They Are in Control

Diyala, May 2021: A military operation by the Iraqi Security Forces ISF including the Popular Mobilization Forces PMF at the brinks of Alwand River in Kahanqin. Media of PMF

By KirkukNow

The presence of competing and unaccountable armed actors was responsible for widespread violence against civilians in the post-invasion period. Ethnoreligious minorities, which did not have armed groups protecting them, were particularly vulnerable to attack.

In the diverse disputed territories, the threat of violence added to the general sense of insecurity felt by minorities due to the ambiguous and unresolved political status of their homelands.

The report entitled "They are in Control" by Miriam Puttick for Ceasefire Center for Civilian rights published on January 31st, 2022, highlights the role of the paramilitaries, in particular the Popular Mobilization Forces PMF, following the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria ISIS in 2017.

The contents of the 40-pages report “The Rise of paramilitary forces and the security of minorities in Iraq’s disputed territories” are journalistic pieces, documents and interviews, unattributed due to sensitivity of subject matter and to protect privacy and safety of the interviewees, conducted in October 2021 in Ninewa and Kirkuk provinces. 

London-based Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights is an international initiative to develop civilian-led monitoring of violations of international humanitarian law or human rights; to secure accountability and reparation for those violations; and to develop the practice of civilian rights.

“However, the conflict with ISIS from 2014 to 2017 brought major changes. The conflict spurred the consolidation of the PMF, an umbrella of new and existing armed factions which now receive government funding and benefit from official status but effectively operate outside of state control,” the report states about formation and growth of pro-Shiite paramilitary of PMF.

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Kirkuk, 2020: A Shiite pilgrim holding a red banner commemorates Ashura, martyrdom of Shiite Imam Husayn inb Ali, grandson of prophet Mohammed. KirkukNow

“The ISIS period also saw unprecedented militarization of minorities, many of whom took up arms and formed militias in response to the failure of either the Iraqi federal government or the Kurdish Regional Government to protect their areas.”

“Many of these minority militias were later subsumed into the PMF, fighting alongside Iraqi forces in military operations against ISIS and gaining control of checkpoints and security functions in retaken areas,” the report explains how PMF managed to infiltrate minorities and form armed groups under its control.

presence of minority factions offers a sense of protection for some

On the other hand, “the presence of minority factions offers a sense of protection for some, who feel reassured by the presence of locally recruited forces after the trauma of being abandoned to ISIS by the dominant powers.”

“However, some of these forces are seen to be exploiting their position at the expense of other groups, privileging their own networks with access to jobs, land and other resources. As result, the presence of minority factions has in some cases fueled and exacerbated pre-existing tensions between groups.”

The author believes the small armed groups do not reflect the reality for the local communities as they are part of a key role player, proxy for local and regional role players.

“The cooptation of minorities within these formations enhances their political marginalization, while allowing the dominant powers to present an image of diverse composition and support.”

The report describes the political status of the disputed territories as unsettled because “the presence of multiple armed groups with competing agendas adds a new ingredient to the power struggle between Baghdad and Erbil, further weakening central control and enhancing insecurity.”

All above acts “as a major barrier to the return of minorities displaced by ISIS, who fear another conflict will inevitably arise between armed actors in their areas at their expense.”


Groups under PMF

On 13 June 2014, in the wake of the collapse of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in Mosul and the massacre of Shi’a air cadets at Camp Speicher, Ayatollah Sistani issued a religious decree (Fatwa) calling on able-bodied men to help defend their country. Notably, Sistani’s fatwa called on Iraqis to join the state security forces, not paramilitary groups.

More than 50 militias sprang up in response to the fatwa, with tens of thousands of men volunteering to fight. An official decree by then Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki created the PMF, despite the fact that the creation of military formations outside the framework of the armed forces is constitutionally prohibited.

The report classifies PMF groups into three categories. The first category consists of the Iran-aligned factions, which follow the doctrine of Wilayet al-Faqih and answer to the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei such as the Badr Organization dates to the early 1980s in the Iran-Iraq war, while Asa’ib Ahl ulHaqq (AAH) was formed in response to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The second group is composed of a number of Iraqi-led factions, which include Al-Atabat (shrines) groups loyal to Najaf-based Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani (such as the Abbas Combat Division, Saraya al-Ataba al-Hussainiya and Liwa Ali Al-Akbar), but also the ideologically distinct Saraya Al-Salam, which answers to the populist cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr.

