In the late hours of the evening of November 7, 2021, an explosive-laden drone hit the residence of Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. The assassination attempt injured several security guards but left Kadhimi unhurt. As details of the attack came out, it became clear that the strike was not a genuine attempt on the life of the prime minister, but instead a message. Armed networks linked to the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU)—a government umbrella organization of paramilitary groups—had been deployed in response to the October 2021 elections in which the PMU’s political wing, the Fatah Alliance, had lost considerable seats to its Shia rival, the Sadrist movement. In response, Fatah had sent protesters to occupy part of Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, a fortified area in the city center which houses government offices and international representations. Security forces clashed with protesters, several of whom were killed. This violence set the stage for the assassination attempt, which the Kadhimi administration blamed on PMU factions—although the attackers have yet to be identified.1
The government formation process following the October 2021 election was the most violent since regime change in 2003. Beyond the strike on the prime minister’s residence, it included attacks on political party offices and tit-for-tat assassinations in southern Iraq.
But this violence followed a logic built into the post-2003 Iraqi state. Since 2003, violence has been an important tool in the competition for state power. It has been a key to the elite’s public authority. If a side has not won enough votes and suffers a loss in political capital, it can still lean on its access to arms and coercive capital—the utility of violence—to keep its seat at the negotiating table.
The post-2003 Iraqi state has been based on an elite bargain between the opposition Shia Islamist and Kurdish nationalist groups. Iraq’s new leaders, many of whom were returning to Baghdad for the first time in decades, had a specific vision for how violence would fit into the new political system. Their priority was to prevent another military strongman like Saddam Hussein from emerging again. In addition, private access to arms could ensure that the new leadership acquired and maintained state power. As such, they refused to completely integrate their forces into government structures, whether Shia armed groups into the central government or the Kurdish peshmerga fighting forces into the Kurdistan Regional Government.
This type of politically inclusive violence in the new Iraq has been designed to serve two primary functions: to negotiate political power and to protect the consensus-based political settlement against internal and external threats. Such politically inclusive violence is different from violence that goes against the system, such as insurgencies and groups like the Islamic State. It is also different from a civil war, because it still seeks to maintain the elite bargain. Perpetrators of politically inclusive violence have instead used it to keep the elite’s place in the system.
A Bloody Logic
This report focuses on the emergence of armed Shia Islamist factions following 2003. These groups had long histories dating back to the origins of the opposition against Ba’athist Iraq. The simplest way to categorize them is to go back to two Shia networks: the Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim network, which began in the 1980s and was close to the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr network, which emerged in the 1990s inside Saddam’s Iraq. Both these networks would become key players in building the new Iraqi system after Saddam.
The key Shia group not linked to these networks was the Islamic Dawa Party, which was often historically opposed to developing its own militia. However, when Dawa leader Nouri al-Maliki became Iraqi prime minister in 2006, he realized that his power in the state required him to have direct access to arms. In lieu of a strong militia, he took personal control over parts of the government, including the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) and other parts of the army, which became known as jaysh al-Maliki—Maliki’s army.
In the post-2003 order, the role of armed groups was normalized into the process of state competition. Shia Islamist factions in every contested transfer or shift of governing power have resorted to this violence, which is not intended to overthrow or weaken the state, but rather, to secure a faction’s share within it. However, it took some time for this logic to solidify and the new system to crystalize.
Muqtada al-Sadr’s insurgency against the Iraqi government, which started in 2004 and resulted in a civil war, challenged this logic. The Sadrists were the main group excluded from the political system drawn up by the Iraqi opposition and its American backers. Their exclusion led to the civil war, which ended in 2008 with Sadrist defeat. Since then, the Sadrists have been included in the state and have therefore not resorted to violence. Despite the many predictions over the years that Iraq is again heading toward civil war, such a conflict has never materialized: a majority of the violence has been part of the system, and not against it.
In the post-2003 order, the role of armed groups was normalized into the process of state competition.
Ultimately, following the 2021 vote, violence as a political tool for power worked. Sadr’s attempt to build a majoritarian government that excluded parts of Fatah failed. Instead, Fatah stayed in government and eventually played a leading role in the emergence of the next prime minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani.
Violence meant that the ruling elite could be more powerful than the government. A few weeks after the October 2021 Iraqi national election, I was in Baghdad’s Al-Zaqura Palace, a government building, for a meeting with the senior advisors to Kadhimi (prime minister at the time). As we discussed the latest developments, a group of demonstrators from the PMU thronged outside to protest the election result. They occupied parts of the Green Zone without government permission.
