By Jake Viator, Head, North America Desk
Analytical Question: The current and projected status of the PMF in Iraq
THE ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY of the “October Revolution” in Iraq is very likely to devolve into street violence as sit-ins and demonstrations are set to resume. The source of this potential stems from three primary groups of actors: Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and their supporters, Sadrists, and the protesters. These demonstrations and violence are unlikely to overthrow the government. However, they may damage the public image of the Kadhimi government.
In October 2019, demonstrations broke out in major cities across Iraq over Iranian influence, government ineptitude and corruption, and lack of economic opportunity. Militias belonging to the PMF, along with Iraqi Security Forces, and followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, known as Sadrists, began a brutal crackdown on the generally peaceful protests, leaving hundreds of people dead or missing and thousands more injured. These demonstrations led to the fall of the pro-Iran government, which was led by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, and several months of tumultuous politics with violent demonstrations as the focal point[i]. Since taking office, Prime Minister Khadimi has been broadly supportive of the protests, while making disparaging remarks about the militias, raiding their weapons caches, and arresting some of their members[ii]. He has been reinforcing the need for Iraqi sovereignty (meaning independence form Iranian influence) and has publicly declared the militias as outlaws[iii], despite the fact that they are technically an arm of the Iraqi Armed Forces.
The one-year anniversary of the “October Revolution” is not meant to resume permanent demonstrations, but just to demonstrate the resolve of the demonstrators in their desire to see systemic and lasting change in Iraq. The protests have no specific demographic profile, other than they are generally secular. The demonstrators’ demands have remained fundamentally unchanged. On October 1, protests seemingly went without incident, with no reports of violence or confrontation, despite thousands of people showing up. However, protesters have stated that they will escalate the situation by October 25, if early election legislation is not ratified[iv].
The PMF’s influence in Iraq appears to be decreasing. This can be attributed to increased government action against the militias, the potentially waning Iranian support[v], and the loss of critical allies such as Muqtada al-Sadr. Additional contributing factors include the growing displeasure with Iranian influence in Iraq, and the violence toward peaceful demonstrations, activists[vi]. Prime Minister Kadhimi also removed Iran-loyalist and head of the PMF, Falih al-Fayyadh, from his positions as head of the National Security Advisory and National Security Agency[vii]. However, Muqtada al-Sadr is considered an opportunist and has flipped allegiances between the PMF and the protesters in the past[viii]. The PMF is being held responsible for the kidnapping and assassination of over a dozen activists since October 2019. Furthermore, attacks against US facilities and peaceful rallies have made demonstrators hostile towards the PMF. This hostility could spill out into the streets during the one-year anniversary demonstrations in the form of violence. The PMF may attempt to disguise itself as security forces or protesters to create distrust and animosity towards the Kadhimi government, as well as fellow Iraqis[ix]. This is critical because protesters wish to achieve the withdrawal of US forces peacefully and through proper channels, making any violence against foreign missions very likely attributable to the PMF and associated militias.
The US is likely to properly regulate its military presence in order to promote Iraqi sovereignty. The latter is the determining factor in Iran’s level of influence in Iraq, and thus the primary means of preserving US interests in Iraq. Many Iraqis have a preexisting aversion to Iran because of the Iran-Iraq War, and a distrust emanating from Tehran’s support of insurgents after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. The desire for sovereignty and the end of sectarian politics in Iraq makes the US a natural ally of Iraq to that end, while simultaneously increasing distrust and aversion to Iran.
[i]Elbaldawi, Lujain. 2020. Iraq roils as mass protests turn year old. OCT 1. Accessed OCT 1, 2020. https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/10/iraq-protests-october.html.
[iii] MERCA. 2020. Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s new PM-designate. APR 10. Accessed OCT 2, 2020. https://www.mideastcenter.org/post/mustafa-al-kadhimi-iraq-s-new-pm-designate.
[iv] Al-Jazeera. 2020. Thousands mark anti-government protests anniversary in Iraq. OCT 1. Accessed OCT 2, 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/1/iraqis-in-baghdad-mark-anti-government-protests-anniversary.
[v] Badawi, Tamer. 2020.
[vi] Najari, Khrush. 2020. Iraqi protests resume as assassinations target activists. AUG 22. Accessed SEP 29, 2020. https://www.kurdistan24.net/en/news/7461e659-f42b-4d39-87ea-9096cbc0f1d3.
[vii] Badawi, Tamer. 2020.
[viii] Reuters. 2020. Iraqi Cleric Sadr Tells Followers to Clear Sit-ins after PM Appointed. FEB 02. Accessed SEP 25, 2020. https://www.voanews.com/middle-east/voa-news-iran/iraqi-cleric-sadr-tells-followers-clear-sit-ins-after-pm-appointed.
[ix] Lawlor, Katherine. 2020. IRAQ WARNING INTELLIGENCE UPDATE: “OCTOBER REVOLUTION” ANNIVERSARY PROTESTS SET TO RESUME. SEP 30. Accessed OCT 1, 2020. http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/iraq-warning-intelligence-update-%E2%80%9Coctober-revolution%E2%80%9D-anniversary-protests-set-resume.