In June 2014, the terrorist organization “ISIS” invaded Iraqi territory, and Iraqi security services collapsed, prompting many volunteer fighters to join paramilitary units instead of the feeble army or police forces. These paramilitary units that branched out of the state gathered under the organized umbrella called the Popular crowd Forces after the fatwa of the Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani that it called for al-Kifai jihad to liberate Iraq from ISIS on June 13, 2014. Although the exact figure of the crowd is unknown, it may be in the range of 60,000 fighters, but other sources put it between 60 and 140,000 fighters. For example, a Hashd spokesman said that before the end of 2016, the organization had 142,000 fighters in about 50 groups. However, despite the inconsistency and confusion over the numbers, and in the absence of strong official security services, this group has successfully helped to liberate most of the towns and cities of Iraq since its formation.
On November 26, 2016, the Iraqi Council of Representatives passed the law of the Popular Crowd Commission, which stated that the Hashd forces would be a parallel force alongside the Iraqi Armed Forces and would be associated with the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. According to the law , Popular Crowd consists of command , Staff and combat brigades and subject to the Military laws in force and political action is not allowed in its ranks
Over time, the PMU, with its various factions, received great public sympathy, especially among the Shiites in southern Iraq, as a result of the army’s collapse in Mosul and the West, but the rebuilding of regular forces, which reached its peak in the battles to liberate Mosul from ISIS in 2017, restored the status of the Iraqi army and its elite in it among the Iraqis, while the popularity of the crowd began to decline in light of the political confrontations that led to the failure of the government of Haider al-Abadi and then toppled him .
As tensions increased between Washington and Tehran, the PMF practically moved to a regional faction involved in regional and international conflicts; pro-Iranian factions have been looking for a new occasion to bring itself back to the fore; and have found in the Strait of Hormuz the crisis an important opportunity to do so, driven by an Iranian desire in pushing Iraqi fighters to play a prominent role in the confrontation with Washington, especially with the entry of Israel on the line of crisis. Israel is considered in the Iraqi conscience, a historic enemy that usurped Arab land in Palestine, and Iraq fought with it the wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973, and Israel’s bombing to the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, and hit Israel with Iraqi missiles in the Gulf War in 1991. And the storming of the Bahraini embassy in Baghdad in June 27, 2019, led by pro-Iranian armed factions, demonstrates the inclusion of these semi-official ‘militias’ in the ongoing battle between the parties referred to in the Middle East.
The meeting in Tehran on July 19 between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and senior Iranian officials on the one hand, and a high-level delegation of militia leaders from Iraq, Syria and Yemen, on the other, appears to be one of the highlights of the regional role of pro- Iranian armed factions ideologically and militarily in the Middle East. The meeting, which Iraqi media have reported discussing ways to respond to Israeli attacks on Iraq and Syria, and to warn against reaching Yemen, may also explain the approach by which Hezbollah responded to Israel in September.
It can also be said that the “regional nature of the Popular Crowd” emerged unambiguously after the United States imposed harsh sanctions on Tehran and the emergence of signs of military confrontation between the two sides, following Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement signed with Iran in 2015. In response to US threats, The Popular crowd factions targeted the US embassy with a Katyusha rocket on May 19, the main aim is to send a message to Washington that the attack on Tehran means the involvement of all its military branches in the region of the supposed war , that it will be wide regional war .
This policy, which revolves around Iranian sphere , and the IRGC’s vision of the nature of the strategic conflict in the Middle East, serve the ideological mobilization contained in the statements made by the leaders of the” Popular Crowd” regarding America. This is the statement of the military spokesman for the movement of «Asaib Ahl al-Haq», Jawad al-Talibawi, in which he stressed that « there is no communication between (the Popular Crowd ) and the Americans , and not between us and them only blood… not between us and them only killing».
This policy also aims to impose a new position of the Popular Crowd , which balances between the creation of solid influence within the new State of Iraq, while at the same time the ability to play a regional role that may exceed the capacity of the Iraqi State itself, which means that the inclusion of the «Popular Crowd » in Iraqi forces is only a new cycle of power-building, and take possession of legal and institutional legitimacy, to remain under the Iranian umbrella, with official popular blessing.
Much of the focus of the conflict in the Iraqi arena between Tehran and Washington, according to political analysis, is on the role of Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi; he is on the one hand an Islamic-oriented, and an Iraqi politician close to Tehran, but on the other hand considers himself an Arab nationalist, and was before that Leftist, he spent part of his life in the West sticking to partnership with it. At a time when his opponents accuse him of bias to Iran, and the IRGC is sending out signs of dissatisfaction with many of his positions. In fact, Abdul-Mahdi makes a quiet sort of pro Iranian armed factions l, using the other part of the crowd closest to his positions, while taking positions refusing to besiege and target Iran , therefore, the prime minister finds himself forced on several occasions to make decisions restricting the influence of Iran and others restricting the movement of Washington, as in his decision to remove the stores of the crowd weapon from the cities, and his decision to restrict the permissions of US warplanes in his office after the bombing in a crowd camp in the city of Balad. Abdul-Mahdi is finding it increasingly difficult to continue with this approach, which loses Iran’s confidence and does not win Washington’s trust.
At the same time, followers of the Iraqi issue, Abdul Mahdi is facing increasing pressure from Iraqi public opinion, and prominent clerics such as Muqtada al-Sadr and Ammar al-Hakim, as well as other political forces, to move against the Popular Crowd factions, not only in the file of weapons, but because of the growing its social, political and economic role in the liberated areas from ISIS, especially Mosul. At present, Iran is trying to calm tensions between Abdul-Mahdi and its Hashd factions, for fear of pushing Abdul-Mahdi toward Washington in sensitive confrontation conditions, which explains why Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes has kept silent and absent even it is temporarily, to avoid a delayed confrontation.
After Iraq witnessed national unity in the face of ISIS and began to rebuild its institutions, a struggle over Iraqi sovereignty over Iranian and American influences has began (and, to a lesser extent towards Saudi Arabia’s attempts to build influence), and the issue of political loyalty of the Popular Crowd is the main arena of conflict. . This conflict will have a profound impact on the future of Iraq, and perhaps the Arab East in general.
Iraqi Studies Unit
Rawabet Center for Research and Strategic Studies