In the early morning of January 3, laser-guided Hellfire missiles burst from an American drone, killing Iranian general Qassem Soleimani as he left the Baghdad airport. The world braced for the fallout of the brazen assassination—and breathed a faltering sigh of relief when, in the following week, a larger war failed to materialize. For Iraqis, however, the ordeal of political disruption is only beginning.

Nine other individuals were killed along with Soleimani, including Jamal Jafaar Mohammed Ali Al Ibrahim, the deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Units (the PMU, or al-Hashd al-Sha’abi in Arabic), the umbrella organization for the dozens of paramilitary groups that banded together in recent years to fight the Islamic State. Al Ibrahim—better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (or simply Abu Mahdi)—had held a prominent position with the PMU since 2014, and was widely acknowledged as a major influence on the PMU’s philosophy and strategy. He was hardly universally admired in Iraq—many of the street protests that rocked the country in 2019 targeted the headquarters of PMU-affiliated factions, denouncing their perceived closeness to Iran.1 But in other ways, Abu Mahdi was a unifying figure, at least in the minds of some Iraqis. The PMU has been promoting an increasingly nationalist vision for the last few years, as Iraq has struggled to put its sectarian civil war behind it. Indeed, while the PMU is dominated by Shia groups (like Kata’eb Hezbollah, which Abu Mahdi helped found and consolidate), it is not simply a “Shia” enterprise, as often implied by the Western media. Rather, the many factions that the PMU comprises include both individual Sunni fighters and entire paramilitary formations that are dominated by Sunnis. The diversity in the PMU is, in part, due to Abu Mahdi’s strategy for PMU dominance: as the chief architect of the PMU’s organizational consolidation, he had long advocated for cross-sectarian outreach. This was not to say that Abu Mahdi was a true champion of national unity. Rather, he was a shrewd strategist who understood the benefits of at least some Sunni participation in the PMU: it is both good optics and good politics, especially in areas of Iraq that are predominantly Sunni. But as this report shows, Sunni participation in the PMU also has strong local foundations.

After Abu Mahdi’s death, important Sunni figures such as Salahaddin Brigade commander Yazan al-Jabouri and Sunni Iraqi cleric Khaled al-Mulla released emotional statements of condolence.2 This outpouring illustrates not only Abu Mahdi’s personal charisma, but also, more importantly, reflects his push—whether arising from a heartfelt vision or cold calculation—for sect-transcending, community-oriented mobilization.

To understand the hazards that lie ahead for Iraq in the wake of Abu Mahdi’s assassination, we must first revisit the complexities of the organization he helped lead, which will remain a potent political and military force in the country. Depending on Sunni and minority leaders’ future positioning vis-à-vis the PMU’s claims to national legitimacy, the vision of cross-sectarian collaboration may or may not survive. But a return to deepening sectarian polarization could be disastrous for the country.

The vision of cross-sectarian collaboration may or may not survive. But a return to deepening sectarian polarization could be disastrous for the country.

This report examines, in depth, the issue of Sunni participation in the PMU. It especially focuses on Anbar governorate, which is more than 95 percent Sunni. In comparison to more mixed areas such as Diyala and Nineveh governorates, the PMU in Anbar has avoided blunt disruptions of the social fabric, and has largely not pursued aggressive policies of demographic engineering.3 Of course, the PMU has benefitted from this strategy, since it allows the organization to instrumentalize divisions within Iraq’s tribes, while attracting unlikely allies at the local and provincial level. At the same time, however, Sunni groups’ willingness in Anbar to join the PMU challenges one-dimensional depictions of largely monolithic, identity-based coalition designs in Iraq.

Without understating the importance of transactional motivations, this report demonstrates how a short-term common denominator can generate or reinforce, at the local or individual level, loyalties that transcend tribal and sectarian identities. In addition to research in Arabic and English, the report relies on data from twenty interviews with representatives of government agencies and the Iraqi Armed Forces, political analysts, tribal elders, and PMU members. These interviews were conducted in Baghdad and Anbar governorate in 2018 and 2019. The evidence definitively shows the fluidity of tribal and sectarian identities, which Eurocentric perspectives often misleadingly portray as primordial categories.

Due to the sensitive nature of the topics discussed in this report, I have withheld the names of some interviewees, upon their request. To further protect the anonymity of sources, I have in many cases intentionally left the dates of interviews vague.

Sunni PMU Sympathizers: Not Just a PR Stunt

Sunni participation in the PMU dates almost to the organization’s founding, but has become more topical in the last two years. This is in part because the PMU has been trumpeting Sunni participation as a public relations tool, especially in Anbar, which is largely homogenous. Seeking to rehabilitate its image in the face of accusations that it was involved in the violent crackdown on popular protests in 2019, the PMU’s official website and Telegram channel have been diligently portraying a carefully branded military heroism, particularly against the Islamic State.4 PMU propaganda paints the organization as a “protector of the nation” in which many minorities participate, including Sunnis.

But Sunni participation in the PMU is not just a PR stunt. And to those who followed the fight against the Islamic State closely, Sunni participation in the PMU should not come as a surprise. Especially in Sunni-majority regions of Iraq, such as Anbar, Sunnis were on the front lines of the fight against the extremist group. As an organization bonded in the crucible of that war, it thus makes sense that the PMU would include Sunni fighters and groups as well as Shia. Despite this fact, little international media attention has been paid to the PMU as an organization that has, in some respects, transcended sect, even as some individuals and groups continue to promote a fiercely sectarian rhetoric. Some PMU factions are close to Iran, and the PMU is, in fact, a largely Shia organization. But it still claims to be organically Iraqi, and to have greater diversity—in terms of sect and otherwise—than is often acknowledged.

Sunni Arabs have joined the PMU for a myriad of individual and peer-shared motivational factors. A variety of forces have produced loyalties that override sectarian or tribal identities. In part, Sunni groups and individuals have joined the PMU for reasons that are simply transactional—the PMU is powerful, and for the vulnerable, joining is a matter of survival. However, there are other, more complex reasons that Sunnis have joined the PMU. These are related to communal relations, fluid tribal identification patterns, and local politics and economics.

Sunni Arabs have joined the PMU for a myriad of individual and peer-shared motivational factors. A variety of forces have produced loyalties that override sectarian or tribal identities.

The PMU’s online presence provides various examples of its endorsement from different actors across the fractured Sunni community. Shortly before the PMU’s official recognition as part of the Iraqi security forces through the so-called PMU law issued in 2016, the head of Fallujah’s tribal council, Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Nimrawi, praised the role of the PMU in the liberation of Anbar.5 Sheikh Mohammed al-Hayes said in October 2016 that Anbar’s Sunni tribes were acknowledging the crucial contribution of the PMU in preventing interference from neighboring countries in the governorate.6 The president of the Sunni Endowment Office, Abd al-Latif al-Humaym, as well as the more controversial Sunni grand mufti in Iraq, Sheikh Abdul-Mahdi al-Sumaidaie, cheered for the PMU.7 Sumaidaie even set up his own militia unit within the PMU, the Eighty-Sixth Brigade.8

The assassinations and rising tensions between the United States and Iran have changed the political calculus in Iraq. Depending on Iraq’s fragile relationship with its Western allies and their readiness to militarily confront Iranian allies, affiliation with the PMU is likely to become more costly—and the transactional motivations for such allegiances, whether for Sunni fighters or others, will weaken. It is thus more important than ever to understand how factors like kinship, comradeship, and neighborliness can motivate Sunni Arabs and other minority communities in Iraq to form alliances outside of their own sects. The question is not just important for the future of the PMU, but also for building a more stable Iraq, where difference in sect does not predict conflict. Measures that seek to build trust or confidence will need to recognize the power of interpersonal relationships, and the ties of community and family.