As our meeting in the palace began, the noise from outside made it difficult to hear or speak, agitating the prime minister’s advisors. They closed the windows, but the noise went through. We laughed at the irony: they were the government. They wished they could just remove the protesters who were occupying a crucial part of the city. But they knew that they couldn’t. They were powerless. We just had to speak louder in our meeting.
The moment symbolized the reality of state power in post-2003 Iraq. I was sitting in a remarkable palace built by the Ba’ath Party in 1975 to show off power. But on that day, the government’s most senior officials struggled to conduct meetings. Power was no longer only vested in the concrete walls of the palace. Instead, it was also with those armed protesters outside.
Politically Inclusive Violence
During the government formation process in 2021, the Sadrists sought to use their electoral victory to move against the consensus-based system that had governed Iraq since 2003. They formed a tripartite alliance with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and unified Sunni bloc (Siyada) to form a “majority government,” which called for the unprecedented exclusion of major Shia elite figures—namely, former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and parts of the Fatah Alliance. This move was a direct provocation against the post-2003 political settlement, and it invoked responses in various sectors, including violence. Fatah’s networks of violence—including vanguard groups loosely linked to the PMU—were deployed against the members of the tripartite alliance. Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, became the soft spot for numerous rocket attacks linked to resistance militia groups. Siyada leader Mohammad al-Halbousi’s house was attacked by groups from this network.
Facing the prospect of exclusion, Fatah and its networks used violence to maintain the consensus that governed Iraq after every election, and their place in it. In other words, it was politically inclusive violence, understood as part of the distribution of power within the state. Scholar Clionadh Raleigh and her coauthors argue in a 2022 paper in the Review of International Studies that “in states with high levels of ethnic inclusion, if representatives of large or wealthy communities fail to acquire a due share of ministerial positions, higher levels of political violence are expected.”2 Fatah was under threat of losing its due share, and as such, had to leverage its coercive capital—its capacity to force its will, with violence if necessary. This process is part of a “competitive clientelism,” Raleigh and coauthors write, in which “groups and their elite representatives use political violence against the state and each other to secure access to authority, positions, and proximity to the leader.”3
This report looks specifically at Shia armed groups as a case study to understand the relationship between violence and the post-2003 Iraqi state. But the same logic applies across the board, including, for example, to the KDP peshmerga and the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan peshmerga. Rather than an anomaly against the state, the proliferation of armed groups loyal to political parties and not the Iraqi government was built into the design of the new state.
Politically inclusive violence does not aim to bring down the system or provoke a civil war. In contrast, Sadr’s majoritarian push following the October 2021 election initially went against the logic of the consensus-based system. His attempt to exclude Maliki and parts of the PMU risked the outbreak of violence outside the confines of politically inclusive violence as armed Shia networks threatened escalation through the use of inclusive violence—from protests to assassination attempts. However, in 2022, Sadr ultimately backed down when he was faced with an altercation—unlike in 2006, when he launched an insurgency against the system. He did not take violence to the next step. On August 29, when he sent his protesters to invade the Green Zone, he immediately withdrew as soon as the death toll exceeded thirty. Over the years, the parameters of violence within the system had become clear, and the system had crystalized its ability to constrain civil war.
The Historical Origins of Shia Armed Groups
When the Islamic State conquered Mosul in June 2014, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a religious edict (wajib al-kifae fatwa) calling for men to enlist in state security forces to defend Iraqi territory. Answering his call, Iraqis rose up. But they were not signing up with the government’s failed armed forces. Instead, most new recruits were joining the newly formed PMU (known in Arabic as al-Hashd al-Sha’abi). Only a few days after the edict, Prime Minister Maliki drew on Sistani’s call for recruitment to issue an executive order that created the PMU commission—a legal body for the PMU directly under the Prime Minister’s Office.
