehran aiming to further its influence post-Saddam—this reflected the wider deterioration of their relations by the mid-2000s.  

The PMF emulates the model of Lebanese Hezbollah as the vanguard element of a wider ecosystem of Shia paramilitaries and political parties in Iraq. Comprising approximately 67 factions, including several U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations, the PMF has experienced internal schisms between pro-Iranian and Iraqi nationalist factions, most notably those loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr. Since 2019 they have been formally subordinated to the state as a legal component of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF); however, this has not been reflected in practice. 

Alongside regular Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led coalition, the PMF participated extensively in ground combat against ISIS; however, concerns over human rights abuses against Sunni civilians and sectarianism resulted in their being sidelined from later counterterrorism operations. Since 2015, they have enjoyed increased political influence that has enabled them to maintain a significant armed force outside of state control. 

The defeat of ISIS and the deterioration of U.S.-Iran relations after the withdrawal from the JCPOA created the environment for a resumption of hostilities between PMF factions and U.S. forces in late 2019. This escalation peaked with the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the American assassinations of IRGC General Qasem Soleimani and PMF deputy commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January 2020.    

Attacks continued into the Biden administration at a lower tempo, as PMF elements became embroiled in internal disputes, notably the August 2022 Baghdad clashes where Sadrist forces clashed with both pro-Iranian PMF forces and the ISF. Subsequently, the PMF’s political alliance, the Coordination Framework, nominated Mohammed Al Sudani, a Shia bureaucrat acceptable to both Washington and Tehran, as prime minister. 

Entry into the governing coalition granted the PMF access to economic rents and political power, encouraging them to adopt a more pragmatic position towards the U.S. presence in Iraq, with a halt to attacks on American military facilities for the first few months of 2023. This preceded a significant boost in diplomatic activities by the U.S. embassy with a noted increase in meetings with the Iraqi government and civil society. 

As an organization, the PMF has enjoyed continued growth in hard power and influence under Sudani’s premiership, though some of its subgroups have strongly disapproved of the positive working relationship between the PM and the Biden administration. The presence of the PMF’s political wing in government appears to have had a moderating influence on their actions, with politically-connected militias cautious to avoid undermining the Baghdad government for most of 2023. 

This period of relative calm collapsed when PMF subgroups commenced attacks, this time targeting Israeli-aligned objectives in addition to U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, following the October 7 attack by Hamas. Utilizing the umbrella term of the “Islamic Resistance in Iraq” (IRI), drone attacks against U.S. bases began on October 17, spurred by the purported Israeli explosion at the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza that killed 500 people.  

Claiming attacks under the IRI banner served several purposes: namely, distancing the PMF, an official organ of the Iraqi state, from U.S. retaliation, as well as protecting their political wings in parliament and the coalition government. The use of similar umbrella and “facade” groups as part of a wider strategy of escalation indicates militia coordination and Iranian guidance that balances increasing attacks with containing U.S. reactions.

The Tower 22 Attack on January 28, attributed to Katib Hezbollah, is thus notable for deviating from prior efforts with its expansion to a third country, Jordan, its intentional result of U.S. casualties, and its repercussions for the PMF. Violating the informal red lines of the conflict risked a substantially larger American response, potentially including strikes within Iran itself. The attack also disrupted ongoing talks between Washington and Baghdad on a drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq since the U.S. refused to discuss the future of its footprint in the country while the attacks continued. 

Preventing a large-scale escalation was in the interests of both the Sudani administration and Iran, who were concerned that the IRI had overstepped its bounds and acted recklessly. The Iraqi government coordinated with IRGC Commander General Esmail Qanni on the latter’s visit to Baghdad, where nine of ten militia leaders were influenced to dial down attacks, a pause that has since largely held. For its part, the U.S. limited its retaliation to PMF infrastructure in western Iraq & Syria and, in a rare daytime airstrike in Baghdad proper, the targeted killing of Katib Hezbollah leader Abu Baqir al-Saadi on February 7.The Tower 22 incident highlighted that the PMF is willing and able to target American personnel within and outside of Iraq, and that the U.S. response to such an attack is not limited by political constraints. The United States, Iran, and the PMF share conflicting security and political objectives within Iraq that would be severely undermined in the event of a broader conflict. Continued limited conflict with American forces by the PMF, with Iranian assistance, will likely persist until a ceasefire agreement in Gaza allows for a wider regional de-escalation.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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