October 23, 2017

TSC IntelBrief: Riyadh, Washington And Iraq’s Shi’a Militias

With the large-scale military campaign against the so-called Islamic State now over in Iraq, policy-makers have turned their attention to the deeper divisions within the region that helped fuel the terrorist group’s rise.

• On October 22, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters in Saudi Arabia that ‘Iranian militias’ in Iraq should ‘go home.’

• The militias Tillerson referenced are the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) which are made up of Iraqi Shi’a fighters and strongly supported by Tehran.

• PMU militias have played prominent roles in both the fight against the so-called Islamic State and Baghdad’s ongoing crisis with the Kurds.

• The U.S. and Saudi Arabia are trying to curtail Iranian influence in Iraq, a policy that runs against history and current geopolitics.

With the large-scale military campaign against the so-called Islamic State now over in Iraq, policy-makers have turned their attention to the deeper divisions within the region that helped fuel the terrorist group’s rise. Those divisions are both internal and external, with external machinations between Saudi Arabia and Iran over Iraq, among the greatest destabilizing factors. 

In the years following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the country has been wrecked by war, divided by sectarianism and plagued by corruption and abysmal governance. Despite major successes in defeating the so-called Islamic State, Baghdad continues to struggle with remnants of what was the world’s most powerful terrorist proto-state, while dealing with a long-simmering crisis with the Iraqi Kurds.

The U.S. has long tried to limit Iranian influence in Iraq, though many in Washington understood that U.S. wishes notwithstanding, the two Shi’a-majority neighbors would be extremely close. The George W. Bush and Obama administrations tried limiting Iranian influence on Baghdad by building on the reality that Iraq is a sovereign country with a strong sense of nationalism, though with important religious, historic and economic ties with Iran. The Trump administration has gone further in pushing back on Tehran, openly aligning itself with Saudi Arabia in viewing all regional events as part of an Iranian grand design that must be countered by a variety of means, including force.

During a conference in Riyadh on October 22, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that with the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq essentially over, the ‘Iranian militias’ who played prominent roles in that struggle needed to ‘go home.’ The Secretary’s statement is consistent; both with the U.S. view on military units outside the Baghdad government’s control, and the U.S.-Saudi view that Iran is acting as a puppet master in Iraq. However, the realty is more complicated. For one thing, the ‘Iranian militias’ that Secretary Tillerson wants to ‘go home’ are Iraqi Shi’a militias known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), formed in 2014 to help the central government fight the Islamic State. Some have been existed, in some fashion and scope, since 2003.

There’s no question the PMU are heavily supported by Iran; including direct support in terms of advisors and equipment. They are not, however, Iranian; they are intensely Iraqi and helped Baghdad avoid an even greater catastrophe when the Iraqi army proved incapable of fighting the Islamic State. That doesn’t mean the PMU are not controversial, even among Shi’a officials and clerics; while in a country so deeply divided along sectarian lines, the presence of Shi’a PMU in cities like Tikrit and now Kirkuk, has increased tensions and in some cases, led to atrocities.

Back in Washington D.C., officials for years have dealt with the uncomfortable reality that Iran has deeper influence with Iraq than the U.S. The U.S.-Saudi alliance against Iran hopes to mitigate or reverse that trend, though how it may do so remains unclear. Further, that desired reversal comes at a time when the notion of the U.S. as a trusted partner in Iraq (and the region overall) is under great stress. The ongoing crisis with the Iraqi Kurds has clearly exposed the limits of U.S.-Iraqi partnerships. Baghdad’s seizure of Kirkuk has many Kurds believing they were betrayed again by a U.S. administration; while many in the U.S. see the Kirkuk crisis as a ‘victory’ for Iran. Meanwhile, both Baghdad and Washington see the seizure as a necessary step by the central government to reclaim control over disputed areas, as allowed for in the Iraqi constitution. 

The U.S. wants the PMU to either merge into the Iraqi army or disband, a goal the Trump Administration has very little leverage to achieve. In the most likely scenarios, Iran will continue to support some PMU (not all of the militias are dependent or tied to Iran) in the ongoing Kurdish crisis and elsewhere across Iraq, as Baghdad struggles to assess and mitigate the brutal damage from the past several years.


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