Fighting the Islamic State won’t change the sectarian image of Iraq’s militias

Iraqi rapid response forces gather during a fight with Islamic State militants in Intisar district of eastern Mosul on Dec. 22, 2016. (Reuters/Khalid al Mousily)
Iraqi rapid response forces gather during a fight with Islamic State militants in Intisar district of eastern Mosul on Dec. 22, 2016. (Reuters/Khalid al Mousily)

The militias fighting under the banner of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq have played a controversial role in the ongoing battle to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State. The PMF is widely seen inside Iraq and abroad as a sectarian Shiite force. On social media and in popular discourse (largely from a Sunni perspective), the PMF is pejoratively referred to as “Safavids” or simply “Iranians.” PMF groups have been implicated in human rights abuses against Sunnis during liberation operations in cities such as Tikrit and Fallujah.

Yet the PMF has tried hard to portray itself as Iraqi nationalist. The call to arms that established the PMF is framed in nationalist terms, and there are groups in the PMF — such as the Abbas Combat Divisions — that have a genuinely nationalist and state-centered outlook and have been integrated into the Ministry of Defense. In fact, half of the PMF militias are closely integrated with the state, and a recent law calls for all to be integrated completely. Why have their efforts to shed their highly sectarian image failed?

The standard answer to this puzzle would be that there is in fact no puzzle: The PMF is seen as a sectarian militia because that is precisely what it is. But the truth is not so simple. The PMF has fought on behalf of non-Shiite Iraqis and tried to present a nonsectarian public message. But those efforts are undermined not only by its opponents, but by the messaging of some of its most powerful groups, which directly contribute to its Shiite-chauvinist reputation. As part of a larger research project on Iraqi Shiite militias, and during a year of working and living in southern Iraq, I analyzed social-media posts, TV channels and the ubiquitous militia posters that cover Iraqi cities, especially in the south. I focused especially on the hard-line, Iranian-affiliated groups that contribute largely to shaping the PMF’s reputation in the region.

The PMF began after the seizure of Mosul by the Islamic State in 2014. Tens of thousands of Iraqis responded to a fatwa by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to “to defend the country, its people, the honor of its citizens, and its sacred places.” It is natural that armed groups mobilized by a call issued by a leading Shiite cleric would be seen through a sectarian lens. Polls show that the PMF is widely popular among Shiites. Most Sunnis and Kurds, by contrast, see the PMF as having Shiite sectarian motives. They fear the consequences of allowing the PMF to be front-line participants in operations to liberate cities such as Mosul, and point to the participation of some PMF militias in the Syrian war (including the recent siege of Aleppo by pro-government forces).

The PMF forces routinely claim to be fighting not on behalf of Shiites but on behalf of all Iraqis. The militias do fight on behalf of Sunnis and Kurds, and in regions where the Shiite population is small. PMF supporters argue that only a small number of hard-line factions are guilty of abuses, and say that rarely have PMF-affiliated groups explicitly advocated violence against Iraqis of other sects, faiths, and ethnicities. And it is undeniable that the PMF is among the most effective front-line fighters in the anti-Islamic State struggle.

But although PMF supporters blame the caricatured images in Sunni and Gulf media for their bad reputation, a close look at PMF-affiliated media shows that they have played a critical role in advancing precisely the sectarian image that its leaders would like to shed. PMF militias use affiliated TV stations, social media, Friday sermons and abundant billboards to burnish their image, draw popular support and compete for power and influence. Shiite-centric symbols and narratives permeate this messaging.

The messages of Iranian-backed groups echo Iranian propaganda and frequently depict the supreme leader on billboards and in other publicity, making their ties to Tehran very clear. So although appeals to Iraqi nationalism feature in the discourse, the Shiite-centric messaging strategies of dominant PMF groups reinforce feelings of distrust among Sunnis and Kurds.

This only escalated as the fight against the Islamic State entered its final and most difficult phases in Mosul. The militias operating under the PMF employed a broad multimedia strategy to rally support in Iraq as the campaign approached. Television remains their most important messaging platform, and many militias benefit from favorable coverage on the stations controlled by their affiliated political parties. This coverage includes grisly images of dead Islamic State fighters and their burned vehicles, as well as the celebrations of victorious PMF units on the front.

Shiite clerics amplify support for the PMF in their weekly sermons. Through mosques affiliated with different clerical families, preachers praise the heroic sacrifices of the PMF — while rarely mentioning the Iraqi army — and almost never criticize PMF excesses and crimes. Militias use Facebook to disseminate images of martyrs, claim battlefield victories, and send political signals to their supporters. The popularity of social media reflects the target demographic: poor Shiite men. Iranian-backed groups tend to parrot Tehran’s propaganda about the United States and Israel, and push the idea that the United States has secretly supported the Islamic State.

Shiite-centric imagery dominates PMF militia messaging, from Facebook pages to the omnipresent billboards that the militias have placed throughout the country, and especially in Shiite-majority areas. Posters recruiting fighters to go to Syria or mourning martyrs often depict the dome of the Aqeelah Zaynab bint Ali shrine near Damascus. Many militia leaders place the number “313” next to their names, in reference to the 313 champions who will fight in “end-time” battles.

Iran-backed militias consistently include Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s image on posters celebrating martyrs or requesting volunteers. Khamenei is often depicted beside Sistani as a way to bestow Iraqi nationalist legitimacy upon Iranian-backed groups and suggest that the Iranian-affiliated groups, like other militias, are responding to Sistani’s fatwa.

The names of many PMF militias also have a sectarian slant. Although messages directly inciting violence against Sunnis are very rare, Sunnis and Kurds do not view the PMF militia messages as inclusive or nationalist given the preponderance of Shiite symbols and narratives.

Finally, despite ostensible appeals to Iraqi nationalism in statements and interviews, these militias make no explicit calls for sectarian unity or national reconciliation. Non-Shiite Iraqis quickly see through the nationalist smokescreen. Shiite militia strategies fit the well-trodden, post-Saddam Hussein pattern of politicized sectarianism mobilized through media messaging. Just as in the past, the content of the messaging and the coded and less-than-coded sectarian appeals within serve to further alienate Sunnis, Kurds and others who fear Shiite domination.

Mieczysław P. Boduszyński is an assistant professor of politics and international relations at Pomona College.

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