More than six years after the Islamic State (ISIS) wreaked havoc in northern Iraq, the situation seems direr than ever. For a time the presence of ISIS became an ordinary horror in the region. Almost all Iraqis felt the group’s impact, and some ethnic and persecuted populations experienced genocide. Another consequence of ISIS occupying Iraqi territory was the rise of Popular Mobilization Forces (PMUs), whose aim was pushing out the terrorist organization. Despite their valiant fight against ISIS, these groups are now the biggest threat to Iraqi security and must disband.
Under siege by ISIS in 2014, the Iraqi military and defense forces became weak and collapsed, creating a need for new security forces. PMUs were the response to this need and usually fell “under, parallel to, and apart from the state.” Essentially, they became factions of private militias that worked to combat ISIS. Some PMUs later worked to protect the communities and villages they originated from. While these factions effectively fought ISIS and sometimes policed their respective communities, they quickly presented a problem. After the defeat of ISIS, PMUs now pose a threat greater than the services they once provided.
PMUs create divisions in Iraq, as the recently assassinated Iraq expert Hisham Hashemi explained: “The crux of the problem resides in the fact that some factions show greater loyalty to their factions and leaders, than to the state.” The loyalties of PMU members vary and waver, and they often do not put the state first.
Hashemi’s tragic murder is an example of the threat PMUs pose. Hashemi was publicly critical of the PMUs Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, prime suspects in his murder.
In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron and then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo both voiced the need to slowly dismantle PMUs because they are incredibly dangerous and can destabilize Iraq. But dismantling PMUs will be no easy feat, as there is a plethora of them, all armed and many well-funded.
This demilitarization would be dual pronged. First, Iraq must create a formal path for some PMUs to be dismantled and integrated into the Iraqi Armed Forces. This would not only disband some PMUs, but it would also strengthen Iraq’s currently weak military.
Second, Iraq should then focus on those PMUs it cannot integrate into the army. Many currently protect and police their communities, and reintegrating their members into civilian life would be ineffective. Instead, they should be demilitarized and then trained to police communities.
Critically, those PMUs must represent their town’s demography. For instance, Iranian-backed PMUs currently “protect” Christian communities but do not properly serve them. The Iraqi central government should work with Christians and other religious minorities, such as Yazidis, to provide them with proper security forces or at least help them build their own.
This solution partially relies on the safe return and reintegration of the ethnic and religious minorities that ISIS dislocated. The US should fund the rebuilding of Christian and Yazidi villages in northern Iraq and welcome their residents back. Along with newly retrained PMUs acting as police forces, this program would help stabilize these communities.
The demilitarization of strong military groups leads to other challenges. First, PMUs have become a source of income for many. They have also made heroes out of otherwise non-military men, many of whom would likely resist change. To remedy this, the government should offer former PMU members ample income, whether as compensation for their service in the Iraqi Armed Forces or as part of newly formed police forces. Introducing an Iraqi equivalent of the GI Bill could also help integrate these former militiamen into civilian life. This multilevel approach to reintegrating former PMU members would include as many individuals as possible to prevent outliers from resorting to unlawful means of income and stability.
Second, Iraqis don’t trust their central government because the official military failed to protect them from ISIS. Now the government fails to protect them from Turkish airstrikes, and the country suffers from “political and economic paralysis.” So over the coming years, the Iraqi government must provide new social programs, fix leadership and representation issues, and increase transparency.
Of course, some PMUs cannot join the military or become police forces. Some will resist both proposals, and the Iraqi government must deal with such cases through negotiations and compromises.
Earlier this year, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US looks forward to hosting Iraq’s newly appointed prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, to discuss “the future presence of the United States forces in [the] country and how best to support an independent and sovereign Iraq.” This meeting provides the US with an opportunity to press the Iraqi government to spearhead these changes. By doing so, Washington and Baghdad can work toward a more comprehensive security solution that addresses how to dismantle the PMUs.