The third category comprises localized units drawn from different communities across northern Iraq, though in practice many of these factions are linked to larger Iran-aligned PMF units.

PMF Commission receives an annual budget of $2.6 billion from the Iraqi state

In 2016, a law passed in Iraq’s parliament formalized the structure of the Popular Mobilization Forces Commission, bringing it under the direct command of the Prime Minister’s Office. 6 Another reform, in March 2018, gave the PMF equivalent salaries and ranks to the ISF, while a further series of decrees led to PMF units being categorized by brigade numbers instead of faction names. 

Today, the PMF Commission receives an annual budget of $2.6 billion from the Iraqi state and has administrative offices in every province outside the Kurdistan region. 9 It has an estimated 164,000 members, which includes 110,000 Shi’a members, 45,000 Sunni members, and 10,0000 members from minority groups.

“The PMF quickly became an essential partner in the war against ISIS, fighting alongside the regular ISF and playing a decisive role in recapturing occupied territories. However, many PMF units also drew criticism for serious human rights abuses.”

The report found out PMF played a major role in the fight against ISIS yet was largely criticized for abuses against civilians in retaken areas.

“In operations to liberate cities from ISIS control, PMF units subjected Sunni civilians to arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, torture and summary executions as a form of retaliation for ISIS abuses.”

“Many of the worst allegations implicated the Iran-backed factions, which have long been notorious for sectarian abuse.  Nevertheless, these factions and the PMF as a whole gained widespread popular legitimacy for their role in the conflict and were largely seen as heroes for having saved the country from ISIS.”

Despite the fact that Iraqi law prohibits armed groups from forming political parties, the PMF translated their popularity on the battlefield into significant electoral success in the post-ISIS period. 13 In the 2018 parliamentary elections, the two largest blocs to emerge from the polls were linked to armed groups under the PMF umbrella: Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Sa’iroon Alliance won 54 seats, while Hadi Al-Ameri’s Fateh Alliance won 48 seats.

In the 2021 elections, the Sai’roon Alliance emerged first again, but Fatah lost a large number of their seats, leading their supporters to contest the election results. In both the 2018 and 2021 elections, PMF-linked candidates managed to win many of the parliamentary seats allocated to minorities.

The PMF was successful in gaining trust of some members of the war-ravage vulnerable minorities such Yazidis, Shabak and even Crhsitans.

The political influence of the PMF, however, is not limited to parliament. Over the years, the PMF has permeated many institutions of the state. One of the most long-standing examples of this is the Badr Organization’s control of the Ministry of the Interior, which has helped ensure that the faction evades accountability for abuses.


What are the disputed territories?

The report also looks at the situation in the Ninewa plain, Tal Afar, Sinjar and Kirkuk since the end of the conflict with ISIS.

The disputed territories consist of 14 administrative districts spread across the 4 governorates of Ninewa, Kirkuk, Salahaddin and Diyala in northern Iraq. Rich in natural resources and strategically located, many of these territories are also ethnically and religiously diverse, forming the historical home for different communities including ChaldoAssyrian Christians, Yazidis, Shabak, Turkmen, Arabs, Kurds, Kaka’is and others.

In the Ba’ath era, many of these communities were subjected to Arabization campaigns, which attempted to change the demographic composition of the area. In post-invasion Iraq, these territories turned into the primary site of competition between the Federal Government of Iraq and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), both of which lay claim to the areas.


Hamdaniya: turbulent history

Hamdaniya district is located in the Ninewa Plain, east of Mosul. It includes the towns of Qaraqosh (Bakhdida), Bartella and Baashiqa. The area is strongly associated with Assyrian identity and history, with Qaraqosh being the largest Christian-majority town in Iraq. However, the district as a whole is demographically mixed, also being home to Shabak, Yazidi, Arab, Turkman, Kurdish and Kaka’i communities.

The area was subjected to Arabization and demographic engineering policies during the Ba’ath era, when plots of land were given to incoming families who were willing to register as Arabs.

This turbulent history remains a source of grievance and continues to affect relationships between communities today. Like much of the disputed territories, Hamdaniya was caught in an administrative limbo between the Iraqi federal government and the KRG before 2014, which left it neglected in terms of service provision and vulnerable in terms of security.

