Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

The Origins and Ascendancy of Iraq’s Shiite Militias

Militant organizations have proliferated in Iraq since the fall of the Baathist regime in 2003

Visiting Fellow, Brookings Doha Center, Director of the Proxy Wars Initiative, Carnegie Corporation
Members of the Iraqi Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization) paramilitary forces southwest of Mosul, April 28, 2017 (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the Iraqi Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization) paramilitary forces southwest of Mosul, April 28, 2017 (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

Militant organizations have proliferated in Iraq since the fall of the Baathist regime in 2003. Of these, the Shiite militias in particular remain a misunderstood phenomenon. They have been called everything from Iranian proxies and Iraqi nationalists to state-builders and terrorists. Shiite militias emerged from the ruins of post-2003 Iraq to acquire considerable power. Their multiple identities have been a challenge for analysts and policymakers, as they not only overlap and interact with the Iraqi state and society, but include both Iranian proxies as well as militias that deride Iran’s interference in Iraq’s affairs. The war in Syria, where Shiite militias—under Iranian supervision—have shifted the balance of power in the Assad regime’s favor has further compounded the challenge they pose. Indeed, across the region, Iran has exploited instability to establish, empower, and entrench its proxy organizations—including some of these militias—as it attempts to shape the future of the region.

Shiite militias have a complicated and multi-faceted relationship with the Iraqi state and society. Some are offshoots of Iraqi Shiite opposition groups that opposed the former Baathist regime for decades. Many of these have extensive support bases and legitimacy and enjoy extensive ties to the Shiite religious establishment, or the marja’iyya, which provides them with considerable authority. Some are autonomous, whilst others are state-aligned and heavily entrenched within the government; some militia leaders have even held ministerial posts.

The political, social and religious characteristics of Iraq’s Shiite militias—together with their entrenchment in or capacity to reject the state—distinguish them from other Iraqi armed groups. As a whole, these militias have become enormously powerful, and they will have far-reaching implications for Iraq’s reconstruction and its future as a unitary state, including on the relations between Iraq’s different ethnic and religious components. At the same time, these militias are not unified but exist along a broad spectrum; they have varying relations to the state, differing ideological orientations, and many of them are not simply criminal organizations or proxies of Iran.  Understanding these differences will be crucial if foreign countries are to help Iraq survive.

Shiite activism in Iraq

Historically, the Shiite community in Iraq has been situated along ideological and political lines, family, class and tribe. The Shiite community is not a homogenous grouping but a loose “cultural designation, which may differentiate a certain group from another in religious terms but never specifies social, cultural (not to mention) differentiated aspects within this ‘group’ itself.”1 Shiism is a complex phenomenon that can be political as much as it can be theological and philosophical.  Historically, even under the Baathist regime, there was never a distinct Shiite political grouping and different Shiites engaged differently with the regime. Whilst Baathist repression created a polarization between the state and the Shiite community, particularly during the latter parts of the regime’s rule, the relationship was complicated by the different identities that comprised the Shiite community. This was evidenced during seminal periods in Iraqi history, such as the Iran-Iraq war and the 1991 Shiite uprising, when the southern Shiite tribes played a pivotal role in suppressing the revolt.

The historical origins of Iraq’s Shiite militias and Shiite mobilization more generally can be traced back to the 1950s, when the first Shiite socio-political movement in the modern state of Iraq was established. The Islamic Dawa Party, Iraq’s ruling party today, was founded in 1958 as a response to the political instability and tumult of the 1940s and 1950s. In this period, Iraq fell under heavy British influence and the region more broadly experienced widespread Arab nationalist and anti-colonial sentiments. Islamic movements, too, began to take shape in Iraq and the region. The Shiite activists that established the Dawa Party wanted to contest politics as part of an Islamic framework.  Yet they had little in common with existing Islamic groups—such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb al-Tahrir—whose limited numbers of Shiite members left as those groups retracted from pan-Islamic discourse and adopted sectarian undertones. The founding members of the Dawa Party had long-standing ambitions to establish a Shiite Islamic movement. In the early 1950s, Harakat al-Shabab al-Muslim (Movement of Muslim Youth) was established in Najaf, only to be disbanded by 1954. Similarly, a group of Dawa Party founding members established the Ja‘fari Party in 1952, only to meet resistance from the Shiite religious establishment and quickly disappear.2

