Iraq: External Actions Against PMF Threaten Delicate Balance

Analysis 17 September 2019
Iraq: External Actions Against PMF Threaten Delicate Balance

Iraq remains in an extremely precarious position after declaring victory over Islamic State (IS) in December 2017, and regional tensions continue to upset the local balance of power. Iraq relies heavily on the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) - a coalition of paramilitary groups - to supplement the capabilities of the formal Iraqi military and keep a seemingly resurgent IS at bay.

Among these paramilitary groups are several with close ties to Iran, making them a source of suspicion for Sunni groups across the country as well as Israel, the United States, and other Western nations. While the strength and influence of the PMF has caused turmoil in Iraq, they do serve an essential security function at a pivotal time for Iraq when increased instability could have dire consequences.

The PMF’s role in Iraq has left the country delicately balanced on the verge of regression, and external meddling by those seeking to pressure Iran threatens to push the country back to the brink. Suspicious airstrikes against PMF bases—purportedly conducted by Israel, but also blamed on the United States—have further soured U.S. relations with the PMF and the formal Iraqi bureaucracy. The strikes have also stressed the relationship between the latter two groups, which need to maintain a strong partnership to maintain Iraq’s internal security (Aljazeera, August 21).

Despite Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s efforts to rein in the PMF and integrate them into the formal Iraqi security establishment, the PMF has continued to chart its own path, with unconfirmed reports regarding the alleged formation of its own air force. Additionally, the Fatah Coalition, which represents the PMF in Parliament, has called for the withdrawal of U.S. forces (Radio Farda, September 6; Aljazeera, August 27).

The increased tension among the various internal and external forces responsible for preventing IS from resurging has come amid increased activity by the international terrorist group. Iraqi forces have continued to detect and disrupt substantial IS cells and have destroyed countless tunnels used for smuggling across a significant number of provinces. Meanwhile, IS has claimed responsibility for countless bombings in Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Mosul, among others (Kurdistan24, August 22; Iraqi News, September 9). Many of the arrests and successful strikes against IS have stemmed from U.S. intelligence or involved the PMF (Iraqi News, September 2; Kurdisatan24, September 9).

While there is understandably a need to limit Iranian influence in Iraq, there is a delicate balance that must be struck. Unilateral actions taken by foreign militaries undermines security partnerships between the formal Iraqi security apparatus and external powers, while also undermining the Iraqi government and their essential partnership with the PMF. Meanwhile, military actions taken against the PMF hinder their ability to help secure Iraq, inflame preexisting local tensions, and risk retaliatory attacks against key Iraqi allies.

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