ISIS invaded and occupied the district from 2014 to 2016, displacing most of the population and causing enormous destruction to homes, properties, and religious and cultural heritage sites.

When military operations to retake the Ninewa Plains from ISIS commenced, the Iraqi federal government and the KRG divided responsibility for different parts of Hamdaniya district.

there had been cases of sexual harassment of Christian women

The ISF, supported by PMF factions, took control of Bartella and Qaraqosh between 16 and 22 October 2016, while the Peshmerga took control of Baashiqa between 7 and 11 November 2016. The resulting security landscape was fractured and complex, with multiple armed groups who had participated in the operations vying for control over retaken areas.

For example, several interviewees mentioned that there had been cases of sexual harassment of Christian women by members of Brigade 30 early on, but these had been

dealt with by the leadership of the brigade.

Many interviewees also credited the PMF with con- tributing to the defeat of ISIS, thereby creating the conditions that enabled people to return. ‘The PMF was like a security guarantee to the people, because it meant that Daesh is not coming back as long as the PMF is there,’ as one explained.54 The PMF was also credited with maintaining strong defenses in the post-ISIS period. ‘Since the liberation of the areas from Daesh in 2016–2017 there have never been security breaches,’ said one interviewee. ‘No issues were recorded in the Ninewa Plain.


Kirkuk, 2021: A wall painting embodies peaceful co-living in Daquq district south of Kirkuk. KirkukNow


Shingal (Sinjar): eight forces, no security

Located west of Mosul, and close to the Syrian and Turkish borders, Shingal is a historical homeland of much of Iraq’s Yazidi community. The district is also home to Sunni Arabs and a small Christian population. Prior to the ISIS advance, Sinjar was under the de facto control of the KRG, with the Peshmerga providing security.

Local officials, including the mayor, the district managers, and most of the district council members, were picked for their loyalty to the KDP. Sinjar’s residents had few avenues for legitimate political participation, while the district was severely neglected in terms of public service provision.

When ISIS forces advanced on Sinjar in August 2014, the Peshmerga forces that were supposed to be defending the area fled without warning, leaving the local population de- fenceless. Almost the entire civilian population was forced to flee. At least 50,000 Yazidis headed up Sinjar Mountain, where they were trapped in the heat for days without as- assistance. Yazidis who could not escape were subjected to atrocities at the hands of ISIS, which later came to be recognized as constituting genocide.

In response to this crisis, some locals chose to stay behind to defend their areas. Many Yazidi men joined the newly formed Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ), aligned with the Kur- distan Workers’ Party (PKK). Together with the Syria-based People’s Protection Units (YPG), members of these forces carved out a corridor to evacuate Yazidis stranded on Sinjar Mountain via Syrian territory, from where they crossed back over the border into Iraqi Kurdistan. Thus, paramilitary forces played a primary role alleviating the humanitarian catastrophe caused by the advance of ISIS.

“When we were surrounded on the mountain there were no forces at all, no Iraqi forces, no Peshmerga, nothing… except a few members of the PKK, and there was a group of YBŞ, the Sinjar Resistance Units. They defended Sinjar Mountain and the areas around it,” an interviewee described his recollection of the events.

Several interviewees, despite their different political affiliations, recognized the significance of the formation of Yazidi forces in Sinjar. The formation of local forces was especially important given Yazidis’ sense of betrayal by the larger powers and armed forces. Many residents of Sinjar are resentful towards the KDP-led Peshmerga in particular for their withdrawal in the face of the ISIS advance.

There are eight different forces, and everyone says that they are protecting, but no one is

The events of 3 August 2014 were ex- pressed by one interviewee as follows, “There are eight different forces, and everyone says that they are protecting, but no one is.”

Interviewees tended to agree that a Yazidi force tied to the Iraqi armed forces was the best model for security in the district. This was considered preferable to the current situation, in which Yazidi groups are tied to the PMF or the PKK, whose priorities lie outside of Sinjar.


Shekhan, 2018: An Ezidi lady in traditional unifrom celebrating a festive at Lalish holy temple. KirkukNow

A major contributor to insecurity in Sinjar is the fact that the political status of the area has still not been settled between Baghdad and Erbil. The presence of multiple armed groups in the district, with agendas that differ from either government, further complicates the situation.

