Will the death of Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis lead to the decline of "PMF" in Iraq?

EPC | 10 Feb 2020

Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) has now to grapple with enormous challenges following the killing of its commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in a US drone strike in early January this year. Al-Muhandis was the mastermind and chief architect of all of Iran's loyal factions, which have been buckling under mounting U.S. pressure. The US designated the PMF a terrorist organization and slapped major financial sanctions targeting a significant number of its leaders. This is in addition to U.S. and Israeli drone strikes against the group's camps and missile depots. 

This paper highlights the impact of the Al-Muhandis death on the PMF, the subjective and objective challenges the group faces, and the potential ramifications on its cohesion and role.

An Iranian Loss

Although the killing of Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in the U.S. strike, which was basically intended to neutralize Iran's Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani, near Baghdad International Airport on January 3rd this year, was "collateral damage" according to U.S. officials, it, however, dealt another major blow to Iran. Al-Muhandis played a major role, from behind the scenes, in establishing Iran's influence in Iraq and linked it with Tehran's schemes and quest for regional domination.

Needless to say, Al-Muhandis was Iran's chief proxy in Iraq along the lines of Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon. This may make the succession of Al-Muhandis within the PMF a strong reason for conflict between the leaders of Iran's loyalist groups in Iraq.

Immediate Challenges  

The past four months were marked by a number of crises that put the "PMF" before crucial challenges, which are expected to be further complicated by the absence of their mastermind, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, and his longtime companion General Qasem Soleimani, the man who was responsible for Iraq in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. These challenges include:

  1. Popular Protests: The demonstrations that swept Iraq's over the past few months are the most serious challenge facing the "PMF", as large numbers of Shi'a citizens took to the streets, demanding radical reforms in the structure of the political system, which will necessarily curtail and control the PMF's influence and role. The protests denounced the PMF for its alleged role in suppressing the protesters, killing hundreds of them, and kidnapping dozens others. The protesters also accused the PMF of tampering with the country's security and economy without legal deterrence despite the fact that the umbrella organization is no longer needed following the defeat of ISIS.
  2. The Conflict with the U.S.: For several months, the "PMF" has been engaged in an "undeclared" war with the U.S. after a series of unknown drone strikes targeted the organization's camps, thought to be home to Iran-supplied ballistic missiles. Simultaneously, the U.S. designated several leaders of the PMF as terrorists and slapped sanctions on the mobility and financial resources of others in an effort to restrain their hostile activity.
  3. The Absence of Leadership: Unlike their counterparts in Lebanon and Yemen, armed factions in Iraq operate without a leadership that serves as a compass for them, a fact exacerbated by deep divisions and fragmentation. This is one of the reasons that could touch off conflicts in the coming stage, especially after the killing of Al-Muhandis who was playing the role of a "referee" given his undeclared leadership of any faction in particular. More importantly, Al-Muhandis enjoyed a close relationship with General Qasem Soleimani, which enabled him to keep the PMF in order and defuse internal conflicts. Furthermore, Al-Muhandis played a role in preventing conflicts between the leaders of the PMF, who are likely to find themselves amid a real crisis with the first dispute. This is particularly true when it will come to the distribution of ministries and key government positions in the upcoming cabinet. The same applies to electoral coalition’s formation prospects in the upcoming parliamentary elections, early or regular.

Undeclared Conflicts 

The "PMF" consists of three categories that vary in size, impact, influence and connections. They are:

  1. The pro-Iran factions, which form the backbone and solid core of the PMF, and openly declare political and ideological allegiance to the Supreme Leader of the “Islamic Republic of Iran”.
  2. The factions that follow the religious authority in Najaf and have independent sources of funding through Shiite shrines.
  3. Religious-political factions, which follow Shiite parties, led by the Sadrist Movement, the National Wisdom Movement, the Islamic Supreme Council, the Islamic Virtue Party and the Dawa Party.

Despite the perceived unity and harmony between Iran-loyal factions, as translated in the Fatah Alliance in the May 2018 elections, personal competition and factional struggle continued to simmer beneath the surface. Only the overwhelming presence of Al-Muhandis and Soleimani, who succeeded in curbing factional disputes and keeping them under check either by carrots or sticks, prevented these disputes from coming to the fore but fell short of addressing the underlying causes which include the following:  

