The Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) was formed based on orders from a high Shiite cleric and the constitutionality of its existence is in question. But the Shiite front is not going to give up on the idea because it is a very sexy alternative to having un-labeled militia.
Al-Hashd Al-Sha’bi is the Arabic name for the groups of militants that were formed as a result of the direct involvement by the religious Shiite leader Ayatollah Ali Al-Sisitani. Sistani ordered the militia to be formed in response to the rising threat from the Sunni militant that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, ISIS. Iraqis did not vote on the creation of such a group outside of the Iraqi army. The constitution spells out very clearly that the formation of any militia outside of the regular armed forces is prohibited.
Article 9, section One, subsections A and B have defined the components of the Iraqi armed forces as:
“Article 9: First: A- The Iraqi armed forces and security services will be composed of the components of the Iraqi people with due consideration given to their balance and representation without discrimination or exclusion. They shall be subject to the control of the civilian authority, shall defend Iraq, shall not be used as an instrument to oppress the Iraqi people, shall not interfere in the political affairs, and shall have no role in the transfer of authority. B- The formation of military militias outside the framework of the armed forces is prohibited.”
Setting the stage
In the non-Shiite parts of Iraq, almost all Iraqi citizens from all walks of life believe wholeheartedly that the anti-Sunni Arab policies and practices of the former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki set the right climate for the birth of ISIS in Iraq. Going against the very constitution that he swore to protect when he came to office, Maliki used the Iraqi armed forces to suppress the Sunni population without discrimination. While this was happening, the international media, except for NPR, had very little interest in Iraq anymore, and the White House was happy that there was some sort of governance and relative stability in Iraq. The US administration was very busy trying to pull the last US soldiers out of Iraq, as it had promised during the election campaigns.
Maliki had free range and he took advantage of it. In a very short time, in historical terms, he managed to undo everything that the US had worked on for years; he burned every bridge the US had built between the Shiite and Sunni-Arabs. He alienated the Sunni population, the Sunni parliament members, the Sunni tribal leaders and he ignored all calls for level headedness, including many public statements from the former Iraqi president Jalal Talabani.
Fast-forward to the fall of Mosul to ISIS
In June of 2014, Iraq’s third largest city Mosul became ISIS’s capital in Iraq. The fall of Mosul surprised many local and international analysts, and I am sure Maliki was surprised too. If ISIS had a victory dance they would have danced non-stop for 24 hours. ISIS not only took a large chunk of land almost unchallenged, but it also inherited the military bases of the Iraqi Army and Air Force in Mosul. The bases were full of light weapons, ammunition, APCs, artillery, tanks, and lots and lots of Humvees paid for by US tax payer money. ISIS became a mighty military power overnight and started to threaten the capital, Baghdad.
The US intelligence community woke up to another surprise, not too long after they had failed to pick up signs the popular uprisings in the Arab word, tastefully dubbed the Arab Spring. Iraq became a hot topic again in the media, and the US Government was no longer able to turn a blind eye. A political lump of shit had hit the fan.
One of the early recommendations from top US diplomats was to try and copy what had somewhat worked in combatting the Sunni insurgency back in 2005-07, which was the formation of “Al-Sahwa” or awakening groups. The idea was to bring the Sunni-Arab tribal leaders to the table once again and tell them that they count and will be safe if they helped the US help them. But while the wheels of bureaucracy in Washington were slowly turning, grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani sent for Maliki to come to his presence. What emerged from the Sistani-Maliki meeting was the idea of organizing the Popular Mobilization Force. Maliki was told and he obliged. There was no meeting of the Iraqi Parliament to vote on the idea, and there certainly wasn’t any consultation with Iraqi military generals. They were told to form Al-Hashd Al-Sha’bi and they obeyed the orders.
PMF vs Peshmerga
The PMF has a budget and is paid on regular basis by the Iraqi government. The Kurdish Regional Government’s armed forces, the Peshmerga, have not received their salaries and the central government owes them three month’s wages. Per the Iraqi constitution, the Peshmerga force is a constitutionally recognized armed force that operates under the umbrella of the Iraqi military, the PMF is an illegal militia.