The Intra-PMF Rivalry is Beyond the Najaf-Qom Divide

The Intra-PMF Rivalry is Beyond the Najaf-Qom Divide
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Can internal rivalries within the Popular Mobilization Forces, Hashd al-Sha’abi (PMF hereafter), be understood through the angle of one issue? Certainly not, the PMF is a multilateral umbrella-organization that is involved in many complex political realities. One of the most contested intra-PMF rivalries is evident between the pro-Iran factions, mainly Badr, Kataib Hizbullah, and Asaib Ahl al Haq, with the pro-Sistani factions. While some read it as a balance of power between nationalists and Iran-loyalists, others read it as a military implementation of the old-standing theological battle between Iraq’s Najaf and Iran’s Qom. This paper aims to argue that such a speculation is not entirely absent; however, it is not the only indicator that would unpack the clash of interests within the PMF.

Najaf-Qom Rivalry

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (Iran’s former Supreme Leader 1979-89) spent years of his life trying to implement his wilayat al-faqih approach and politically connect the Shias of Iraq and Iran against their non-Shia governments. The silent theological Najaf-Qom rivalry between was always evident in the Iranian and the Iraqi Shia political and religious discourses. However, it intensified since the 1979 Islamic revolution, and eventually, Najaf lost its pre-eminence during Saddam Hussein’s cruel suppression of Shia Islam, as Qom emerges to become the center of the Twelver Shiite Jurisdiction where the sect can be politically involved against ‘unjust and tyranny.’ The 2003 U.S. occupation of Iraq and overthrow of Hussein’s regime presented a new era to Shia politics, as Najaf re-emerged under Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s leadership, with the title of marjaa al-akbar. In contrast to Qom’s approach, Sistani is an opponent of the clerical rule and promotes the separation of religion and politics.


Sistani issued a call to arms against Mosul’s occupation by ISIS in June 2014, in defense of the nation-state due to the governmental forces’ defeat. Consequently, many volunteering fighters joined several militias that were already or were eventually aligned with the Iran-backed groups. The group has been speculated by media outlets and observers as ‘Shia militias’ or ‘Iran-backed militias,’ when in reality, it includes Sunni Arab, Christian, Yazidi, and Kurdish groups, and many of the Shia militias are, as discussed above, not aligned with Iran.

The power of PMF has been abused by many politicians seeking religious and social domestic points across failed performances in the parliament, ministries, or provincial government. Considering the prominent part PMF played in officially defeating the extremist group ISIS in early 2017, it is almost impossible for its self-abolishment. Arguably, the only practical way to limit the uncontrolled actions of the group is “containment” instead of “disarmament.” The PMF’s pro-Iran factions continuously surpassed its ability via non-governmentally-approved operations, violence against protesters in October 2019, and drone attacks against the U.S. missions in Iraq, which ultimately led to the U.S. strike that killed the Iranian Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani and the PMF chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis on January 3, 2020.

The killings of Soleimani and al-Muhandis resulted into a power vacuum. The PMF groups aligned with Sistani, which are often referred to as ‘pro-Sistani’ groups in the theological context, and currently promoting itself as ‘Hashd al-Atabat,’ meaning the Shrine Units, instead of ‘Hashd al-Sha’abi.’ The pro-Sistani factions saw an opportunity in standing up against the pro-Iran (pro-Khamenei) factions’ abuse of power upon Abu Fadak’s appointment. The Shrine Units represents the following groups: Al-abbas Combat Division, Imam Ali Combat Division, Ali al-Akbar Brigade, Ansar al-Marja’iyya – following failed attempts to fully integrate into the Iraqi army, succeeded in gaining a more direct alignment with the Prime Minister’s Office, and more autonomy from the PMF’s pro-Iran camp. This secession resulted from a continuous grab of power by Iran-backed groups over the PMF’s administrative, political, financial, armament, and decision-making process. The Shrine Units also reject the PMF’s role in the Syrian civil war and involvement in Iraq’s US-Iran tensions.

PMF beyond the Najaf-Qom Rivalry

This questions whether this is an old-standing Najaf-Qom theological division, or a modern political rift between nationalist (Sistanis) and wilayet-faqih (Khomeinists)? It is unfair to the broader subject of the PMF to only read through the; pro-Iran vs. pro-Sistani division and ignore the other approaches from Shias within and beyond the PMF towards its role and future.