It was the subsequent rise in prominence and influence of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) that drove Shiite political activism in Iraq, forcing even the traditionally quietist Shiite religious establishment—which historically rejected executive power and resisted sustained contestation of power—to help create and back the Dawa Party.3 To the dismay of the religious establishment, the vast majority of Shiites in Iraq were Communist and ICP members. This included sons and relatives of the ‘ulama. The ICP also appropriated Shiite religious discourse and symbolism. Shiism, a faith centered on social and political injustices, had enough common overlap with the ideals of communism for it to be instrumentalized by the ICP, particularly at a time when few other prominent parties advocated an “Iraq first” line and when other pan-Arab nationalistic parties had little appeal amongst Shiites.4

Unlike today’s Dawa Party, Shiite militia groups and other factions, the Dawa Party of the 1950s did not entirely see itself as a movement that aimed to capitalize on populist and sectarian sentiments within the Shiite community. Instead, the party saw itself as an intellectual movement that aimed for a revival of Islam and Shiite Islamic thought and doctrine. The ideological founder of the Dawa Party and its spiritual head, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, and other founding members found inspiration and guidance in the revivalist works of Hassan al-Bana and Sayyid Qutb. Like those leading Muslim Brotherhood scholars, al-Sadr had a longer-term Islamic revolutionary objective, and that an Islamic cultural revolution should precede any assumption of executive power.

The party added a nationalist current to its vision by combining its Shiite Islamic identity with an Iraqi identity. While the party did not envisage itself as a populist movement, it did nevertheless have significant basis in and interaction with the broader Shiite community. It was firmly entrenched in the communal and religious networks of the predominantly Shiite shrine cities and in Iraq’s southern hinterlands. Baqir al-Sadr, who was executed by the Baath regime in April 1980, believed in reaching out to the broader Shiite community by integrating Islam with modern socio-political and philosophical theories. Study circles were organized and Islamic libraries were established in local mosques, which effectively became recruiting points for the Dawa Party. Al-Sadr’s legacy came in making available Shiite studies to the masses, not just the privileged few.

The Rise of the Radical Shiite

In the 1960s, the Baathist regime used Iraq’s oil-wealth to placate the population, but this was tested by the emotive and mobilizing potential of Shiite communal sentiments and aspirations that the Baathist regime had long attempted to suppress. The deceptive calm of Baath rule was exposed by the 1979 Iranian revolution and the lesser-known 1977 Safar Intifada, often referred to by Iraqi Shiite activists as the “first Islamic revolution”—before the one in Iran.5 Safar took place in February 1977 during the annual commemorations of the fortieth day of the death of Hussein, known as the Arba’in, which Shiites commemorate by visiting the holy shrines forty days after the Day of Ashura. The Baathist regime banned pilgrimage to the shrines, but this was ignored and led to clashes between pilgrims (as well as other broader sections of the Shiite community) and the state. It was the first instance of large-scale Shiite mobilization against the Baathist regime and the first-time Iraq’s Shiite community proved that, where the environment and opportunities allowed for it, it could violently challenge and thus threaten Baathist rule.

Two years later, what has been described as the modern “surge of Shiism as a political force’” burst forth in 1979 in Iran.6 Immediately after the Iranian revolution, hundreds of Iraqi Shiite activists and ordinary members of the public flocked to Baqir al-Sadr, whom by 1979 was on course to succeed Abu al-Qasim al-Kho‘i as marja’ and, therefore, was set to acquire a powerful following and capacity to mobilize the Shiite population that would have seen him rival Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. Shiite activists called on al-Sadr “to be their Iraqi Ayatullah Khomeini” and lead a revolt against the Baathist regime. Protests erupted in Baghdad and the predominantly Shiite provinces of the south. These were quickly suppressed by the regime and al-Sadr was arrested. That led to another wave of protests and upheaval known as the Rajab Intifada, which was also brutally suppressed and resulted in the detention, torturing and execution of thousands of suspected participants, sympathizers and Dawa Party members. A year later, the Dawa Party’s failed assassination attempt on Tariq al-‘Aziz, then deputy prime minister, precipitated al-Sadr’s demise. He was executed with his sister in 1980.

These episodes of contention and Baath Party repression remain firmly entrenched in Shiite collective memory in Iraq today.  They often provide the basis for the symbolism and historical narrative deployed by contemporary Shiite militias, political factions and religious institutions to mobilize their supporters and swell their ranks.  However, many of the fighters that comprise the various Shiite militia groups in Iraq today were children or not even born in the late 1970s. Instead, their collective memory and political consciousness has been more directly shaped by the experience of Baathist brutality and destitution in the 1990s.