  1. Financial Disputes: The decrease in Iran's direct financial support to its loyalist factions in Iraq, due to the financial hardship caused by the U.S. sanctions, and the factions' quest for self-finance by exploiting the state's resources and pursuing legitimate and illegal businesses, exacerbated the intensity of the conflicts over financial and commercial gains.  These differences have escalated sharply, especially after a number of factions succeeded in obtaining ministerial positions in the former government of Adel Abdul Mahdi, and gaining preference in charging commissions and securing government contracts. Other activities include the smuggling of oil, drugs and weapons, imposing rackets on the residents of Sunni provinces, and seizing the property of those who fled their homes, especially religious minorities.
  2. Political Disputes: The May 2018 elections produced a sharp variation in the political representation among Iran-loyal Iraqi factions. The “Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq”, led by Sheikh Qais Khazali, succeeded in raising its share in parliament from only one seat to fifteen seats, and with a difference of only seven seats behind the Badr Organization, the oldest and largest Iran-loyal faction in terms of popular base and influence in the military and security institutions of the state. In turn, other factions hardly secured a seat or two in the parliament while some others came out empty-handed. This raised discontent among Iran loyalists in general, and the Badr Organization in particular, whose circles could not help but to sound the alarm that their political leadership of Iran's loyalists was at the stake.
  3. Struggle for Power: The struggle for power manifested earlier by the variation of positions on the targeting of PMF warehouses on August 21, 2019. In a statement posted on the PMF website, Al-Muhandis held  the United States responsible for the drone strikes, but head of the PMF, Faleh al-Fayyad, said Al-Muhandis's claims reflected the latter's personal position and did not reflect the PMF's. Additionally, Al-Muhandis tightened his grip on the PMF's budget, which exceeded two billion dollars in the 2019 state budget. The last attempt to audit this budget in the spring of 2018 led to the killing of the PMF's finance director, Qasim al-Zubaidi, who was close to former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, at the hands of an armed group that stormed his house in Baghdad.

Al-Amiri: The Alternative

After the killing of Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and amidst a state of fear and confusion among the leaders of pro-Iranian factions, there was no alternative before those leaders but to name Hadi al-Amiri as the deputy head of the PMF, which was held by Al-Muhandis who was also the chief of the PMF staff, and forward Al-Amiri's nomination to the prime minister for endorsement. Elevating Al-Amiri, who is the leader of the Fatah Alliance, was driven by a number of considerations, most notably:

  1. Iranian Support: Al-Amiri has deep ideological, political, and organizational ties with Iran, and he enjoys a special status with the Iranian regime, as a former officer in the Revolutionary Guard, and a close associate of Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, whose relationship dates back to the mid-1980s.
  2. Military Experience: Al-Amiri has military and security experience gained during his service with the Badr Brigade, which fought alongside Iran in its war with Iraq in the 1980s. His actual presence in the battlefields, and the significant field role that he played in the war against ISIS, earned him widespread respect among the PMF especially, and an important section of the Shiite public opinion.
  3. Political Experience: Al-Amiri has a long political and administrative experience, as he heads the Badr Parliamentary Bloc from 2005 until now (2020). He also held government positions, such as the Minister of Transport in the second government of former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Additionally, he became the chairman of the Fatah Alliance bloc after the 2018 elections, making him a major political figure.
  4. Al-Amiri is considered the least problematic option among the leaders of the pro-Iranian factions, who seem to have agreed to set aside their differences and accept Al-Amiri leadership of the next stage, waiting for the Iranian leadership to absorb the shock of Soleimani’s death and clarify the general lines of its Iraq policy under the new Quds Force Commander Esmail Qaani.
  5. The fact that Al-Amiri is not included on the U.S. terrorist lists, and he has not been known to be involved in external terrorist activities, thus reducing the chances of him being targeted by the United States.

But Al-Amiri, meanwhile, lacks several things that could complicate his mission, including:

  1. The fact that Al-Amiri is characterized by being reclusive and closed-minded and lacks dominant charisma, in addition to his intolerance of opposition and criticism. Such traits would not help introduce Al-Amiri as the man the current stage needs, especially with the deepening of the popular protests crisis that have put the entire political system at stake.
  2. The fact that Al-Amiri is not familiar with the network of relations established by Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis and made him a focal point between all Shiite militias, and an intermediary between them and the Iraqi government on the one hand, and with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard on the other.
  3. Dividing and sharing the influence and powers that Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis enjoyed - exercising unlimited administrative powers in his capacity as deputy head of the PMF, and comprehensive military powers in his capacity as chief of staff of the PMF - between two persons, after a recent restructuring of the PMF, would likely put Al-Amiri, known for his short-tempered character, at loggerheads with a strong chief of staff who will have the final say in directing the PMF on the ground.