The Roots of Sunni Participation in the PMU

Following the Islamic State’s capture of Mosul and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s historic declaration of the group’s caliphate in June 2014, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued, through a deputy, the famous edict (or “fatwa”) that declared a defensive jihad—a sacred armed struggle against the Islamic State’s aggression.9 Driven by religious fervor, thousands of young warriors mobilized in response, and came to constitute the PMU, a state-sanctioned paramilitary umbrella comprising approximately fifty distinct armed entities. These included many new recruits and the Shia militias that already existed, many of which were broadly perceived as proxies of Iran, or its long-standing partners. Adnan al-Shahmani, a Shia sheikh whose brigades have a presence in Anbar, said that these preexisting Iran-aligned formations had been instrumental in managing the overflow of volunteers, thereby providing essential administrative help. (Shahmani is also a former member of parliament, where he was on the committee for security and defense.)10

Still, Sistani’s call to arms deliberately refrained from any language that could be seen as discriminatory against the Shia. And two of Sistani’s representatives, the clerics Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalai and Ahmed al-Safi, later emphasized that the fatwa was a call to all Iraqi citizens, regardless of their confessional background, to join the effort and volunteer in support of the Iraqi security forces. The mobilization, in essence, worked; the Islamic State suffered a territorial defeat by 2017. Despite developing a questionable human rights record over the course of its military campaigns, the PMU contributed immensely to countering the advances of the Islamic State, whose insurgents had almost brought the U.S.-trained Iraqi Army to its knees.11

On the heels of its battlefield success, the PMU became deeply entrenched in Iraqi politics. Nevertheless, its organizational development remains in its infancy. There are about 150,000 registered fighters on the payroll of the Popular Mobilization Commission (the administrative body overseeing the PMU). To defend their version of a strong state, the PMU has so far not shied away from monopolizing the state’s institutional foundations. Power-driven bureaucracies have often facilitated the advance of this incremental state capture. More surprising, perhaps, is that the competing camps of the divided sectarian Other—Sunnis—have often been complicit, and some happily so, in the PMU’s state capture.12

It can seem paradoxical that some Sunni tribes vouch support for and entrench themselves within the PMU. As noted above, the PMU is primarily Shia, albeit not exclusively so. Further, the PMU’s track record on human rights and sectarian repression remains highly questionable.13 Nevertheless, some former members of the Iraqi Awakening (“Sahwa” in Arabic) decided to explore their chances with the PMU. The Awakening was a movement of Sunni tribes that fought, with the help of the United States, against al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the precursor to the Islamic State. The Awakening started in Anbar in 2006 and eventually expanded throughout Iraq; it was disbanded in 2013. Many analysts believe the Awakening was instrumental in defusing the AQI threat from 2006 to 2008—and some Awakening fighters earned the ire of tribes who had sided with AQI. While some former Awakening members who joined the PMU saw the PMU as an insurance policy against Islamic State retaliation, others sought to protect themselves and their communities from uncalled-for PMU encroachments, while a significant number simply hoped to claim their “fair” share of the unfolding war economy.

It can seem paradoxical that some Sunni tribes vouch support for and entrench themselves within the PMU.

When the Islamic State began rapidly conquering territories in 2014, the initial U.S. response was to experiment with restarting the Awakening.14 Toward the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015, the U.S. government and military officials started developing what American officials and analysts came to refer to as the tribal mobilization forces program.15 By mid-2015, according to researcher Erica Gaston, American forces and security advisors had helped mobilize a network of tribal forces in Anbar. By February 2016, the program had formalized and started recruiting in Nineveh: “In Salah ad-Din, US-sponsored tribal mobilization was not allowed by the Iraqi government and larger Shi’a [PMU] groups stepped in to fill the void, supporting local affiliates in areas where they operate,” Gaston writes.16 Tapping into Barack Obama’s mobilization efforts, Baghdad opted to incrementally integrate the majority of the so-called tribal mobilization forces under the structures of the newly consolidated Popular Mobilization Commission, which became responsible for the monetary compensation and military equipment of any tribal formations that were registered with the commission.

In 2008, keen on declaring its mission in Iraq complete without jeopardizing hard-won security gains, the United States had attempted to facilitate the integration of Awakening groups within Iraq’s formal military structures. But despite diplomatic pressure on Baghdad, the United States was only able to negotiate the integration of 20 percent of Awakening fighters.17 It may have been done reluctantly, but Washington thus essentially had to abandon large segments of its Awakening partners to their fate.

Awakening-affiliated figures performed decently in the 2009 provincial elections, but ultimately failed to translate their battlefield contributions into political and institutional leverage. It didn’t help, of course, that the administration of Nouri al-Maliki (prime minister 2006–14) seemed unconcerned with their plight.18 Further, Awakening-affiliated figures also lacked a shared ideological vision that could have empowered them to organize themselves under a more sustainable political framework. Further, they lacked a powerful foreign sponsor.

The Awakening’s demise can be seen as both a function and reflection of the debilitating fragmentation in Iraq’s Sunni community since the fall of Saddam Hussein.19 Almost unchallenged, Maliki demobilized the Awakening groups in a manner that many saw as authoritarian due to the ensuing repressive crackdown.20 With their international and domestic protection lost in 2009, many of the remnants of the Awakening groups fell victim to the extremist forerunners of the Islamic State, who exacted revenge on groups—and the communities they were associated with—whom they saw as collaborationists.21 As the nascent Islamic State expanded its power, the vendettas continued and grew grislier.

 “You see, Anbar was the governorate most harmed in Iraq,” Hais said. “An entire area was destroyed, almost the same as the massacres in Sabra and Shatila.”

Sheikh Hamid al-Hais, the former head of the Anbar Salvation Council, an Awakening group, emphasized the systematic annihilation campaign perpetrated by the Islamic State in the Western governorates. “You see, Anbar was the governorate most harmed in Iraq,” he said. “An entire area was destroyed, almost the same as the massacres in Sabra and Shatila”—the infamous 1982 attack on two Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.22 The Islamic State is accused of killing some 864 members of the “progovernment Sunni tribe” Albu Nimr in Hit, Anbar.23 Even since the territorial defeat of the Islamic State, the violence has continued. Middle East security analyst Michael Knights has reported that, in the first half of 2018, Islamic State militants killed Iraqi mukhtars (village heads) at a rate of about three and a half per week.24

Exposed to the worst brutalities of jihadist violence, these largely unprotected tribal figures had limited alternatives. Having been let down by both their American sponsors and Iraqi authorities, association with the PMU seemed to offer a viable insurance policy. “We lost thousands of martyrs,” Hais said. “The PMU at the time was stronger than the army and stronger than the police, although it was newly formed. No one is denying the truth. There have been complaints raised against the PMU. They have certainly made mistakes, but it is a battlefield, after all. Still, a big part of the credit for the liberation of the territories occupied by [the Islamic State] goes to the PMU.”