After the U.S.-led international military campaign ended the Baathist regime’s occupation of Kuwait in 1991, Iraq’s Kurdish and Shiite movements launched a rebellion that sought to capitalize on a weakened Iraqi army and an apparent endorsement from then U.S. President George H.W. Bush. At its height, the rebellion controlled 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. Whilst the Kurds went on to maintain their control of Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaymaniah (the Kurds ceded control of Kirkuk to the Baathist regime as part of negotiations that followed the rebellion), the regime brutally crushed the Shiite uprising in the south. No U.S. support materialized as the regime's indiscriminate crackdown on the population systematically arrested and killed tens of thousands of Shiites and destroyed Shiite shrines, centers of learning, towns and villages. According to eyewitness accounts, Baathist tanks were painted with messages like “No Shiites after today,” people were hanged from electric poles, and tanks ran over women and children and towed bodies through the streets.7

From this horror and brutality emerged Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr (Baqir al-Sadr’s cousin and student), the founder of the Sadrist movement that today, under the leadership of his son Muqtada, constitutes Iraq’s most powerful political movement. After al-Kho‘i passed away in 1992, the Baathist regime endorsed Sadeq as his successor, against the consensus choice of Ayatullah Ali al-Sistani. Sadeq al-Sadr was a useful candidate for the regime because of his nationalistic and anti-Iranian rhetoric. He was an Arab Iraqi cleric and a staunch critic of what he described as the elitist Iraqi Shiite opposition and clerical establishment. His endorsement by the regime also fractured the already weakened Shiite opposition. Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, the head of Shiite opposition group the Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI), now called the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), denounced the relationship between the Baath regime and Sadeq al-Sadr, proclaiming that “Ayatollah Sadr himself knows that he is not worthy of this position, and he has accepted this position out of fear of the Iraqi Government and under pressure.”8

Sadeq al-Sadr attacked his exiled Shiite counterparts for their elitism but at the same time offered advice and counselling to those suffering from Baathist rule and economic hardship. His weekly sermons helped galvanize the masses and provided an outlet for grievances and discontent for a voiceless Shiite underclass. After taking control of the ‘hawza in the early 1990s, he extended his network of representatives and began to send emissaries to all Shiite areas of Iraq, paying attention to the poor and to the clans and tribes. This included the hinterlands of the south, such as the Marshes, which were notorious for criminals and disease. By the 1990s, the mantle of Shiite leadership effectively passed to Sadeq al-Sadr and the mantle of resistance to Iraq’s Shiite underclass. Sadeq al-Sadr and his followers thus filled the lacuna that was left by the intellectuals, technocrats and other middle-class Shiites forced underground, imprisoned, executed or opposing the Baathist regime—with Iranian and Western support—in exile.

Despite initially promoting Sadeq al-Sadr, the Baathists in 1999 assassinated the cleric after he had amassed a powerful following and began to criticize the regime. Throughout the 1990s, his most ardent of supporters and disciples, some of which command their own militias and networks today, clashed regularly. A twenty-something Qaiz al-Khazali, now head of the powerful militia group Asaib al-Haq and a former deputy to Muqtada al-Sadr, was mentored by Sadeq al-Sadr. Interviews suggest that al-Khazali won Sadeq al-Sadr’s affection for his bravery, having once been the only volunteer willing to attend a secret meeting with the Baathists on his behalf after a series of violent disturbances.9 After Sadeq al-Sadr’s assassination in 1999, Khazali and several other young members of the Sadrist movement, also close deputies and students of Sadeq al-Sadr, held the movement together underground.

The suffering and injustices faced by the Shiites in the 1990s and the disorder of post-2003 Iraq combined to make today’s Shiite militias. After the 1991 uprising, the Baathist regime’s authority was severely weakened, forcing it to devolve power and violence to local tribal and communal structures. Tribes, clerical figures and other communal leaders received the financial resources and weaponry—light arms, RPGs, mortars, and even howitzers—to acquire and arm what effectively became their own private, autonomous militias. While these actors enjoyed some autonomy from the Baathist regime in the 1990s, the collapse of the state and the violent conflict that gripped Iraq after 2003 paved the way for an atomization of Iraq’s political and security structures. This allowed localized socio-cultural and security structures established in the 1990s to function with greater authority, autonomy and greater impunity. This infrastructure enabled Shiite militias and other militant groups to thrive in the post-2003 security vacuum.

