The phenomenon of comparing and equating the Islamic State (Daesh) with the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMUs) has been circulating among many who consider themselves to be academics and/or intellectuals. The unsound and fallacious nature of this comparison is based on a deep-rooted belief that a Shi’a Daesh must come into existence to level the playing field. Although the argument disintegrates when it fails to distinguish between a terrorist organization and state-regulated forces that enjoy worldwide recognition, this article will seek to explain why the two are incomparable and perhaps serve as a reminder to what Daesh stands for.

Formation and Purpose of Establishment:

Daesh is based on an ideology that derives its power from establishing a caliphate that extends from the boundaries of India to northern Africa. Under this caliphate, the group claims political and religious authority over all Muslims worldwide. Under this false pretense, the terror group seized control over large swaths of Syrian and Iraqi territory.

The PMUs were formed following Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s verdict for Iraqis to mobilize against the terror group. Thousands of Iraqi volunteers poured into enrollment centers with an aim to liberate Iraqi territories and counter the spread of Daesh.

Elements and Components:

Daesh is composed of thousands of foreign fighters who have flocked to territories held by the group in Syria and Iraq. The group utilizes aggressive recruitment tactics to lure young men and women, often through social media, to join them overseas. Brainwashing, radicalizing, and misguiding is a common practice for the terror group.

The PMUs are composed of thousands of Iraqi fighters with different political and religious affiliations. The establishment is home to Sunni, Shi’a, Christian, Shabak, Turkmen, and Kurdish fighters. While some would argue that Iranian advisors and fighters are currently present on Iraqi soil, much like their American counterparts, their presence comes at the request of the central government.

Political and Legal Affiliations:

Daesh does not adhere, nor does it recognize the laws and regulations of the State that it invades. The group bases its laws on the decisive ruling of Sharia Law, and pledges allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph.

The PMUs are considered a key element in the fight against terrorism and one of the military wings that fall under the authority of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. They enjoy a sizable amount of public support and backing. For example, days after the deadly Karrada attacks, angry residents demanded that the PMUs take over the security portfolio of Baghdad following the government’s failure to address security issues.

Source of Income and Funding:

Daesh relies on illegal smuggling of oil from Syria and Iraq, as well as antiques, as primary sources of revenue. Secondary sources of revenue include but are not limited to: ransoms, private donations, taxation, fisheries, and agriculture.

The PMUs rely on government allocated funds from the national budget, as well as donations from the Iraqi populace. These fighters often go months without salaries due to the country’s growing economic crisis.

While there is no doubt that the Popular Mobilization Forces are responsible for numerous human rights abuses and crimes committed along the way such as looting, arson, and the murder of civilians, these incidents however, are individualistic in nature and most often committed independently by rogue elements within the establishment. PMU leaderships have sought to isolate and weed out these elements, as well as condemn those who commit atrocities in the name of the establishment. The presence of rogue elements within any establishment is not uncommon, they exist even in the most sophisticated and robust armies in the world. (See atrocities committed by US soldiers in Iraq: Here). Crimes committed by these rogue elements are neither systematic nor as frequent or severe as the ones committed by Daesh. The transnational terror group is ideologically committed to systematic genocides, crimes against humanity, trafficking, enslavement, ethnic cleansing, and destruction of cultural heritage. They do not differentiate between militants and civilians, men and women, or young and old. They even boast and take pride in their criminal activities.

Accusations of sectarian-cleansing directed towards the PMUs are fatuous in nature and devoid of any bases for several reasons:

  • Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army) that was responsible for running death squads and much of the sectarian violence in Baghdad between 2006-2007, has long been disbanded. Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades), the revival splinter group of Jaysh al-Mahdi is not part of the PMUs and has been at odds with the establishment for some time.
  • Unlike Daesh-held areas where only Sunnis who were forced to pledge allegiance to the terror group reside, PMU-held areas enjoy a diverse population from all ethnic and religious backgrounds. Baghdad and Diyala are home to Sunnis, Shi’as, Kurds and Christians.
  • In January 2016, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s approved the appointment of 40,000 Sunni volunteers to PMU ranks, followed by 10,000 more in later stages. Sunni tribes have also been instrumental in the fight against Daesh militants. Today, Sunni, Christian, Shabak, and Yazidi fighters make up a large chunk of the PMU establishment.

Bottom line, PMUs do not invade countries, nor carry out suicide attacks on busy markets, holy sites, theaters, bus stations, and other civilian-packed places. They also do not engage in trafficking, enslavement, oil smuggling, and destruction of ancient sites. Attempting to equate the two is trying to blur the differences, and even worse, trivialize and undermine the real danger that Daesh poses.

Mustafa Al-Khaqani

Mustafa Al-Khaqani

Mustafa Al-Khaqani is a researcher and a civil activist in Iraqi politics. Currently studying American politics and policy.