A Mutually Beneficial Arrangement

The legacy of the Awakening—and its aftermath, in a climate of Islamic State retaliation against its remnants—was not only that some Sunni tribal leaders were willing to embrace the PMU when it emerged. Equally so, the success of the U.S.-backed Awakening experiment, short-lived though it was, made a compelling case for the Iraqi leadership to devise an approach to Sunni tribal mobilization to combat the Islamic State. The prevalence of tribal identities at the subnational level—variable and fluid as they may be—did not stop Iraqi authorities from reclaiming ownership over the U.S.-led tribal mobilization forces. Iraqi authorities thereby laid the foundations for what after June 2014 was to be embedded under the structures of the PMU as the tribal PMU (“al-Hashd al-‘asha’iri”).25 The incorporation of some of these tribal elements was initially facilitated through a directive of the Council of Ministers in April 2014.26 Others were established by government decree in February 2016.27 By November 2016, there were some 40,000–50,000 Sunni fighters inside the PMU, most of whom were being organized under what has been popularly referred to as the “tribal” or “Sunni” PMU.28

According to an organizational structure introduced in July 2019, these tribal elements are supposed to respond to the same military code of conduct as the other registered brigades.29 The new organizational structure also requires tribal formations to coordinate with the command of the operations for each governorate according to their geographical presence.30 Today, PMU leaders are rather vague regarding the exact numbers of tribal elements on the payroll, but PMU representatives and security officials said in interviews that approximately 18,000 are registered under the Nineveh PMU; around 3,000 in the Salahaddin PMU; and 16,000 in the Anbar PMU.31 Hais, the former Anbar Salvation Council head, said that 10,000 of the registered fighters in Anbar were receiving salaries through the Popular Mobilization Commission, and the remaining 6,000 were still considered “volunteers,” being provided with only the most basic equipment.32

For the Iraqi leadership and its government-sanctioned PMU intervention, the benefits of the arrangement introduced in the summer of 2019 have been clear. Not only does the mechanism allow the Iraqi leadership to forge relations with more autonomously driven sub-state entities, but the PMU’s involvement in the counterinsurgency campaign has also freed capacities within the formal armed forces by deploying the local tribal units as a holding force.33 This tactic was envisioned as an instrument to build trust with local communities liberated from the Islamic State, acknowledging their skepticism of the policing by and presence of Shia paramilitary units.34

The institutionalized collaboration between the PMU and the Salahaddin Brigade and its leader, Yazan al-Jabouri, clearly illustrates how a Sunni community leader and his counterparts in PMU circles have managed to identify and reap the low-hanging fruit of the abovementioned rationale.35 Acknowledging Jabouri’s concerns over the infrastructure damages and the looting perpetrated by PMU factions during the Battle of Baiji (2014–15), the PMU leadership authorized the militia leader to spearhead the liberation of his hometown, al-Shirqat, backed reportedly by only a few dozen fighters from the Shia PMU brigade Jund al-Imam and under the cover of U.S. air support. Delegating the responsibility to local forces, the PMU not only succeeded in winning over Sunni residents to its cause, but also vied for Jabouri’s personal loyalty, whose relationship with the late Abu Mahdi—at least in Jabouri’s own words—appeared to be close: “Within two minutes, we clicked. We sat together for about three hours, and he just loved me. And I loved him.”36 Moreover, following Abu Mahdi’s death, Jabouri, along with his father—the politician Misha’an al-Juburi—was one of the first Sunni voices to profess heartfelt appreciation and grief for the fallen “martyr” and brother in arms:

Words and phrases cannot express what has befallen me, because his absence is greater than all the poems that he is to inherit and is greater than all expressions of sympathy. Nothing in this world describes the extent of sadness in these moments. Here is the sky giving tidings to the soul of the resistance, the architect of the victories, and the splendor of the martyred leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. . . . Today, the sword of God has fallen, and our hearts are stricken with loss. . . . Farewell, my dear, O descendent of [Imam] Ali, O heart of Christ, farewell O father of the holy mobilization. Farewell, Jamal Jafaar Al Ibrahim. . . . We bid you farewell and you who will remain immortal in our memories, not even death can kill you within us.37

Lastly, aware of the familiar and deep-seated appetite for tribal vengeance, the PMU leadership was, if not overtly encouraging Sunni tribal reprisals against alleged Islamic State remnants, then at least condoning the tribal factions’ no-leniency approach toward co-religionist extremists.38 The PMU delegated anti-Islamic State reprisals to Sunni-majority units, which also gave the main PMU body plausible deniability in the case of atrocities or excesses. Commissioning Sunnis to conduct retaliation campaigns on alleged Islamic State supporters also allowed the PMU to continue advertising its “inclusivity,” while diverting the attention away from Shia-majority units with an already alarming reputation for perpetrating sectarian-motivated killings.

The Iraqi leadership’s efforts to include tribal groups in its fight against the Islamic State have also, however, inherited some structural deficits of the “trial and error logic” underlying the tribal PMU’s founding process. Despite reassurances that confidence had been developing through shared responsibilities in joint battles, Hais did not shy away from raising the issue of discrimination against the tribal PMU, which remains both underrepresented in the leadership ranks of the Popular Mobilization Commission as well as inadequately equipped in terms of the provision of armaments and other military support. Hais’s main criticism, though, was against politicians who have turned a blind eye to the sufferings of Sunni Arabs in the western governorates, and neglected the collective duty to fight the Islamic State, which he described as a “monstrous terrorist outgrowth hiding under the veil of religion.”39

Factions in Anbar

To comprehend the highly diversified security marketplace on the ground in Iraq, it is important to consider the sociopolitical and geographical factors underlying the power dynamics in the case of Anbar. The provision of security across the governorate is based on complex burden-sharing arrangements between multiple stakeholders with deeply entrenched interests. In addition to the Iraqi security forces’ Anbar Operations Command, the East Anbar Ramadi Command, border guards, intelligence units, and federal and local police forces, more than half a dozen tribal PMU groups have a presence on the ground.40

In an interview with the author, the representative of the regiment of the tribal PMU faction in Fallujah expressed his frustration over the wretched state of procurement and supply affecting the operational capacity of most of the Sunni units serving in Anbar. Nevertheless, his criticism was restrained, shielding the Popular Mobilization Commission from responsibility and pointing the finger in the direction of the central government and “self-enriching elites” residing in the capital. “Currently, those who are appearing on satellite channels—and who were based in hotels and resorts during the liberation campaign pretending to defend the Sunnis—have returned,” he complained. “These politicians simply want to ride the wave. [Former speaker of the Iraqi parliament] Salim al-Jabouri claimed the PMU volunteers do not deserve support or salary. Why? We liberated Mosul and protected Baghdad and made it possible for [Jabouri] to return. We took it back with our blood. Every house has at least one martyr.”41

