The Al-Arabiya satellite station published an Iraqi government document last week revealing that Baghdad had established an “independent military formation” in Iraq’s security forces, beyond Defense Ministry control. Dating to February, the order states that the Popular Mobilization Front (Hashd al-Shaabi or PMF), a primarily Shiite militia coalition, would continue to receive government funding and report directly to the commander of the armed forces – namely Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The PMF has received official support for at least the last two years, but the order represents a formalization of the coalition’s presence in government, and with it, the presence of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The PMF was established in June 2014 after the Iraqi military and police were overwhelmed by the Islamic State (IS) in northern, central, and western Iraq. And though the Iraqi government has equipped and funded the PMF since its creation, and will continue to do so under the recent order, its main patron from the start has been Iran – particularly Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). In 2009, for example, the U.S. Treasury designated its operations director for serving as an advisor to the head of the IRGC’s external wing, the Quds Force.
The PMF is dominated by Iran-backed militias that targeted U.S. and coalition troops during Iraq’s occupation. Today, as the PMF and other Iraqi forces gain ground against IS, IRGC-backed militias are poised to become the preeminent forces in the country. Iraq will have a bifurcated military, one supported and trained by the U.S. and the other under the direction of the Islamic Republic.
While the document says the PMF will be barred from political activity, Abadi may not be able to enforce that prohibition. These militias have operated outside the law for years, and simply placing them under the prime minister’s nominal control is insufficient to rein them in.
It is a dangerous prospect: PMF commanders swear allegiance to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Qassem Soleimani, chief of the IRGC’s Quds Force. The leader of one of the PMF’s constituent groups has gone so far as to say he would overthrow the Iraqi government if Khamenei ordered him to.
The PMF’s integration into government poses a challenge to policymakers aiming to support Iraq’s central government, but without empowering Iran’s aggression. Congress first needs to affirm to Baghdad that no U.S. funds or arms may flow to the PMF, but only to established, legitimate forces like the ISF. U.S. lawmakers should also carefully watch for the appointments of ministers affiliated with militia groups (the outgoing interior minister, for example, is a member of the IRGC-backed Badr Organization).
More broadly, the administration and Congress should be skeptical of the PMF doing Tehran’s bidding to further destabilize the region. They should condition aid to Baghdad on not transferring funds or weapons to the PMF, and should demand that troops trained by the U.S. not be integrated into it. A parallel military organization that grows beyond its purpose threatens not only Iraq but major U.S. allies in the region, and America’s key regional interests themselves. Formally integrating the PMF into the Iraqi armed forces enables Tehran to consolidate its hold on Baghdad, allowing it to further its broader ambitions of regional hegemony.
Tyler Stapleton is deputy director for congressional relations at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Amir Toumaj is a research analyst. Follow Amir on Twitter @AmirToumaj.