The Rise of the Militias

After the collapse of the Baathist regime in 2003, the Sadrist movement formally established its own militia, known as the Jaysh al-Mahdi, or the Mahdi Army. The vast Shiite underclass needed protection, social services and leadership, and the Sadrist movement stepped into these gaps by reactivating Sadeq al-Sadr’s network. The movement established local offices and local security patrols as well as social and religious services. One representative of the Sadrist movement in Baghdad, for example, countered the criticisms targeted at the Sadrist movement—in particular its human rights abuses, sectarian atrocities and confrontations with coalition forces—on the basis that the organization’s activities and the creation of the Mahdi Army after 2003 was only symptomatic of the breakdown of the state and the sectarian turmoil and infighting that followed. Indeed, in addition to combating Arab Sunni insurgent groups, the Mahdi Army has also had to combat its rivals within the Shiite political class, including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Badr Brigade (established in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war), as well as the Islamic Dawa Party.10

In the course of the U.S. occupation, the Mahdi Army’s ranks of supporters, members and fighters swelled, particularly as sectarian conflict intensified and discontent towards the occupation grew out of frustration towards the lack of security and basic services. However, the movement was ill-prepared for the greater responsibility that came with greater power. It suffered the twin burden of administration and resistance against Western forces, Arab Sunni militants and their so-called “elitist” Shiite rivals. What was once a movement bound to Sadeq al-Sadr and constrained by a connective nexus with the Baathist regime and sensitive socio-cultural, tribal arrangements in the 1990s subsequently started to divide and fracture. The toppling of the Baathist regime dramatically altered the configurations of power and authority within the Shiite underclass. Splinter groups emerged from what was a vast, grass-roots organization mobilized around Muqtada al-Sadr’s leadership but that, nevertheless, was operationally decentralized.

These splinter groups acquired their own loyal support bases at the local level, their own resources, a willing patron in Iran and years’ worth of experience combating Western forces. These manifested in Asaib ahl al-Haq (AAH), whose leadership fell out with Muqtada over a series of operational and political disputes. Qais al-Khazali, the head of AAH and former student of Sadeq al-Sadr, sees himself as the rightful heir to the Sadrist movement and the true champion of the Shiite underclass. His background as a protégée of Sadeq al-Sadr and one of the figures that kept the movement functioning after his demise placed him at the pinnacle of the movement, even overshadowing Muqtada, who had little interest in politics in his youth and did not undergo clerical studies as al-Khazali did. According to a senior advisor to Muqtada al-Sadr, Qais al-Khazali and AAH emerged from the special operations unit within the Mahdi Army. After Khazali was arrested by U.S. forces in in 2007 for an attack on an Iraqi government compound in Karbala that killed five American soldiers, Khazali used a kidnapped British consultant as a bargaining chip to win his own release.11 The advisor I interviewed, a lawyer, was ordered by Muqtada to represent Khazali. When Khazali negotiated the release of the Briton, which Muqtada opposed on the premise that his organization did not negotiate with the occupying forces, an irreparable split emerged between the two. Khazali was dismissed from the Sadrist movement by Muqtada and went directly to Iran, where he was embraced by the Iranian regime and subsequently established Asaib ahl al-Haq.12 As explained below, the organization has developed into a socio-cultural movement and a fully integrated component of Iraq’s post-2003 political system.

Popular Mobilization Forces

In June 2014, the collapse of the Iraqi Army and ISIS’ seizure of Mosul prompted Grand Ayatollah Sistani to issue a fatwa calling for a mobilization of Iraqis to defend the country from ISIS’ advance. Numerous Shiite militia groups that splintered from the Sadrist movement and its Mahdi Army militia, as well as many others, feature in the umbrella Shiite militia organization known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) established in response to Sistani’s fatwa. Three categories of militias amalgamated under the banner of the PMF: state-aligned militias, Iranian-aligned militias and “rebellious” militias.