Most importantly, the account of the representative in Fallujah reiterated the contribution of the tribal PMU in rebuilding trust with local communities and acquiring vital intelligence. “We cooperate,” he said. “There is coordination with tribal sheikhs and the city’s mukhtars. We have civilian sources and collaborators. The mukhtars give us their phone numbers, and every Thursday we have a meeting. Every member has his own informants who share with us what they know.”42

The PMU’s Second Brigade collaborates with the Fourteenth Division of the Iraqi Army to defuse a car bomb in Fallujah, spring 2019. Source: Inna Rudolf

Similarly to Hais, the regiment’s representative focused on praising national unity, and diverted the conversation from what he had framed as isolated incidents of human rights violations against supposed Islamic State affiliates, which were common in the initial stages of the counterinsurgency campaign. “Praise to God and to the Popular Mobilization Commission, it is because of them that this achievement was made possible,” he said. “We are all under the Iraqi flag. We are all defending the state as a united mobilization front under a national umbrella. We should be given our rights and not be discriminated against for the sake of those who handed over their weapons.”43

Various units from across the Shia spectrum of the PMU have also been active on the ground in Anbar, with some more successful than others in winning over Sunni locals, including most of the veteran U.S.-designated “special groups” working alongside the Popular Mobilization Operations Western Anbar Axis, headed by Qasem Musleh.44 These groups are Iran-sponsored Shia-militia-like formations, and have claimed responsibility for thousands of attacks on American forces and their international allies.45 It therefore appears self-contradictory that, despite being perceived in U.S. security circles as militant Shia diehards, such units have succeeded in forging alliances with Sunni residents in liberated areas—albeit temporarily, and conditional on the prerequisite of a common enemy. For example, even though spokespersons for these Shia-majority units deny having an official presence within the cities, many of their members indicate that they can draw on large networks of informants and embedded allies gathering and passing on intelligence from within urban areas. While discussing the Sunni participation in the predominantly Shia PMU formations, Hais emphasized that Sunni–Shia divisions were, in general, artificial and opportunistically nurtured. “What is the problem here—aren’t we all Iraqis after all?” he said. “We fight the same evil.”46

Strange Bedfellows

In some areas where Sunni Arabs have formed alliances with the Shia-dominated PMU, politicians have argued that they do so only because of intimidation and coercion. But closer examination reveals that there are a variety of complex factors that contribute to these seemingly paradoxical partnerships.

One motivation is surely fear—not only of the PMU, but also of other enemies. For one, as this report has already shown, many Sunni Arabs in Anbar and elsewhere have suffered at least as much from Islamic State violence as they have from that perpetrated by other groups. Further, Sunni Arab communities that have reached out to the PMU have historically been very vulnerable, as the analyst Muhanad Seloom emphasized in an interview with the author. Their choice to align with the PMU, he said, has been “survival-oriented.”47

Still, fear is only one of the causes pushing unlikely partnerships with the PMU. The PMU also relies on hybrid outreach tactics to mobilize Sunni fighters and groups. In a report on the heterogeneity of armed actors across Iraq’s disputed territories, the authors Mac Skelton and Zmkan Ali Saleem point out that despite being implicated in the perpetration of anti-Sunni atrocities, PMU members such as the Badr Organization (previously known as the Badr Brigades) and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq have proven relatively successful in navigating the loyalties of local Sunni communities and recruiting Sunni Arab fighters, especially in the areas of al-Sadiyah and the mixed town of Jalawla.48 The authors’ interviews suggest that the PMU uses a highly transactional “carrot and stick” approach that ranges from protection from rival groups to the provision of arms, along with more material incentives, such as a “handsome salary, a piece of land and a house.”49 To support their recruitment campaign, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq figures have also allegedly been granting expelled Sunni Arab residents the “right to return” to their communities. This is in addition to unlocking opportunities for Badr and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq members to tap into numerous revenue-generating channels such as the manning of lucrative checkpoints. Across Iraq, checkpoints have brought together a peculiar mixture of traditional state actors as well as extra-institutional security providers with loose affiliations to government agencies.50 As an interviewee from one of the brigades deployed in Anbar governorate emphasized, especially in border areas one can observe a so-called “joint duty” to protect checkpoints, “where elements of the army, the PMU, police, and tribal mobilization all act as one force.”51

A volunteer from the Badr Brigades (now known as the Badr Organization), one of Iraq’s paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), fires on Islamic State fighters in Ebrahim Ben Ali, Anbar governorate, in April 2015. The PMU is an organization bonded in the crucible of the war against the Islamic State. Source: John Moore/Getty Images

Fieldwork in the governorate of Anbar in March and April 2019 indicated that the propensity of Sunni Arabs to explore areas of convergence with their Shia compatriots has, to a large extent, fed into the PMU narrative of a cross-sectarian symbiosis across Iraq’s western regions (though it may be geographically limited and temporary, and highly conditional). When asked about the specifics of the Anbar case, Shahmani, the Shia sheikh and former member of parliament, pointed to the governorate’s legacy of countering violent extremism. “Anbar has a track record of fighting terrorism stemming from the Sunni Awakening,” he said. “The Awakening followed a line of rejecting terrorism and cooperating with the state. This previous experience of standing up to al-Qaeda has paved the way for the mobilization against Da’esh [the Islamic State]. It shows the distinctiveness of the Anbar case in comparison to other governorates that fell into the hands of Da’esh.”52 Mustafa al-Naji, a political science lecturer at Baghdad University, described the influence of the Awakening in similar terms. “The DNA of the [tribal PMU] in Anbar can be traced back to the Awakening experience.”53 Naji also elaborated on the nature of the Sunni participation within the PMU in the governorates of Salahaddin and Nineveh, though he emphasized several structural and sociopolitical differences from the dynamics in Anbar:

In comparison to tribes like the Jughayfa from the Haditha area in Anbar, who fought against [the Islamic State] from the very first day without any political ambitions, some influential individuals in Salahaddin and Nineveh have tried to achieve a popular majority by aligning with the PMU, in order to influence the policies toward their cities and communities, and to stabilize the provision of security and services at the local level. Nevertheless, having witnessed the failure associated with the establishment of political parties, most of these figures still prefer to work with the PMU independently, regrouping under geographically rooted formations such as Asa’ib al-Dhuluiya and Asa’ib al-Alam.54

Sunni Members of Shia PMU Factions

In addition to the Sunni tribal PMU groups, there are a sizable number of individual Sunni fighters in Iraq who have joined Shia-dominated PMU factions across various governorates with different demographic characteristics. This is also true in Anbar, despite its degree of social cohesiveness. The phenomenon illustrates just how problematic it can be to rely on sectarian identity as an explanation for individual choices. Moreover, it reinforces the importance of socioeconomic variables in drawing the contours of both peace and conflict.