Far from new, Maliki was gathering and legitimizing a group of preexisting militias that were part of the post-2003 Iraqi system. The original seven groups of militias included the Badr Organization, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’eb Hezbollah, Kata’eb Sayyid al-Shuhada’, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Kata’eb al-Imam Ali, and Kata’eb Jund al-Imam.4 Maliki had even, on occasion, referred to this loose network as a “popular mobilization,” which deployed against “Ba’athists” and “insurgents” to bring down protests and unrest in Sunni areas as well as in Syria, where some of these groups supported the regime of Bashar al-Assad in the civil war that erupted in 2011. These groups had strong relations with Iran, which became a major patron of Maliki’s second term (2010–14). The other major Shia militia, Muqtada al-Sadr’s Peace Brigades (Saraya al-Salam), remobilized and also joined the PMU. As such, the PMU has been a fluid network deeply embedded in the Iraqi state, and integral to how violence has been deployed in the post-2003 political system. How the PMU operated in the security, political, economic, and general social space reveals the type of organization it truly is.
The origins of these PMU networks reach back to before 2003, to two Shia networks: the Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim network and the Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr network.
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The example of the Hakim network offers a case study in how violence was mobilized as part of political competition in post-2003 Iraq. Stemming back to the early 1980s, Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim established the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SCIRI) in Iran, where he spent over two decades in exile. SCIRI formed its own armed wing, known as the Badr Corps (Faylaq Badr). The General Command of the Iranian Armed Forces paid around $20 million per year to Badr to pay salaries and purchase weapons, food, vehicles, and equipment.5 According to Iraqi sociologist Faleh Abdul Jabar, “Despite SCIRI’s talk of the Badr Army as an Iraqi organization, the force was under Iranian command. The commander of the force was an Iranian colonel.”6
Badr’s key power brokers were Hadi al-Ameri, its chief of staff; and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, its assistant commander. In the 1990s, Badr was an underground militant force with bases throughout Iraq. Its southern axis was on the Iran–Iraq border between al-Ahwaz, in Iran, and al-Huwaiza, an Iraqi marsh area in the Maysan governorate. Its middle axis was on the border between Dahlaran and Muthana governorate. Its Baghdad axis was in the Bakhtaran area between Baghdad, Wasit, and Diyala. Its northern axis was in Sulaimani.
Despite Ameri’s institutional superiority in the organization, Muhandis was a key network broker. The two competed for influence in Iraq. Muhandis managed to gain a stronger role in managing the underground networks in the four axes, while Ameri handled more of the centralized administrative affairs.
Smaller groups also existed at the time. For example, Kadhim “Abu Zeinab” al-Khalesi commanded Badr’s fifth brigade (the al-Mustafa Brigade) inside Iraq. However, he was also connected to the underground Dawa Party and Sadrist networks that were not allies of Badr. In 1991, he formed the Islamic Movement in Iraq and its armed wing, Kata’eb Jund al-Imam, to reach out to these non-Badr Iraqis in the south. In this way, Khalesi was simultaneously in the Badr network, but also a key network broker across the opposition.
Negotiating with Violence after 2003
Following the U.S.-led invasion, Badr moved some 10,000 fighters into Iraq and established itself along the eastern governorates bordering Iran, from Diyala to Wasit, where it had its main axes.7 But Badr became more than a military force. As Ameri took control—due to his close relationship with SCIRI leader, Hakim, who was close to the Americans—he used Badr as a vehicle for SCIRI political negotiation.
In 2004, following a Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) order called for the dissolution of militias. Rather than causing the militias to disappear, the CPA’s order actually presented an opportunity for Badr to compete for political power inside the government. The Badr Corps rebranded itself as the Badr Organization. From 2005 to 2008, it sent its members into the Ministry of Interior (although some merged into the Iraqi security forces). Many joined the Iraqi Federal Police. Taking control of large parts of the ministry, Badr now had its own minister, deputies, and directors general. The goal was to acquire state power through gaining influence over the crucial ministry. As was the case for all parties in the new Iraq, those who were sent into the ministry answered to the Badr leadership, and not necessarily to their superiors in the ministry or the wider government.
Eventually, the other ruling elite—the Kurdish and Shia parties—recognized how Badr and ISCI had gained power in the Ministry of Interior. They then entered this competition, sending their representatives to become senior officials in the ministry. Andrew Rathmal, a former advisor to the ministry, writes that the plan “to retain in place powerful Daawa, Badr and Kurdish (KDP) deputies” rested on an underlying idea:
By appointing a relatively weak minister and giving him three key deputies who were powerful players in their parties/militias, the intention of the governing alliance was to ensure that the [Ministry of Interior] could not become the armed wing of any one party. The intent was for each of the key parties to ensure that they could make use of the patronage and coercive assets available to them via the ministry, but also to ensure that their rivals did not become too powerful.8
Despite the pretense of integrating into the Ministry of Interior, Badr did not give up its private access to arms. Instead, it maintained tens of thousands of fighters outside the ministry. Retaining these fighters allowed the party to remain powerful, and to compete for power. Badr also maintained its relationship with other parts of the historic Hakim network. For instance, Muhandis had long ago split to form Kata’eb Hezbollah. Kata’eb Hezbollah did not play Iraqi government institutional politics, and it rejected the U.S. occupation. Despite this split, however, Muhandis remained a key broker in the Iran-aligned networks and worked closely to provide Badr with leverage when needed.
