Cover: The Future of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces

The Future of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces

Lessons from Historical Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration Efforts

Published Jan 24, 2023

by Daniel Egel, Trevor Johnston, Ben Connable


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Research Questions

  1. How often are internationally supported DDR programs successful in reducing the power and influence of groups like the PMF?
  2. Under what conditions and to what extent could such DDR programs be effective in Iraq?

The Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) played a critical role in the fight against the Islamic State. But this paramilitary force now represents a challenge to civil-military relations because many PMF fighters remain loyal to their former commanders despite being formally integrated into the Iraqi armed forces in 2016. Furthermore, because many of these militias retain ties to Iran, the PMF's integration into Iraq's security services provides Iran with a new opportunity to undermine U.S. interests and subvert Iraq's struggling democratic government.

Addressing the challenges posed by the PMF will be essential to the success of any U.S. strategy in Iraq and the broader Middle East. In this report, the authors examine lessons learned from previous efforts toward disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) of former combatants and militia forces to inform U.S. government policy on the PMF. They analyze historic DDR programming to assess whether a U.S.-supported DDR effort in Iraq might succeed, examining internationally supported DDR programs from 1979 to 2010.

This historical analysis indicates that DDR that is focused on the PMF will be extremely difficult unless linked to complementary security sector reform and political reforms that provide greater inclusion. While reducing Iranian-backed PMF power and influence might be beneficial to the United States, a policy that seeks to force that reduction might, in fact, have the opposite effect.

Key Findings

The PMF is similar to many other armed groups that have been the target of successful DDR efforts

  • Five characteristics of the PMF—(1) importance to domestic (Iraqi) national security, (2) local entrenchment, (3) rough but diverse organization, (4) limited domestic political will to demobilize, and (5) external support—will affect DDR efforts.
  • The PMF problem set is unusual but not unique; nearly half of the 30 historical DDR cases examined in this report share four characteristics with the PMF, and three share all five.

Demobilization of PMF fighters is likely to be difficult unless linked to complementary political and security reforms

  • Several factors are especially important to DDR success: (1) willingness of the government and the armed group to enter the process, (2) basic security from violence for both parties, (3) political accommodation available to leadership of the armed group, (4) opportunities for former fighters and leaders, and (5) presence of a capable international force ready to assure the security of those being disarmed and demobilized.

DDR programming pushed by the United States is anticipated to be particularly problematic and likely to backfire

  • Pressure from American leaders against the PMF could give Iranian-backed PMF leaders a rallying cry and divert some negative attention away from Iran.
  • Direct U.S. intervention could also shift negative public attention in Iraq from the PMF to the United States, further undermining U.S. influence.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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