Naji described the Sunni tribal engagement with the PMU in Salahaddin and Diyala through a more opportunistic prism, emphasizing the impact of unemployment and economic grievances measured against the favorable treatment of PMU-affiliated formations. “In addition to securing improved access to services and aid provision,” he said, “collaborating with the PMU has helped some clan figures in these areas to boost their influence and leverage in local communities, and has even improved their electoral prospects.”55

Asked specifically about the main drivers behind the decision of Sunni fighters to join primarily Shia PMU units, both Naji and Ahmed al-Assadi, a former PMU spokesperson, emphasized pragmatic factors such as the better level of armament of the PMU factions in comparison to the equipment provided to tribal forces.56 Further, they also stressed the fact that the tribal elements are being perceived as more likely to be “penetrated” by both Western foreign agents and terrorist elements. “As the majority of Islamic State members were Sunnis, a lot of conflicts emerged between the tribes, and killings took place, even within clans,” Assadi said. “When they consider joining a tribal Sunni unit, it might be that they end up encountering the brother of their brother’s killer or that they have to fight side by side with the cousin of the killer of their cousin. So, what works better for them? They’d rather join Shia formations where they don’t face such a risk.”57

A survey by the National Democratic Institute, published in November 2019, indicates that despite persistent concerns in Sunni-dominated western Iraq about the PMU’s overreaching of its initial security mandate, more than seven in ten Anbaris have professed their general trust in the PMU, alongside the army, the federal and local police.58 The survey also showed that even though participants in western Iraq may disapprove of the PMU as a force authorized to police morals or ensure order during demonstrations, a 52-percent majority continue to feel favorable toward the PMU, to some degree validating the PMU’s performance of a security and protection role alongside the Iraqi security forces.59

Preexisting personal ties in local communities appear to be fundamental to the occasional Sunni representation within Shia-dominated PMU formations. Such ties allow for confidence and occasional friendships and family bonds (such as through intermarriages) to develop over time. Some of the interviewed Sunni members of Shia units served side by side with their “recruiters” in the Iraqi Army in the midst of heightened sectarian conflict in 2005–6. When asked about his individual choice to volunteer with the Thirty-First Brigade of the PMU, Abu Waleed—the nom du guerre of a middle-aged former army soldier—emphasized the importance of this trust. “This is a social fabric,” he said. “We share history together. I might be Sunni and the other is a Shia. There is not a difference between us, even though many have tried to drive a wedge between us.”60

The author stands with members of the Badr and Risaliyyun brigades of the PMU, and Iraqi Army soldiers, who are collaborating to manage a checkpoint in Anbar governorate. Source: Inna Rudolf.

Precisely these personal relations were emphasized by a fellow Shia combatant as providing an insurance policy against concerns about penetration of the brigade by Islamic State-affiliated Sunni elements. As one member of a Shia brigade put it: “For example, we know all about [Abu Waleed’s] background. We know how he fought al-Qaeda before and we know his family and his brothers, who were injured in these battles. We know that this person is a real fighter against Da’esh, and he will never betray us.”61

An important motivational factor raised by another Sunni member of the same brigade has been the reputation of the group itself and its relatively nonsectarian image. “This is the most appropriate faction for us because the sheikh is known and has credibility,” he said. “Our roots go back to the resistance factions which fought against the regime of Saddam.” The fighter was referring to Shahmani, who founded the brigade and who has falsely been assumed by some experts to be a loyalist of the late Iranian revolutionary Ruhollah Khomeini. Shahmani instead has pointed to Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr (1943–99) and Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (1935–80) as his religious references.62 Shahmani has underlined his respect for Iraq’s Sistani and the loyalty of his troops toward the state and the hawza (Shia seminary) in Najaf.63 Established as the party’s military wing, his Risaliyyun forces are now registered as the Thirty-First Brigade of the PMU.64 The brigade has, so far, employed a nationalist rhetoric, without denying that it has received help from Iran.

Loyalty to the PMU

When explaining their personal choices to join predominantly Shia brigades instead of tribal PMU groups, Sunni members pointed to the deficits of the latter. They especially emphasized the tribal PMU groups’ poor organizational structures. Among other concerns, they also raised the tribal PMU groups’ alleged vulnerability to penetration by Islamic State supporters from within the larger families of tribal fighters, and their susceptibility to American pressure—since many trace their lineage to the U.S.-led tribal mobilization forces.

Nevertheless, though acknowledging the risks of infiltration by compromised group affiliates, interviewees both from within the registered tribal formations as well as among the tribal elders rigorously defended the PMU from accusations of sectarian violence. Such criticism, they alleged, was the result of foreign-sponsored defamation campaigns. “If I am accused of having a son who acts in an irresponsible manner, why would you put all the blame on me?” said Jamal Yousef, a sheikh of the Dulaymi tribe in Fallujah, explaining this view. “It is not that I am defending the PMU—on the contrary, I am not afraid to criticize them. But the truth is, if it was not for them and the army and the police, I would not have been able to enter my house.”65

As another interviewee from another Shia PMU brigade explained, in comparison to the more chaotic beginnings of the counterinsurgency campaign, now every tribal elder as well as members of the community can get in touch with the responsible PMU office by phone and file a complaint using the identification data of the perpetrator, or by informing PMU officials of individuals engaging in crime. Yousef went so far as to compare the PMU’s new responsiveness to that of a psychologist, “because the psychologist is the one who is closest to you. This allows them to understand what their brothers need.”66

“I told them, you are living a lavish life, servants, bodyguards, cars, food, everything is luxurious,” Yousef said. “Your kids are in the best schools while the PMU volunteers are living in the desert and fighting against the Islamic State.”

Curiously, tribal leaders’ anger and frustration has mostly been directed at the lack of responsibility on behalf of state officials, who, driven by self-interest, are claiming credit for the sacrifices of the PMU. “I told them, you are living a lavish life, servants, bodyguards, cars, food, everything is luxurious,” Yousef said. “Your kids are in the best schools while the PMU volunteers are living in the desert and fighting . . . against Da’esh.”67 This mistrust toward bureaucratic elites was equally reflected in interviews both with tribal PMU groups and with Sunni and Shia members of majority-Shia PMU factions. Interviewees also complained of a supposed U.S. conspiracy to weaken Iraq, and complained about corrupt central authorities who failed to administer resources and manage the allocations of salaries, armaments, and other forms of equipment.

Beyond the issue of mistrust, interviewees’ comments also revealed a second point of discontent that is even more intriguing. There is another nonsectarian point of tension—between the center and the periphery. Lower-ranking individuals lacking instrumental connections to Baghdad were especially likely to give voice to this tension. Sectarian belonging seemed to be less of a dividing issue. Instead, the common denominator appeared to be frustration with administrative practices, delays, flawed procurement, the issuing of badges, and the handling of weapon permissions.68

As interviews in Anbar governorate have demonstrated, these subtle cleavages have generated an unusual gluing effect, overriding any Sunni–Shia divide.69

New Alliances and Gambles

In a kebab house in Fallujah in March 2019, a picture of Maliki on the telephone display of Abu Ali, a Sunni member of a tribal PMU group in Anbar, drew my attention. “If Maliki was around, he would not have allowed this targeting of the PMU,” Abu Ali said, criticizing what he regarded as the government’s inadequate efforts to protect the PMU from Islamic State sympathizers and other attackers.70 This Sunni fighter’s surprising defense of Maliki, whom many have blamed for Sunni marginalization, illuminates the fluidity of postconflict loyalties.71 In contrast to the disengagement of some established Sunni political leaders from the fight against the Islamic State, Maliki, despite all of his authoritarian and selectively sectarian repression, managed to win himself some battlefield legitimacy by being present on the ground during military operations in the course of the Karma offensive in 2015.

