The Iraqi state has drawn upon militia-like reserve forces throughout its history to defeat internal and external threats. (1) The use of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, Hashd al-Sha'abi in Arabic), raised in 2014 by a combination of executive orders and religious fatwa, is merely the latest example of this trend. Within the PMF--forming its core, in fact--are older pro-Iranian militias that were previously labeled "Special Groups" (a) by the United States and designated as terrorist organizations in some cases. A broader range of Special Groups now exist than when the U.S. military left Iraq in 2011, underlining the diversification of actors that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force (IRGC-QF) works with in today's Iraq. Unlike previous militias that were tolerated and controlled by the state, the Special Groups are already operating outside the state's ability to monitor or discipline them. Building on six research visits to Iraq in 2018 and 2019, where the author interviewed senior Iraqi political and military figures, this article will provide new data on the state of Iranian-backed Special Groups in Iraq today.
Coming out of the main combat stage of the war against the Islamic State, the Special Groups are growing in economic and political power and are attacking foreign entities on Iran's behalf. A dozen attacks have been launched on U.S. military, diplomatic, and commercial targets in Iraq so far in 2019. (2) Then on May 14, 2019, two Saudi oil pumping stations were struck by long-range explosive drones launched from Jurf as-Sakr, (3) the Baghdad outskirts base of the most powerful Iranian-backed Special Group, Kata'ib Hezbollah (KH), led by U.S.-designated terrorist Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, (4) who is also sought by Interpol and Kuwaiti authorities. (5) The coordinated drone attacks underline KH's graduation as the third major militant force alongside IRGC-QF and Lebanese Hezbollah in Iran's "axis of resistance." Iraq's large population, weak government, and powerful level of IRGC-QF penetration make Iraq the most consequential and fastest-growing arena for Iran's expansion of malign influence in the Middle East.
Pro-Iranian Militias after the U.S. Withdrawal
The Syrian civil war and the interrelated war against the Islamic State in Iraq breathed life back into the Special Groups after the removal of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011. As U.S. forces departed, Special Groups like KH harried the withdrawing U.S. presence until the very end but faced a future in which their commonly understood raison d'etre--the removal of the U.S. occupation--had expired. In late 2011, the Islamic State's predecessor group, the Islamic State of Iraq, appeared to be defeated and the Iraqi security forces appeared to be robust.
The 2011-2014 period of the Special Groups is important to understand at a time when today's Iran-backed militias are also looking beyond their prior mission, the main combat phase of the war against the Islamic State. Back in 2011-2012, the Special Groups immediately began deploying to a new battlefield as the United States was leaving Iraq. Providing an Iraqi foreign fighter cadre to the Iranian intervention in Syria provided one outlet for militancy and most of the Special Groups contributed, including KH, Kata'ib Sayid al-Shuhada (under U.S.-sanctioned terrorist Abu Mustafa al-Sheibani (6)), and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH). (7) Within Iraq, the Special Groups remained ready to support Iran in the case of an Iranian clash with the United States, the Gulf States, or Israel. On March 27, 2012, a 12-rocket attack was partially undertaken (nine misfired) during the lead-up to the first post-Saddam Arab League summit in Baghdad. AAH, meanwhile, focused on assassinating its militia rivals in Moqtada al-Sadr's Promised Day Brigades (forerunner to today's Saraya Salam) and negotiating with the government to release its detained members.