For instance, the Sadrist movement’s militia, Saraya al-Salam, is unilaterally ordered by its leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, without any alleged influence from the pro-Iran camp nor pro-Sistani camp. The following years of a fragile relationship, a new Sadrist-Iranian alliance emerged from the October protest movement. Both sides realized how a widespread overhaul of the political system threatens both of their positions in Iraq.  However, the unpredictable and regularly changing attitudes of Sadr prevent any speculations for a sustainable Iranian-Sadrist alliance.

The Sadrist movement has its own, yet different tensions with the PMF’s pro-Iran and pro-Sistani factions. In September 2020, Sadr stressed the necessity to integrate the good’ PMF factions into the security forces – a unwelcomed claim by the pro-Iran factions.

Sadr was the first Shia political leader to support the early election’s international monitoring to announce his target towards the premiership – a position that former PM al-Maliki (2008-14) also reflected interest in. The PM position is now a stake of competition between Sadr and the Iran-backed al-Fatah bloc. The classical pre-October uprising rivalry between Sadr and Tehran’s camp in Iraq increasingly re-emerged when Saraya al-Salam marched on the streets of several Iraqi cities with heavy weaponry in an alleged message to Iran following the visit of Iran’s Judiciary chief Ayatollah Seyed Ibrahim Raisi to Baghdad and a civil-led event in Najaf which included chants against powerful religious groups in Iraq including Sadr.

In contrast to the theological schism between the pro-Iran and pro-Sistani factions, Sadr’s dispute with each and separately is a matter of political power, covered with nationalist, more than religious discourse.

Non-theological Involvement

The PMF’s identity diversity counters its overshadowing cultural Shiazation. Even among the October 2019 protesters, many chanted only against the pro-Iran factions. Besides, there are ordinary Shias pragmatic to all groups to balance between their loyalty towards their collective national identity as Iraqis and sub-identity as Shias.

The PMF’s profoundly political involvement in Sinjar reflects the impactful role of non-state actors in a geopolitical sensitive area in terms of regional hostilities and can drag Iraq into a major transnational conflict that could involve Turkey and Iran – the type of disputes that the pro-Sistani groups denounces.

Sinjar experienced genocide against its Yazidi minority by ISIS in 2014, and then a Baghdad-Erbil battle of control in October 2017 and is now overwhelmed with several armed groups. Iraq’s government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) concluded with the Sinjar Agreement last October to ensure an ‘independent governor,’ joint administration, exclusion of armed groups, and the recruitment of Yazidi fighters that are in exile. However, many Yazidis claimed that the agreement was more of a Baghdad-Erbil ceasefire over Yazidi priorities. The Autonomous Administration Council of Sinjar was not involved during the negotiations due to its connection to the Shingal Resistance Units (YPS), an armed group affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) - a group designated as a terrorist organization by the USA and Turkey.

The Iraqi Kurdish Journalist Mahmood Yasseen Kurdi claims, “PKK was able to build a popular and physical base in Sinjar out of the local disappointment towards KDP’s inability to protect it from genocides. Thus, if PKK’s presence in Sinjar will bring a foreign conflict on its soil, then it will lose many of its followers”.

The Iran-backed PMF groups deployed brigades to Sinjar. Kurdi adds, “Despite Iran’s official denials, it is evident that its proxy groups collaborate with the PKK in Sinjar in a way that concerns neighboring Turkey”.

Concluding Remarks

The examples above are evidence that the intra-PMF rivalries are not purely theological. It is undoubtedly an essential factor in many cases, yet it is not always the case. The ıntra-PMF rivalries are not limited between pro-Sistani and pro-Iran factions. It is a multilateral competition and confusion shared by Shia Iraqis (amongst members within the group and amongst ordinary Shia Iraqis outside the group). The complex structure of the PMF is a natural reflection of Iraq’s complex political structure – meaning Iraq’s alleged sectarian political dynamics are not purely sectarian. For instance, KDP and PUK were not unified as a Kurdish front when the PMF and the Iraqi armed forces took control over Kirkuk following Barzani’s unilateral and illegal independence referendum in October 2017.

Therefore, the PMF’s actions are a reflection of the current political reality. Some factions will appear to seek a new strategy or approach to representing themselves, such as the Shrine Units. Others will appear as actors of geopolitical and political interests, such as the pro-Iran factions. Many others such as Saraya al-Salam, will move somewhere in between seeking both opportunities.