The rather paradoxical enthusiasm by some Sunni Arab fighters both for politicians and partisan figures like Maliki and their affiliated military wings also demonstrates the waning Sunni–Shia antagonism. As the scholar Fanar Haddad has observed, Sunni residents appear to have more or less come to terms with their designated role as a junior partner within the state project, which remains Shia-centric.72 Moreover, Sunni residents have had to synchronize their political ambitions with the ongoing transformation of the “muhasasa” (or “apportionment”) quota system. Having previously followed a simplified ethno-sectarian logic, the current mechanisms of allocating public sector resources and privileges now seem to hew to party lines, laying the foundation for a so-called “muhasasa hizbiyya,” or “party” muhasasa. With identity politics giving way to personalized clientelism, intra-confessional competition and fragmentation have generated unexpected alliances, not only within the same sect, but also across partisan and tribal fault lines.73

As this report reveals, despite the utilitarian approach adopted by the PMU in their pursuit of cross-sectarian popularity, the successful mobilization of Sunni fighters within PMU ranks cannot solely be attributed to the top-down recruitment process. The material benefits and economic advantages associated with membership in a Shia PMU faction do not diminish the importance of psychological and sociological drivers, such as preexisting communal ties, often developing out of military camaraderie, intermarriages, or neighborly solidarity. The grand architects of the PMU—the late Abu Mahdi among them—have acknowledged that social cleavages are not static, and have accommodated the diversity that exists within sects.

Domestic and international players have rushed to outbid each other in the competition for Sunni citizens’ arms and allegiances. The late Abu Mahdi seemed to understand that psychological and social bonds could be built with Sunni Iraqis—there is nothing permanent or inescapable about Iraqi sectarianism. Abu Mahdi put this belief in action by stirring anti-American sentiments and highlighting the unreliability of the United States as an ally and protector of the Sunnis. To succeed in maintaining a strong Sunni constituency, Abu Mahdi’s successors will need to break new ground: they will have to rely even more on bottom-up confidence building.

Following the assassinations of January 3, chants of “Iran out, out!” are being challenged by others of “Death to America!” The controversial and legally contested vote by the Iraqi parliament to terminate the presence of all foreign troops in the country provided quick evidence that Donald Trump’s flawed policy of retaliation is bound to boost the symbolic and institutional leverage of resistance-leaning pro-Iran figures. While a few politicians, such as the speaker of the parliament, Mohammed al-Halbusi (an Anbar native), argued against the expulsion, their arguments have so far been too weak to prevail.74 The divided Sunni and Kurdish blocs seemed neither capable nor committed enough to successfully advocate for prolonging the mandate of the U.S.-led Global Coalition forces. But as this report’s interviews in Anbar have demonstrated, the trust in the reliability of the United States as a partner in combating jihadist terrorism had already been waning.

And yet, this waning trust does not mean that all PMU factions deny that they have benefitted from the military assistance provided by the Global Coalition. For example, Colonel Moussa Hamad al-Karbouly, head of the Aaly al-Furat brigade, indicated in January 2020 that members of his PMU-affiliated faction still acknowledge the training and support offered to them by elite Danish forces in the military campaign to liberate western Anbar from the Islamic State.75

On the one hand, tribal figures within the PMU seem skeptical of the actual capacity of joint Iraqi forces to sustain security gains in a challenging and contested terrain, like that in Anbar, without international backing. On the other hand, such group members still acknowledge that the United States may continue to perceive some PMU formations as legitimate targets. Washington’s more recent actions have thus made the question of allegiance more cut-and-dried for most Sunni PMU members. The American “precision defensive strikes” on three bases of Kata’eb Hezbollah (Abu Mahdi’s PMU-registered paramilitary faction) in Iraq and two in Syria on December 29, 2019 showed that PMU sacrifices during the war against the Islamic State meant little to Washington. All these events might discourage Iraqi Sunnis from siding with the United States against the PMU. One party may be leaving the country soon, and seems less concerned about how its actions reverberate across Iraq, while the other (the PMU) is committed to stay—no matter the human or operational cost involved. With anti-American sentiments growing and pro-Iran hard-liners cementing their positions across Iraq’s formal and informal decision-making infrastructure, the Sunni mourners of Abu Mahdi are, for now, likely to become even more professed in their grief and more outspoken in their selective condemnations of external sovereignty violations.

Sunni sympathizers’ allegiance to the PMU is not a foregone conclusion.

Still, Sunni sympathizers’ allegiance to the PMU is not a foregone conclusion. Their positioning is likely to reflect the often-conflicting agendas of Sunni community leaders caught in the middle of shifting geopolitical currents. The outcome of Sunni leaders’ gamble on the PMU will eventually depend on the PMU’s ability to rehabilitate its popularity and justify its existence, as Iraq’s key national interests and foreign policy priorities evolve. The more openly these Sunni figures explore the advantages of PMU affiliation, the more likely they are to be held accountable for the PMU’s controversial involvement in the violent crackdown of the reform-seeking protest movement. From the perspective of Baghdad’s Tahrir Square—ground zero for the protest movement—siding with commissioned state forces and their extralegal auxiliaries implicated in the killing of peaceful demonstrators equals guilt by association.

The PMU has not been exempt from the verdict of the street. Their once hard-fought battlefield legitimacy has been severely compromised by their condoning of anti-protester violence—and active contribution to protecting the status quo at all costs, though it may be under the veneer of state-sanctioned law enforcement. Neither the inter-security-agency blaming nor the more recent retreat to the well-worn rhetoric of anti-Americanism has helped the PMU’s case. And while Washington’s clash with Tehran may have for now dominated the chants for justice and reform, it has hardly erased the circumstances that gave rise to the unrest. The PMU and its Sunni supporters will eventually need to face that reality. The scars to the PMU’S reputation as a result of the protest movement will likely outlast the crisis-driven debate on the presence of U.S. forces. Similarly, judgements will also be made on groups’ choices of alliance.

Cover photo: Mourners in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf carry a picture of Jamal Jafaar Mohammed Ali Al Ibrahim (better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis), the deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). Abu Mahdi and the Iraqi general Qassem Soleimani were buried in Najaf on January 4, 2020 after being killed in a U.S. drone strike the day before. Source: PMU Twitter feed (@warmediateam)