The 2014 fatwa directly established the “state-aligned militias,” also known as the religious establishment or “Sistani militias.” Managed by the holy shrines under Ayatollah Sistani, these include the Imam Ali Brigade, Ali al-Akhbar Brigade, and the Abbas Division. Like Sistani, the fighters of these groups oppose Iranian encroachment into Iraqi affairs.13 Both ISCI’s Ashura Brigades and Sadr’s Peace Brigade have daily interactions and coordinate closely with the religious establishment militias.14 

The Iran-backed militias, such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah, Sayyid al-Shuhada and others opportunistically exploited, with Iranian patronage, the chaos that followed the fall of the former regime and then, later, the emergence of ISIS and the collapse of the Iraq’s armed forces. These groups were established, empowered, and entrenched by Iran to exploit state fragility and sectarian conflict. With their ideological outlook founded in Shiite supremacism and combatting Western imperialism, they have vehemently resisted both the Iraqi state and the U.S.-led coalition.

These actors are all uncompromisingly averse to working and engaging with the U.S., much like their Iranian sponsors. Conversely, the Badr Brigade, formed as the armed wing of ISCI in the 1980s but now functioning independently, has integrated into the post-2003 political system but also retains its capacity to function autonomously. Arguably Iraq’s most powerful militia, Badr exemplifies the multiple identities and complexities that define Iraq’s Shiite militia groups. The group has shown it can both engage with the international community—cooperating militarily with the U.S. and the West—while also maintaining strong ties to Iran—having been established by the Iranian regime during the Iran-Iraq War and been a major beneficiary of Iranian support post-2003. The organization has been heavily integrated into state security forces over the past decade and its head, Hadi al-Ameri, has held ministerial posts, as have other senior leaders. The organization also enjoys a monopoly over the police force and effectively controls its own province, Diyala, al-Ameri’s birthplace. Badr falls in a grey zone between state-alignment and autonomy.

Iraqis today refer to the Sadrist Movement’s Peace Brigades as the “rebellious” militias, because of their refusal to submit not only to Iran, but also to the federal government and religious establishment.15 Muqtada al-Sadr has oriented his organization around Iraqi nationalistic sentiments and derided the Iran-aligned militias. In line with the true political outlook of his father and his followers, Muqtada’s supporters chanted anti-Iranian slogans and stormed the offices of the Dawa Party, ISCI and the Badr Brigade when they protested against the government in May 2016.16 Sadrists also joined forces with long-time rival ISCI—which commands the Ashura Brigades—to attack “brazen militias” not under the command of the Iraqi army.17

Political Appeal and Entrenchment

Despite the fragmentation of the Sadrist movement and its support base after 2003, Shiite militia groups still tap into the same demographic of young, destitute, illiterate Shiites. This is a generation that has no memory of Iraq’s days of peaceful co-existence or its status as a commercial and intellectual hub, but instead remembers an Iraq of Baathist repression, bloody sectarian conflict and impoverishment. Historically dismissed as backward and illiterate (disparagingly referred to as the “mob” or shrughis by the urban, educated middle-class Baghdadis, both Arab Sunnis and Shiites), this demographic fears the possibility of political and economic marginalization at the hands of their “elitist” Shiite counterparts as much as they do ISIS or other Arab Sunni groups. These militias believe they are continuing Sadeq al-Sadr’s legacy by catering to the needs of destitute Shiites against the targeting of the Shiite community by ISIS and other militant groups, as well as the predations of a corrupt and dysfunctional political elite. They see themselves as the rightful social and political leaders of the New Iraq.

Almost every militia group in Iraq will assert their legitimacy and popular base, describe themselves as socio-cultural or socio-political movements and will challenge any suggestion that they are militias. Moreover, Iraqi officials have expressed concern these militias will eventually18 transform themselves into socio-cultural actors and integrated components of the political system that will continue to weaken the Iraqi state from within. For example, despite its violent history, over the past decade Asaib has projected itself as a socio-cultural movement engaged in the practice of state-building. 19 Since its inception, Asaib has evolved into a nascent movement with its own social and religious activities, including operating medical facilities. It has offices in Baghdad and throughout the Shiite south. The group has adopted epistemological leanings in an effort to broaden its intellectual appeal to different strata of the Shiite community. It produces publications and is aligned with members of the hawza, as part of its intellectual outreach to different sections of the Shiite population.20