As the security situation in Iraq worsened in 2012-2014, the Special Groups began to mobilize more strongly. Their Syrian deployments--which violate Article 9 of the Iraqi Constitution, (b) undertaken without approval, but overlooked by the government of Iraq (c)--required larger-scale recruitment and resulted in the injection of new, intense battlefield experience into the movements. Inside Iraq, then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began to draw small units of Special Group fighters into "Sons of Iraq" forces, and he accelerated his planning to raise larger Popular Defense Brigades (Saraya al-Dif'a al-Sha'abi) to operate under the prime minister's command, alongside the conventional armed forces. (8) On June 13, 2014, following the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State, the highest Shi'a authority in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a fatwa (religious edict), the al-Jihad al-Kifa'i (collective obligation)--calling for able-bodied male citizens to "volunteer and join the security forces." (9)
The PMF and War Against the Islamic State
The resultant Hashd al-Sha'abi Commission of the Prime Minister's Office (the PMF) reflected al-Maliki's vision (10) of a predominately Shi'a reserve army that contained both new recruits and what al-Maliki called "mujahedeen" from Special Groups such as KH, AAH, and Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, plus new pro-Iranian militias like Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (led by U.S.-designated terrorist Akram Kaabi (11)), Kata'ib al-Imam Ali (led by U.S.-designated terrorist Shibl al-Zaydi (12)), and Kata'ib Jund al-Imam. From the outset, however, the key leader in the PMF was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the most inveterate opponent of the United States among the Special Group leaders, and al-Muhandis worked assiduously to develop the PMF into an organization that was neither subject to full prime ministerial command nor subordinate to the conventional security forces. (d)
The PMF phenomenon and the war against the Islamic State greatly altered the political and military profile of the Special Groups. Prior to 2014, a figure like Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was an obscure former MP in Iraq with little public profile. (13) Likewise, opinion polling from pre-2011 Iraq shows that Iraqis frequently found it hard to differentiate or remember differences between groups like Promised Day Brigades, Kata'ib Hezbollah, or Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq. (14) Respondents were often unaware of the tight connections between Special Groups and the Iranian government. (15) In 2011, only 15.5% of respondents had high or very high confidence that militias could provide security, versus 65.8% for the Iraq army. (16)
Much of this changed after 2014: militia leaders and individual armed groups (fasa'il in Arabic) gained widespread name recognition. (e) In opinion polling, members of the public express differentiated views on KH, AAH, Kata'ib Al-Imam Ali, Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, and Badr. (17) Compared to pre-2014, following the PMF role in liberating many Sunni cities, the Iraqi public has considerably more faith that militias within the PMF structure are positive contributors to local security--91% among Shi'a respondents in 2017 and 64.5% in Sunni areas in 2017, far greater than 15.5% for all respondents in 2011. (18)
Growth of the Special Groups
The Special Groups also militarily transformed as a result of the Syrian civil war and the anti-Islamic State fighting in Iraq. First, more Iran-backed Special Groups were formed, and each grew larger than in the pre-2011 period due to their adoption as government-paid fighters under the PMF Commission.
* In 2011, KH was assessed to have 400 active members in Iraq, (19) while today KH (PMF brigades 45, 56, 57) maintain around 7,500 fighters assigned to Iraqi operations, 2,500 fighters assigned to Syria, for a total of 10,000. (20)
* AAH (PMF brigades 41, 42, 43) has likewise swollen from a small Sadrist (f) splinter militia of under 3,000 members in 2011 (21) to an equivalent KH-size three-brigade force of around 10,000. (22)
* Kata'ib Al-Imam Ali (PMF brigade 40) has expanded from a tiny Sadrist splinter group to an 8,000-strong PMF mega-brigade with deployments across Iraq. (23)
* Kata'ib Jund al-Imam (PMF brigade 6) has around 5,000 registered fighters, (24) Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (PMF brigade 14) and Saraya Talia al-Khurasani (PMF brigade 18) each have around 3,000 fighters, (25) and even the small Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (PMF brigade 12) now boasts more than 1,500 fighters--nearly four times the KH membership in 2011. (26)
* Newer Special Groups assessed to be primarily loyal to Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and willing to provide material support to IRGC-QF include (from most militarily capable to least) Harakat al-Abdal (PMF brigade 39), Saraya al-Jihad (PMF brigade 17), Liwa al-Tafuf (brigade 13) and the less capable Liwa al-Muntadher (brigade 7), Ansar Allah al-Tawfiya (brigade 19), Saraya Ansar al-Aqeeda (brigade 28), Kata'ib Ansar al-Hujja (brigade 29), Quwwat al-Shahid al-Sadr al-Awwal (brigade 25), Quwwat al-Shahid al-Sadr (brigade 35), and Kata'ib al-Tayyar al-Risali (brigade 31). (27 g)
Newer Special Groups listed here have, by the author's tally of figures provided by Iraqi contacts, 22,500 registered personnel. Adding in all the other bulleted groups above, the author assesses that the Special Groups (not including 18,000-22,000 Badr troops (h)) currently have 63,000 registered personnel. (i) According to the author's calculation, this is 15 times the size of the Special Groups in 2010, when there were probably as few as 4,000 Special Group operatives in Iraq (again not including Badr personnel in 2010). (j)
The expanded pantheon of Special Groups adopted medium and heavy weapons, attained significant battlefield experience, and openly absorbed training and embedded advisers from IRGC-QF and Lebanese Hezbollah within Iraq. (28) Each established "economic offices" in Baghdad, southern provinces, and in areas of sustained battlefield presence, which serve as hubs for local organized crime activity. (29)