  1. Since 2009, Abu Mahdi had also been on the United States Office of Foreign Asset Control’s “Special Designated Nationals” list. Individuals on the list have their assets frozen and are not allowed to deal with U.S. citizens. See “Recent OFAC Actions,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, July 2, 2009,
  2. “Iraqi Religious Figure Urges People to Expel US,” Islamic Republic News Agency, January 3, 2020,
  3. The PMU is accused of the latter in Diyala. See Hamza Hendawi, “Shattered by War, Sunni Arabs Despair over Future in Iraq,” Associated Press, September 10, 2017,,-Sunni-Arabs-despair-over-future-in-Iraq.
  4. On the protests, see “The Iraq Report: Iraq Security Sources Confirm Iran-Backed Militias Killing Protesters,” The New Arab, October 10, 2019, The official Telegram channel of the PMU media office is available at
  5. See “The PMU Law” (in Arabic),, November 26, 2016,السومرية-نيوز-تنشر-نص-قانون-الحشد-الشعبي; and “Al-Nimrawi Reduces the Importance of Conferences and Praises the Role of the PMU in the Liberation of Anbar” (in Arabic), PMU website, July 28, 2016,النمراوي-يقلل-من-اهمية-المؤتمرات-ويشي/.
  6. “Anbar Tribes: The Entry of the Popular Mobilization in the Governorate Prevented Interference from Neighboring Countries” (in Arabic), PMU website, October 4, 2016,عشائر-الانبار-دخول-الحشد-الشعبي-للمحا/.
  7. “Humaym Praises the Role of the PMU in Protecting Civilians” (in Arabic) PMU website, January 5, 2017,الهميم-يشيد-بدور-الحشد-الشعبي-في-الحفا/; Abdul Latif Al-Humaym, interview with the author, Berlin, June 14, 2019.
  8. Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Hashd Formations of Iraq: Interview with Harakat Ahrar al-Iraq,” personal website of Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, January 18, 2019,
  9. Sistani’s representative who delivered the edict was the cleric Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalai. See Sistani’s “Collective Obligation Edict” of 2014 (in Arabic), See also “Sunni Rebels Declare New ‘Islamic Caliphate,’” Al Jazeera, June 30, 2014,; and Benedict Robin, “Al-Sistani Collective Jihad Fatwa,” Iraq after Occupation, May 21, 2015,ممثل-المرجعية-الشيخ-عبد-المهدي-الكربل/.
  10. Adnan al-Shahmani, interview with the author, Baghdad, April 22, 2018. Abu Mahdi had often pointed out that veterans of his rank with years of combat experience resisting Saddam Hussein’s regime had a responsibility to make the most of this expertise by defending the state. He would argue that such participation was necessitated by the leadership vacuum following the collapse of the Iraqi Armed Forces, in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. See Inna Rudolf, “From Battlefield to Ballot: Contextualising the Rise and Evolution of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Units,” International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 2017,
  11. Rudolf, “From Battlefield to Ballot.”
  12. Inna Rudolf, “The Hashd’s Popular Gambit: Demystifying PMU Integration in Post‐IS Iraq,” International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, November 12, 2019,’s-Popular-Gambit-Demystifying-PMU-Integration-in-Post%E2%80%91IS-Iraq.pdf; Renad Mansour and Peter Salisbury, “Between Order and Chaos: A New Approach to Stalled State Transformations in Iraq and Yemen,” Chatham House, September 9, 2019,
  13. Such violations have been documented by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in the following reports: “Iraq: Ban Abusive Militias from Mosul Operation,” Human Rights Watch, July 31, 2016,; “Iraq: Turning a Blind Eye: The Arming of the PMU,” Amnesty International, March 1, 2017,; “Punished for Daesh’s Crimes,” Amnesty International, October 2016,
  14. Lawrence Korb, “The Iraq Legacy: The Awakening,” The Guardian, March 21, 2008,; “COI Report: Iraq—Security Situation,” European Asylum Support Office, March 2019,
  15. Erica Gaston, interview with the author, London, January 14, 2020; Erica Gaston, “Sunni Tribal Forces,” Global Public Policy Institute, August 31, 2017,
  16. Gaston “Sunni Tribal Forces.”
  17. Thanassis Cambanis, et al., Hybrid Actors: Armed Groups and State Fragmentation in the Middle East (New York: The Century Foundation, 2019),
  18. Ibid.
  19. Renad Mansour, “Challenges to the Post-2003 Political Order in Iraq,” Swedish Institute of International Affairs, August 2019,
  20. Myriam Benraad, “Iraq’s Tribal Sahwa: Its Rise and Fall,” Middle East Policy 18, no. 1 (Spring 2011),
  21. Philip Dermer, “The ‘Sons of Iraq,’ Abandoned by Their American Allies,” Wall Street Journal, July 1, 2014,; Carter Malkasian, Illusions of Victory: The Anbar Awakening and the Rise of the Islamic State (London: Oxford University Press, 2017).
  22. Hamid al-Hais, interview with the author, Baghdad, December 4, 2018.
  23. Patrick Cockburn, “For This Iraqi Tribe Massacred by ISIS, Fear of the Group’s Return Is a Constant,” The Independent, July 4, 2018,
  24. Krishnadev Calamur, “ISIS Never Went Away in Iraq,” The Atlantic, August 31, 2018,
  25. Gaston, “Sunni Tribal Forces.”
  26. See “Who Established the PMU and Enacted the PMU Law… The Supreme Religious Reference?” (in Arabic), Kitabat, December 1, 2016,; and Muhammed Abdul Qader, “The Constitutionality of the Commission for the National Popular Mobilization” (in Arabic), Kitabat, April 16, 2015,دستورية-هيئة-الحشد-الشعبي-الوطنى1/.
  27. Specifically, this decree was Diwaniya Order No. 91. See “Text of the Law on the Popular Mobilization Commission,” PMU website, January 3, 2017,بالوثيقة-قانون-هيئة-الحشد-ينشر-في-الجر/; Muhammed Shafiq, “The ‘PMU’ in Its New Form Is Part of the Armed Forces” (in Arabic), Al-Akhbar, July 30, 2016,
  28. This figure comes from the head of the Popular Mobilization Commission, Faleh al-Fayyadh. “Fayyadh: The Popular Mobilization includes 40,000–50,000 Sunni Fighters” (in Arabic), PMU website, November 7, 2016,الفياض-الحشد-الشعبي-يضم-40-50-الف-مقاتل-س/; Ahmed al-Assadi, interview with the author, Baghdad, October 27, 2019.
  29. According to Diwani Order No. 237, published on July 1, 2019, by the prime minister’s office. See Iraqi prime minister’s media office (@IraqiPMO), Twitter status, July 1, 2019,
  30. “The Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Approves the Organizational Structure for the Popular Mobilization Commission” (in Arabic), PMU website, September 21, 2019,رئيس-الوزراء-القائد-العام-للقوات-المس-2/; “The Prime Minister Approves the Organizational Structure for the Popular Mobilization Commission” (in Arabic), Iraq News Agency, September 21, 2019,رئيس-الوزراء-يصادق-على-الهيكل-التنظيمي-لهيئة-الحشد-الشعبي.
  31. The Anbar PMU groups include the First Euphrates Regiment, the First Western PMU Regiment, as well as the Haditha Brigade. PMU representatives and security sector officials, interviews with the author, Baghdad and Anbar, March and April 2019.