It is of little surprise, therefore, that Shiite militia groups believe their political future lies within the Iraqi state. The November 2016 decision by the Iraqi parliament to approve a law that formally integrated the PMF into the security forces law, and their interactions with the state more generally, show that Shiite militias seek to defend and maintain existing territorial boundaries, albeit through the confines of revised or newly established institutions that adhere to their ambitions and worldview. It is not inevitable that these actors will shape the Iraqi state according to their own political and ideological values and, therefore, establish a new political order. However, some militia groups that started off as rag-tag forces established, equipped and trained by Iran have become fully integrated components of the political system and have been helped by members of the Shiite political class looking to capitalize on their ascendancy and capacity to commit acts of violence and human rights abuses with impunity. For example, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki co-opted Asaib ahl al-Haq during his premiership. He saw in the group an opportunity to weaken his fierce rival Muqtada and his Sadrist movement. Malaki thus provided Asaib al-Haq with bullet-proof four by fours, permits that enabled them to roam freely around Baghdad and the opportunity to contest elections in partnership with al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition. Al-Maliki even released all Asaib prisoners who were arrested and detained by the US and Iraqi forces and allowed Asaib al-Haq to conduct an anti-American parade in 2012 to celebrate the US withdrawal.

One of Iraq’s former National Security Ministers expressed fears that other similar groups, such as direct Iranian proxies like Kataib Hezbollah, Sayyid al-Shuhada and Saraya al-Khorasani, will also follow the path of Asaib and become fully entrenched within the political system.21 However, like officials within ISCI, he also confessed that there is little choice other than to accept and work with the militias that function autonomously from and challenge the state. They have faith in the capacity of existing institutions and socio-cultural dynamics to contain malevolent militia groups. The recently passed Hashd law is seen as a means to regulate their presence.22 A senior official within ISCI (which controls the 13,000 strong Ashura brigade militia), explained that the Hashd law represents an opportunity to regulate militias, as there may be limited alternatives in the short and medium-term. The official further explained that “we do not want the Hashd to become an alternative to the Iraqi military but instead we want it to support the military and Iraq’s security forces.”23

Shiite militia groups, particularly Iran-aligned factions, still refuse to disarm and submit to civilian oversight. The Iraqi government, meanwhile, is unable to enforce the provisions of the Hashd law requiring that those militias disarm before, for example, contesting elections. This allows the militias to continue to have the best of both worlds: the power and resources that come with being autonomous actors and the opportunity to fleece state resources and weaponize patronage networks. When pressed on this point, one official asserted:

all fighters are Iraqi nationalists and it is the militia leaders who are pro-Iranian; we should avoid the over-generalization that the PMF is entirely pro-Iranian. Some of the [Iran-aligned] leaders took the weapons we were given by the US and distributed them as they wished. There are concerns about these groups but we are working on solutions. In the end, our goal is to ensure it is the state that has a monopoly over violence but we all know within the Shiite establishment that it is ultimately only the religious establishment and the hawza that can disband or delegitimize the factions within the PMF. What we lack in fighting experience [compared to the Iran-aligned groups] we make up for with our numbers and nationalism.24

Indeed, Iran’s greatest weakness (and Iraq’s strength) is the strength of Iraqi identity and the Arab tribal values of Iraq’s Shiite militias, both of which have been central to Shiite political and clerical activism in Iraq. Shiite militias in general can be Shiite Islamist in their political and ideological outlook but at the same time adopt Iraqi nationalistic undertones; all militias position themselves as nationalists. Most, if not all, incorporate a combination of Iraqi nationalism and Shiite centric undertones into a broader narrative of resistance that is central to Shiism itself.

While Iran-aligned militias and proxies openly support the Iranian revolutionary doctrine of wilayat-i faqih (the “Rule of the Jurist” doctrine that underpins post-1979 Iran’s system of governance) and embrace Ayatollah Khamenei as their political and spiritual leader, Iraq’s Shiites have historically resisted the doctrine. Grand Ayatollah Sistani is Iraq’s strongest bulwark against Iran’s ideological encroachment into Iraq; the leading Shiite clergyman comes from the strand of Shiite doctrinal thought that does not envisage executive power for the clerics. He has called for a “civil state,” based on respect for the law and the constitution, human rights, and equality. Iran has heavily invested in consolidating its influence over the religious south through propaganda and financial resources. Najaf’s resistance to the doctrine is likely to continue even after Sistani’s passing. However, that does not mean the Shiite south will be able to resist the reach and influence of revolutionary Iran in coming decades, particularly if the Iran-aligned militias, through the symbolic power of the PMF, continue to try and shape and influence the fabric of the Iraqi society.25

As previously mentioned, the generation of fighters that comprise the Iranian-backed militias grew up in the 1990s. The political views and values of these mostly young, destitute Iraqi Shiites were shaped by Sadeq al-Sadr, a fierce Iraqi nationalist who stressed the Shiites’ Arab identity and saw Iran’s clerical rulers as his rivals. As a result, many militia fighters are not necessarily beholden to Iranian interests nor to exporting Iran’s wilayati-faqih doctrine. In fact, many in all probability have little understanding of this doctrine and share little historical political and cultural overlap with their Iranian counterparts.