It is strange indeed to consider, but in a certain sense the Islamic State insurgency and the October 2019 revolution are in the same category of threats.
Access to arms gave Badr crucial capital in the negotiation for the state.9 For instance, when Maliki needed support to fight off the Sadrist insurgency during the civil war—he was, at the time, a weak compromise prime minister—he turned to Badr. Ameri deployed his fighters to support Maliki, who eventually won the Battle of Basra in 2008. In return, Maliki awarded Ameri and Badr with state positions. Ameri eventually became minister of transportation, and Badr officials would continue to lead the Ministry of Interior. Maliki even made Ameri the military governor of Diyala (al-masoul al-amani) in 2014.
Ameri’s access to violence led to his successful rise in the Iraqi state. This example reveals the nature of the state as designed after 2003. Violence became an important bargaining chip that helped the new ruling elite compete for government institutions and gain state power.
Violence to Protect the System
Violence in post-2003 Iraq has also had to protect the consociational power-sharing system from internal and external threats. The move to stop Sadr’s majority government bid was an example of how this violence can be deployed to defend the system. Having performed well in the elections, one member of the elite bargain—Sadr—saw an opportunity to exclude others, and as such, change the nature of the system from consensus to exclusionary. However, the PMU networks that had lost some political capital from the vote could still resort to violence, which was what they did to protect Fatah and Maliki’s place in the system, as well as the consensus nature of the state.
The Islamic State represented an external threat to the post-2003 system. Its insurgency conquered one-third of the country. The PMU fought alongside divisions in the Iraqi army, Ministry of Interior units, the CTS, Kurdish peshmerga, and local tribal mobilization units in the governorates of Anbar, Salahaddin, Nineveh, Diyala, and Kirkuk. The response saw the institutionalization of several militias in Iraq, as Maliki (then the prime minister) put them into the National Security Council under the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). This institutionalization strengthened the system and its ability to defend itself.
Other threats to the system came from inside. The October 2019 Tishreen movement, which erupted in Baghdad and much of the southern governorates, did not call for the end of a specific leader or party, but rather for the end of the system. In response, the agents of violence that protect the system collectively responded by killing more than six hundred protesters and wounding tens of thousands. It was a system response that included Ministry of Interior armed groups such as the anti-riot police, the National Intelligence Cell, SWAT, and PMO armed groups, such as the PMU and CTS. Violence that underlined the elite bargain was designed to maintain it.
It is strange indeed to consider, but in a certain sense the Islamic State insurgency and the October 2019 revolution are in the same category of threats. The Islamic State is a violent challenge against the Iraqi state from the fringes of society. In contrast, Tishreen is a major, grassroots, predominantly nonviolent movement from within the Shia society in Baghdad and southern Iraq. But these two phenomena do have a key similarity: they both push for structural change to the post-2003 system and, as such, both are met with violent resistance from the forces created to protect that system. The responses to both the Islamic State and the Tishreen movement reveal the connectivity of agents of violence to the Iraqi state network. The violence against protesters showed that, even as Iraq’s coercive apparatuses—including the PMO, the Ministries of Interior and Communication, and even Iraq’s judiciary—are prone to fragmentation, they coalesce to protect the political system when it is faced with existential threats.10 In short, understanding the network—rather than looking at state-versus-nonstate, or formal-versus-informal spaces—provides a more realistic explanation as to how the PMU has been able to serve as a coercive agent in the post-2003 Iraqi state.
Rethinking the Nature of Violence
Each time violence flares up from Shia armed groups in Iraq, the usual coterie of analysts predict an imminent civil war.11 However, the country has not seen an internal Shia war since 2008. But that has not meant there has not been intra-Shia violence. In the most recent iteration, both Fatah’s protests and the Sadrists’ protests against the 2021 election and government formation process led to violence and even deaths, sparking the most recent predictions of impending civil war.12 But a civil war never erupted. Instead, the elite bargain underlining the system has created violence that is designed to be politically inclusive. In the post-2003 system, each Shia party can use its coercive capital to contest for state power, but is less able to use it against the state.