  32. Hais, interview.
  33. Erica Gaston, “Local Forces, Local Control,” Global Public Policy Institute, April 20, 2018,
  34. “COI Report: Iraq—Targeting of Individuals,” European Asylum Support Office, March 2019,
  35. Nour Samaha, “Iraq’s ‘Good Sunni,’” Foreign Policy, November 16, 2016,
  36. Ibid.
  37. Yazan al-Jabouri (@yazanjiboury), Twitter status (in Arabic), January 3, 2020,
  38. Haley Bobseine, “Tribal Justice in a Fragile Iraq,” The Century Foundation, November 7, 2019,
  39. Hais, interview.
  40. These include: the Mahalawi tribal militia in al-Qa’im district; the Jughayfa tribal militia in the districts of Anah and Haditha; the Hit and Baghdadi town PMU groups; the Dulaymi regiments in Ramadi; the Albu Issa tribal militia; the Fourth Battalion of Amiriya Brigade; and the Fallujah Shield Force. See, respectively, “The District Commander of Al-Qa’im District in Anbar …” (in Arabic), Al-Taghier TV, December 28, 2017,المحلاوي-قضاء-القائم-منطقة-منكوبة-ويف/; Haditha PMU Brigade Facebook page,اعلام-لواء-حديثه-للحشد-الشعبي-1645658059017106/; “Al-Dulaymi Manages the PMU file in Anbar,”, April 30, 2015,; “The Albu Issa Tribe Condemns the Kidnapping of the Truck Drivers and Demands the Punishment of the Kidnappers” (in Arabic),, February 24, 2017,قبيلة-البوعيسى-تستنكر-اختطاف-سائقي-الشاحنات-وتطالب/ar; “The PMU in Anbar Is Positioning Itself along the Pilgrims’ Route to Secure Their Return” (in Arabic), PMU website, April 17, 2019,الحشد-الشعبي-في-الأنبار-ينتشر-على-خط-سي/; Amiriyah Al-Samoud Brigade Facebook page,; Fallujah Shield Brigade Facebook page,
  41. Representative of a regiment of the tribal PMU in Fallujah, interview with the author, March 11, 2019.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Ibid.
  44. Other PMU units present in Anbar governorate include the following: Kata’eb Imam Ali in al-Qa’im and Fallujah districts (Fortieth Brigade); Saraya al-Khorasani in the district of al-Qa’im and Rutba (Eighteenth Brigade); Kata’eb Hezbollah in the district of al-Qa’im and Rutba (Forty-Fifth Brigade); Saraya al-Jihad (Seventeenth Brigade); Brigade Aaly al-Furat, Ansar Allah al-Awfiyya in the district of al-Qa’im (Nineteenth Brigade); Risaliyyun in the district of Fallujah (Thirty-First Brigade); Badr Brigades, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, as well as the hawza-affiliated Liwa al-Tufuf present in the district of al-Qa’im (Thirteenth Brigade). See “The PMU Launches an Operation to Secure the Iraqi Western Desert” (in Arabic), October 6, 2018,; “Statement by the Commander of Anbar Operations” (in Arabic), NAS News, July 7, 2019,قائد-عمسليات-الأنبار-في-ميزان-السوشل-م/; “PMU Arrests the Killers of the Martyr Abu Bakr al-Samarrai” (in Arabic), Bader News Agency, August 31, 2019,; “Anbar Forces from the Seventeenth Brigade Take Part in Operations against ISIS” (in Arabic), published to the Albaeenah Iraq TV YouTube channel, August 2, 2018,; Shelly Kittelson, “Dangers Persist as Iraqi Border Crossing Opens and IDPs Return,” Al-Monitor, October 31, 2019,; “PMU Cleans Five Villages South of al-Qa’im” (in Arabic),, August 24, 2019,; Borzou Daraghy, “Badr Brigade: Among Most Consequential Outcomes of the Iran-Iraq War,” Atlantic Council, August 16, 2018,; Badr Organization in Anbar Governorate Facebook page,منظمه-بدر-قاطع-شرق-الانبار-736571019835272/; “The PMU Imposes a New Security Plan in the District of al-Qa’im” (in Arabic),, accessed January 9, 2020,خطة-امنية-جديده-في-القائم/.
  45. Michael Knights, “The Evolution of Iran’s Special Groups in Iraq,” CTC Sentinel 3, no. 11 (2010): 12–16,
  46. Hais, interview.
  47. Muhanad Seloom, interview with the author by telephone, October 1, 2019.
  48. Mac Skelton and Zmkan Ali Saleem, “Iraq’s Disputed Internal Boundaries after ISIS: Heterogeneous Actors Vying for Influence,” London School of Economics, February 2019,
  49. Ibid.
  50. On the checkpoints, see Skelton and Ali Saleem, “Iraq’s Disputed Internal Boundaries after ISIS.” Other information is from interviews conducted by the author in Anbar governorate, March and April 2019.
  51. Interviews conducted by the author in Anbar governorate, March and April 2019.
  52. Adnan al-Shahmani, interview with the author by telephone, November 2019. Shahmani was referring specifically to the Fifty-First Brigade, led by Yazan al-Jabouri, and the Fifty-Fifth Brigade, led by Ahmed al-Jabouri.
  53. Mustafa al-Naji, interview with the author, Baghdad, October 2019.
  54. Ibid.
  55. Ibid.
  56. Ahmed al-Assadi, interview with the author, Baghdad. October 2019.
  57. Ibid.
  58. “NDI Poll: Iraqis Welcome Improved Security and Social Cohesion, but Discontent with Government Undermines Stability,“ National Democratic Institute, July 29, 2019,
  59. Ibid.
  60. Abu Waleed, interview with the author, Karmah, March 2019.
  61. Member of a Shia brigade in Fallujah, interview with the author, March 2019.
  62. Muhannad Ghazzi, “Iraq’s Tayyar al-Risali,” Sumerian Priest, September 14, 2014. The blog has since been removed from the internet. Most of the relevant information is still accessible at “Special Research on the Tayyar al-Risali Brigades” (in Arabic), al-Hiwar al-Mutamaddin, October 10, 2014,
  63. Adnan al-Shahmani, interview with the author, Berlin, January 21, 2018.
  64. Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Hashd Brigade Numbers Index,” personal website of Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, October 31, 2017,
  65. Jamal Yousef, interview with the author, Fallujah, March 11, 2019.
  66. Ibid.
  67. Ibid.
  68. Members of a Shia Brigade in Fallujah, and low-ranking representatives of the tribal PMU headquarters in Fallujah, discussions on background with the author, March 2019.
  69. Marc Lynch, “The Entrepreneurs of Cynical Sectarianism: Why the Middle East’s Identity Conflicts Go Way beyond the Sunni-Shiite Divide,” Foreign Policy, November 13, 2013,
  70. Abu Ali, interview with the author, Fallujah, March 11, 2019.
  71. Muhammed Sadeq al-Hashemi, Perception of the PMU: The Path of the Resistance in Iraq (Baghdad: Iraq Center for Studies, 2019). Title has been translated from the original Arabic by the author.
  72. Fanar Haddad, “The Waning Relevance of the Sunni–Shia Divide,” The Century Foundation, April 10, 2019,
  73. Renad Mansour and Faleh Jabar, “Inter- and Intra-Ethnic Relations and Power Sharing in Post-Conflict Iraq,” European Yearbook of Minority Issues Online 11, no. 1 (November 17, 2014): 187–209.
  74. “A Leaked Video Showing Halbousi Warning MPs” (in Arabic), published to the Altaghier TV YouTube channel, January 6, 2020,
  75. Shelly Kittleson, “Fighters in Iraq’s Anbar Wary of US–Iran Conflict as Denmark Pulls Forces,” Al-Monitor, January 15, 2020,