On 1 October 2020, the Iraqi and Kurdish governments made some progress towards resolving the political deadlock in the district by signing the Sin- jar Agreement, which was negotiated in the presence of UNAMI (UN Assistance Mission in Iraq). The Sinjar Agreement was heavily criticized by members of the Yazidi community because it was negotiated without any meaningful consultation with Yazidi groups, and is silent on transitional justice issues.

A major theme that emerged from the interviews is that the presence of armed groups in Sinjar is making the area a hotspot in which regional tensions are played out. The presence of PKK-aligned armed groups in the district is a problem for Turkey, which fears that it will enable the PKK to establish a second operating base, augmenting their existing stronghold in the Qandil mountains in northern Iraq.


Talafar: Fragile peace

Tal Afar is a Turkman-majority city located approximately 63 km west of Mosul. Sunni Turkmen account for approximately three-quarters of the population while Shi’a Turkmen make up the remaining quarter.

ISIS captured Tal Afar on 16 June 2014, shortly after the fall of Mosul, and occupied the city for over three years. The ISIS advance caused the displacement of approximately 200,000 people from the city. However, a significant part of the Sunni population – 50,000 people by some estimates remained in the city throughout the ISIS occupation.

Military operations to retake Tal Afar from ISIS took place from 20 to 31 August 2017 and were conducted by a mix of federal, coalition and PMF forces. The role of Shi’a PMF factions in the Tal Afar operations was a contentious issue from the beginning, with Turkey initially refusing to accept their participation. Ultimately, the main pro-Iran PMF factions including Badr, Asaib Ahlul Haq AAH, and Kata’ib Hezbollah all fought in the operations, as well as the non-Iran affiliated Al-Abbas Brigade.

The prominent role played by the PMF in the liberation of Tal Afar initially raised fears that Shi’a fighters would commit revenge attacks against Sunnis. Although there were reports of looting and property destruction as the factions entered the city, the scale of abuses overall seems to have been less than was feared. While Shi’a Turkman civilians were the first to return to Tal Afar, prob- ably encouraged by the presence of the Shi’a-led factions, others soon followed.

Interviewees attributed this to the fact that the PMF included both Sunni and Shi’a factions: ‘All the sides of the city participated in the liberation,’ as one put it. Another noted that the PMF, as well as the other security forces operating in Tal Afar, are formed of people from the region, which had a positive impact on security in the city.

The requirement to undergo special procedures to prove one’s innocence has far-reaching implications for Sunnis wishing to return to Tal Afar. Since many Tal Afar residents worked in the government sector, the requirement to obtain a security clearance stands in the way of resuming their employment.142   It also affects their freedom of movement, since the PMF controls checkpoints leading into the city, where they are known to harass Sunnis perceived to be associated with ISIS.


Duhok, 2021: An IDP kid watching their burnt tent in Sharia camp. 

Women are particularly vulnerable to harassment at checkpoints, as Sunni women travelling without a male companion are often assumed to be ISIS wives or affiliates. Some are reluctant to visit the security agencies to obtain a tabree’a (Clearance) out of fear that they will be sexually harassed there too.  Moreover, the hundreds of Shi’a Turkman women enslaved by ISIS – estimated to be as many as 600 – have been unable to return due to stigma, and most are still missing.

The PMF has done other things than security

The PMF’s role is supposedly limited to the out- skirts of Tal Afar, while the local police are the main point of contact for all security-related is- sues in the city.  However, PMF offices are reportedly located throughout the city.  They also exert influence over local governance. One interviewee explained that people go to the PMF to solve all their problems, suggesting that their influence extends far beyond security.

“All the components in the city praise the PMF, and if they need something, they ask the PMF. The PMF has done other things than security. They contribute to cleaning the city, they run campaigns, they removed the debris … even with giving water, there are some areas that suffer from a water shortage and the PMF donated water.”


Kirkuk: Changing hands again

Kirkuk is a mixed city contested between three main groups: Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs. During the Ba’ath era, Kirkuk was the target of extensive Arabization policies. Kurdish families were deprived of their properties and forced out of the city, only to be replaced by Arab families who moved in from other parts of Iraq.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, a property claims process enabled many Kurds to re- gain ownership of their properties and move back into Kirkuk, creating friction with other groups. The following period was marked by frequent violence and insecurity, with each group attempting to shift the demographic and power balance in the city in its favour. The referendum on the status of Kirkuk mandated by Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution was never held, and the city remained under the de facto control of the federal government.