It is, therefore, ironic that Asaib al-Haq banners and imagery feature Khomeini or Ali Khameini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, given the historical tensions and differences these figures have had with Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr and his cousin, Sadeq al-Sadr. Khomeini spent a large part of his exile in Iraq during the 1960s and 1970s attacking his Najafi counterparts, becoming increasingly vocal and belligerent against the Najafi establishment, which rejected his doctrine and the notion of executive rule for the clerical establishment. Iraq’s major Shiite parties, the Dawa Party and ISCI have also had a difficult relationship with Iran. The Dawa Party has historically resisted Iranian influence and control, even withdrawing from SAIRI, the umbrella Shiite opposition council established by Iran in the 1980s because it refused to submit itself to Iranian control. Although ISCI supported Khomeini’s wilayat-i faqih doctrine in the 1980s, the party has since retracted from that position.

The Future

Iraq cannot survive if it enables the rule of the militias. Conceding power to these unaccountable armed groups will sustain the space in which violence and extremism flourishes and will almost certainly enable ISIS to resurrect itself in the future. Yet, the Shiite militia is a dynamic actor that is susceptible to the influences of local governing structures and communities that, unlike outside actors, can either nudge militias into abiding by human rights and international norms or push them to the margins. As Iraq started to stabilize after 2007, the political capital that these actors depended on became constrained. During the civil war in 2006 Iraq’s Shiites community turned to these fighters for protection. But when the Iraqi army became more organized and the sectarian war abated, the lawlessness and violence for which these fighters were responsible, including their extortion of local businesses and engagement in petty crime, was no longer tolerated.

The institutionalization of the PMF was a long time coming. The organization has had long-standing interactions and overlaps with the Iraqi state and has worked with federal security forces during the course of the anti-ISIS campaign. Although some of its key components only nominally report to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, officially the PMF was already a government-sanctioned force. Unless the international community dedicates itself to adding and committing to a coercive element that could potentially combat non-state aligned militias—for which there is no appetite at the moment—it will fall largely on political and economic measures to help contain these militias as well as constrain Iran’s influence over them. Iran’s influence is resistible and reversible. Tehran has a checkered past with Iraq’s Shiite community. Historical differences and divisions over politics, culture and religion make their relationship with Shiite militias and the Iraqi political class vulnerable on multiple fronts. Loyalties among the Shiite militias often shift, even among fighters belonging to hardline Iranian proxy groups. Furthermore, even though Dawa and ISCI backed Iran during the Iran–Iraq War, both groups consistently noted their desire to uphold the territorial integrity of their country. In their party publications, produced from the 1980s onward, they make territorial integrity and Iraqi nationalism key components of their vision for their country’s future. After the 2003 toppling of the Baathist regime, the two parties began to distance themselves from Iran, much to Iran’s dismay.

Shiite militias that reject the Iraqi state, that foment instability or that reject conciliatory politics are also weaker than they appear. They are up against a population that could soon be discontented with militia rule, as it was after 2008 when sectarian conflict abated and militias established a mob-like culture. Policy-makers can leverage the divisions and positions amongst the PMF and the Shiite political class and community more generally. Engagement with state-aligned militias should be intensified. This includes the militias who answer to the religious establishment or Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who commands respect across the ethnic and religious spectrum, has historically opposed Iranian encroachment into Iraqi affairs and has criticized Iranian-backed Shiite militias for their atrocities.

Pursuant to its military campaign against ISIS, the U.S. has, for too long, appeased and placated Iranian-backed militias that are complicit in sectarian atrocities, the deaths of thousands of Americans (and Iraqis) and has turned a blind-eye to these actors’ integration into the Iraqi political system. However, as the dust now looks to be settling from the war on ISIS, the U.S. must choose between its friends and its enemies and can no longer sit on the fence in Iraq. A political order is emerging from the ruins of war in Syria and Iraq. America’s enemies are claiming their stake in the future of the region. Wherever the U.S. disengages and fails to claim its own stake in the future of the Middle East, its enemies will fill the gap.