And indeed, instead of fighting the state, the Shia Islamist parties have developed their coercive capital to defend the system. The formation of the PMU is testament to this fact. In 2014, as the Islamic State took over large swathes of Iraqi territory, the different groupings that historically made up the Shia military networks all came together to form a response to the threat. Years later, when the threat came from inside, as Iraqi youth—many of them Shia—called for revolution, these groups again came together with the state to protect the system. At this point, the PMU was deeply embedded into the Iraqi state, under the National Security Council.
Many international policymakers working to stabilize Iraq have focused on security sector reform. Guided by a neo-Weberian understanding of the monopoly over legitimate violence, their efforts have tried to integrate the historic networks of Shia armed groups into the government. The United States and other international organizations, such as the European Union and NATO, have worked in Baghdad attempting to integrate the PMU armed groups in a unified Iraqi government command structure. None of these attempts have succeeded, because they have run counter to the logic of the post-2003 Iraqi state.
Policy interventions should be designed with the understanding of the state outlined in this report. Integrating Shia armed groups into the government will not work, because it would require changing the very nature of the system. Instead, given how the system has solidified, policy should focus on holding to account the system, to keep it from its worst excesses, as Iraq’s ruling elite lean more on coercive capital to defend the state against an increasingly disillusioned population.
This report is part of “Faith and Fracture,” a TCF project supported by the Henry Luce Foundation.
Header image: A young Iraqi taking part in the Tishreen movement protests launches rocks with a slingshot at Iraqi security forces near Al-Senak bridge in Baghdad on November 15, 2019. Source: Erin Trieb/Getty Images
- “Iran-Backed Militia Staged Drone Attack on Iraqi PM – Officials,” Reuters, November 8, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/iran-backed-militia-behind-attack-iraqi-pm-sources-2021-11-08/.
- Gudrun Ostby, “Inequalities, the Political Environment and Civil Conflict: Evidence from 55 Developing Countries,” Horizontal Inequalities and Conflict, ed. F. Stewart (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 136–59.
- Clionadh Raleigh, Hyun Jin Choi, and Daniel Wigmore-Shepherd, “Inclusive Conflict? Competitive Clientelism and the Rise of Political Violence,” Review of International Studies 48, no. 1 (2022): 45.
- Renad Mansour and Faleh A. Jabar, “The Popular Mobilization Forces and Iraq’s Future,” Carnegie Middle East Center, April 28, 2017, https://carnegie-mec.org/2017/04/28/popular-mobilization-forces-and-iraq-s-future-pub-68810.
- “Study about the Disloyal Badr Corps 9,” General Security Office, 2002, https://ctc.westpoint.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Iraqi-Intelligence-Study-about-the-Badr-Corps-Translation.pdf.
- Faleh A. Jabar, The Shia Movement in Iraq (Saqi Books, 2003), 253.
- Ali Allawi, The Occupation of Iraq (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 111.
- Andrew Rathmell, “Fixing Iraq’s Internal Security Forces: Why Is Reform of the Ministry of Interior so Hard?,” 2007, Center for Strategic and International Studies, https://issat.dcaf.ch/Learn/Resource-Library/Policy-and-Research-Papers/Fixing-Iraq-s-Internal-Security-Forces-Why-is-reform-of-the-Ministry-of-Interior-so-hard.
- Kirk Semple, “Attack on Iraqi City Shows Militia’s Power,” New York Times, October 20, 2006, https://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/20/world/middleeast/21iraqcnd.html.
- Omar Sirri and Renad Mansour, “Surviving on Violence: Iraq’s Political Elite,” Mada Masr, November 10, 2019, https://www.madamasr.com/en/2019/11/10/opinion/u/surviving-on-violence-iraqs-political-elite/.
- Ranj Alaaldin, “Iraq’s Next War,” Foreign Affairs, September 13, 2018, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2018-09-13/iraqs-next-war.
- Nadeen Embrahim, “What’s behind Iraq’s Explosive Political Crisis?,” CNN, August 1, 2022, https://edition.cnn.com/2022/08/01/middleeast/iraq-protests-parliament-deadlock-mime-intl/index.html.