Post-Al-Muhandis PMF - Future Scenarios

First Scenario: Proceeding with arrangements to fill the void left by the death of Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, to ensure that the PMF's dominance over the political landscape is preserved. This scenario seems likely, as differences between the armed factions are not likely to lead to actual division in the future for several reasons, most notably:

  1. The fact that Iran is betting a lot on the continued influence of the PMF on the Iraqi arena. This is due to Iran's view of the PMF as part of the "axis of resistance", the center of its control in the region, its defense front-line and the tool it uses to disturb the United States and its allies, especially with the relative calm on the Lebanese front with Israel because of the current circumstances in Lebanon. Added to these reasons is Iran's diminishing ability to operate in Syria because of the Russian military presence, which not only curtailed Iran's role but left its forces and other allied Shiite militia vulnerable to recurrent Israeli raids. Another reason for Iran' support to the PMF is the vital role that Iraq has come to play in propping up the Iranian economy crumbling under the pressure of the U.S. sanctions. Iran has been using Iraq as an outlet for smuggling oil through institutions affiliated with the Iraqi Oil Ministry, and an open market for its various goods. This is in addition to Iran's use of the Iraqi banking system to secure hard currency illegally, as happened during the past years, and to circumvent the U.S. sanctions imposed on Iranian financial system.
  2. The Iraqi factions fully agree with their Iranian sponsor on the general lines of the role the PMF should play in political life in Iraq in the post-Soleimani and Al-Muhandis era. This was evidenced by the quick announcement of Hadi Al-Amri as the sole candidate for the position of deputy head of the PMF. Also, there have been leaks about the formation of an entity in the name of the “PMF Shura Council” whose first decision was to nominate “Abu Ali Al-Basri,” the head of the PMF operations, for the post of chief of staff. This position, which was occupied by Al-Muhandis, is entrusted with determining the deployment plan of the PMF and the missions assigned to each of its units, whether tactical or strategic.
  3. The failure of the previous and, likely, the current Iraqi governments to implement a decision on the restructuring of the PMF because of a clear Iranian veto against any move that would prejudice the most important element in its expansionist strategy in the region.
  4. Many factions still take pride in allying with and being loyal to Iran within the so-called "axis of resistance". This would ensure that the influence of the Revolutionary Guards remains unchanged despite the death of Soleimani. This was evident in the rush of faction leaders to meet with the new commander of Iran's Quds Force, Esmail Qaani, to demonstrate renewed allegiance and loyalty.
  5. Recent moves by Al-Sadr to resume the activities of the "Mahdi Army" which was established in the years following the U.S. occupation of Iraq before it suspended its activities at a later stage. This can be considered as a pretext for the pro-Iranian factions to continue to act as they please. Moreover, these factions may also try to drag the Mahdi Army to play a greater role within the PMF as the best way to secure popular backing, months after the "drain of legitimacy" that they suffered due to the popular protests.

Second Scenario: The failure to fill the void and intra-factional conflicts. This scenario is based on the hypothesis that the death of Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis has created a major void at the level of command and control that the man managed to establish over many years, thanks to his personal contact with the commander of the Quds Force, General Qasem Soleimani, with whom he has close relations over thirty years old. This is something that the leaders of the Iran-loyal factions lack, especially those who rose after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and are characterized by revolutionist tendency, lack of political experience, and thirst for power and leadership. This means that the new commander of the Quds Force will need time to understand the dimensions of the fierce rivalry between them, which may open the way for differences to develop into actual divisions. This scenario is supported by a number of considerations, the most important of which are:

  1. The new balances that the PMF must reflect. This includes the recent rapprochement between the pro-Iranian factions and the Sadrist movement leader Muqtada al-Sadr under a high-level sponsorship from Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah, and included a basic clause stipulating the strengthening of the presence of the Peace Companies (Saraya Al Salam) in the PMF. Soon afterwards, Al-Sadr nominated his jihadist aide, "Abu Duaa Kazem Al-Issawi," for the position of chief of staff of the PMF. This step by al-Sadr appears to be intended to test the intentions of the pro-Iranian factions' leaders and to know the extent of their desire to share the powers of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, especially after Hadi al-Amiri was nominated as deputy head of the PMF. The factions met the move, albeit implicitly, with refusal by announcing that the PMF Shura Council had agreed to name “Abu Ali Al-Basri” as chief of staff of the PMF, although this falls exclusively within the powers of the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.
  2. The spiritual and ideological connection of the factions with Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis. The death of the two men may overshadow the chain of command and the way the decisions are implemented within the PMF. This is particularly relevant given the uncertainty about the future of the current composition of the PMF, and the rising demands calling for political reform, restricting weapons in the hands of the state only and ending the duality of power, which the next government must fulfill.
  3. The possibility that more PMF leaders are included on the US terrorist lists and Washington's possible designation of the PMF a terrorist organization similar to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Lebanon's Hezbollah. This could put the next Iraqi government in danger of having Iraq classified a rogue state, if it continues to provide political cover to the PMF by formally announcing the appointment of its leaders according to the same mechanism. This, therefore, may open the door to economic sanctions that will automatically restrict the movement of funds, undermine the confidence of global oil giants working in Iraq, and render the Iraqi government unable to borrow to cover a growing deficit in the public budget.


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