When federal forces collapsed in the face of the ISIS advance in 2014, the KRG deployed its forces to Kirkuk and took control of the city. Kurdish forces managed to defend the city from ISIS occupation, although ISIS forces reached the surrounding areas. The period of Kurdish control was unpopular with many of Kirkuk’s Arab and Turkman residents, however, who were subjected to various forms of politically motivated violence and forced displacement. In October 2017, following the results of the Kurdish independence referendum, the ISF and the PMF launched a military assault, causing Kurdish forces to flee and reasserting control over the city.

The entry of the PMF into Kirkuk has led to a new reconfiguration power. The main PMF factions active in the province are composed of Shi’a Turkman fighters (Brigades 16 and 52). Shi’a Turkmen were victimized by ISIS and marginalized during the period of Kurdish control over the city, so this newfound power is a positive development for them. However, this has come at the expense of other groups.

Kirkuk, 2020: A mass at the holy family church.

Kurds are the most disadvantaged by the presence of the PMF. At least 150,000 people were displaced when the PMF entered Kirkuk, most of whom were Kurds.  There were reports of PMF factions expelling Kurds and burning down and destroying their properties. While some of those dis- placed have returned, many cannot, especially those who are affiliated with Kurdish political parties.  Many Kurds still in Kirkuk are selling their houses and leaving.

Arabs have also been affected by the PMF’s entry into Kirkuk, although to a lesser extent. The control of Shi’a Turkman PMF factions in the villages around Bashir, south of Kirkuk, was associated with a lack of return of Sunni Arab civilians to those areas, against a comparatively high rate of Shi’a Turkman returns.  PMF factions have also forcibly displaced and destroyed the properties of families suspected to be ISIS affiliates in Hawija and carried out assassinations of Arabs in Tuz district.

Smaller minorities, who feel their interests are not represented by any of the forces present in Kirkuk, are also vulnerable in the current configuration. For example, Kirkuk is home to several Kaka’i villages. Historically, Kakai’s have usually aligned their interests with the Kurdish cause, but the departure of Kurdish forces left them without protectors.

One interviewee explained how after the change in control in Kirkuk, the new security forces did not do any- thing to stop a Kaka’i village from being attacked by ISIS remnants.

“A group of 50 ISIS members were preparing to come and attack the village of Zanqar and kidnap people. But we didn’t know who they were, so we reported it to the security forces, but they did not respond. At night, ISIS came and they kidnapped them. The next day at 10 a.m., the local police came and investigated, but in the end, they didn’t do anything.”

While the PMF factions have been ordered to withdraw to the outskirts of Kirkuk, they still have political influence throughout the city. The Badr Organization has political offices inside Kirkuk, headed by Turk- man Muhammed Al-Bayati. The acting governor of Kirkuk, Rakan Al-Jabouri, is also loyal to the Badr Organization and a staunch supporter of a continued role for the PMF in the province.164 The influence of the Badr Organization has meant that Turkman and Shi’a Arabs enjoy privileged access to employment, contracts and services in Kirkuk. For smaller minorities, denial of access to jobs and livelihoods impacts their sense of belonging.


Conclusions and recommendations

The detailed report by Ceasefire about the disputed territories concludes several viable recommendations for both federal and regional governments. It urges both to oversight of all armed forces who are supposed to operate in compliance with human rights law and international humanitarian law; conduct impartial and effective investigations into suspected violations; and prosecute the individuals responsible.

For the legal framework, it calls on the judiciary to enable the prosecution of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other international crimes when committed by any forces, including the Iraqi Security Forces, PMG and any armed groups.

The author believes that the Iraqi security forces ISF should be tasked for security missions especially in security checkpoints and ban the armed groups from any legal-economic activities.

The minority representatives should be included in the discussion of all measures concerning the security of minority populations at their territories, recruitment of minorities and increase their participation in all federal, regional and local security forces, including military and local police forces.

Regarding Shingal, the report agrees implementation of the Shingal Agreement is vital for the Ezidi region and urges for advance resolution of the issue of the disputed territories by promoting agreement on administrative arrangements in consultation with local populations.

Regarding the infrastructure and public facilities, the report asks for investment in reconstruction, public services and employment creation in the disputed territories to enable the return of displaced communities.

Regarding role of media and press, it recommends the removal of arbitrary barriers on political campaigning and freedom of expression.

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