The Popular Mobilization Units – Iraq’s Shia-led paramilitary coalition – are reaching out to the country’s embattled Christian minority. This strategy – which may be the prelude to military cooperation between specific PMU factions and Christian armed groups – mirrors similar efforts by Lebanese armed group Hezbollah – which over the past 20 years have successfully courted Christian support in Lebanon – and may give a window into Iran’s strategy for a post-ISIL Iraq.

The Popular Mobilization units, or Hashd al-Shaabi (also referred to as Popular Mobilization Forces) are a loose coalition of dozens of mostly Shia armed groups, but also includes smaller Christian, Sunni and Yazidi groups as well. The coalition was formed in response to Iraqi Shia leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s call for a national mobilization against ISIL’s June 2014 offensive, which led to the takeover of vast swathes of the country, including Mosul. In April 2015 Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered that they be placed under his direct command, effectively making the PMU a branch of the Iraqi armed forces.

The coalition is not a monolithic bloc. Per a 2015 Uticensis Risk Services Report the PMU is “too divided on partisan lines to be transformed into a real military organization, and its sharp divisions are likely to portend steep challenges to state stability in the future.” Some of the Shia groups making up the PMU – many of which are pre-existing and participated in insurgent activities against the US-led occupation of Iraq – are Iranian-backed and officered formations, like the Badr Organization, Kata’ib al-Imam Ali (Imam Ali Brigades) and Kata’ib Hezbollah. Others – like the Muqtada al-Sadr-led Peace companies – are autonomous from Iran, and some formations are loyal to elements of the Iraqi Shia clerical hierarchy, like the Ayatollah al-Sistani himself. PM al-Abadi has also overseen an increase in Sunni recruitment to the PMU.

Engaged in the ongoing offensive to liberate Mosul from ISIL presence, the PMU has also invested time and resources in countering the Salafi Jihadist organization’s propaganda machine. The PMU media wing – run under the Al-Hashed brand with a joint website – is producing high-end videos from the battlefield including drone footage, music videos with celebratory nasheed, and dramatized scenes illustrating the Shia coalition’s perceived heroism in the fight against ISIL.

One of these videos, released in December 2015, appears to outline an outreach strategy towards the Christian community of Iraq. It also appears to foreshadow the use of church bell-ringing as a media visibility moment, something subsequently seen repeatedly during the Mosul offensive.

The video opens on a Shia fighter retaking the streets of Mosul. Upon discovering a padlocked church with “Property of the Islamic State” posted outside, he furiously breaks open the lock with a hammer and enters the church. A fellow fighter simultaneously corrects anti-Christian graffiti on a nearby wall, transforming the “noon” letter – short for nasrani, a term for Christian – into “Iraqis.” As the first soldier attempts to repair a crucifix on the church altar, the church bell rings, and in a surreal scene dozens of Iraqi Christians – including children and the elderly – flood into the church. As the militiamen opens his arms in Islamic prayer, a Christian man flanks him making the sign of the cross.

The message to Iraqi Christians appears clear: we are all Iraqis, we will protect you.

Other videos released by the PMU media wing reinforce this message, including a music video depicting an Iraqi nun and a Muslim woman escaping from ISIL fighters together and a video highlighting the Jesus Son of Mary Imam Ali Militia, a mixed Shia-Christian militia which carries a cross in military parade. The group is affiliated with the PMU member group the Imam Ali Brigades – considered by many to be a direct Iranian proxy – who are the PMU group who has made most visible overtures to Iraq’s indigenous Assyrian Christian community.

The only completely Christian member of the PMU is the Babylon Brigade. Militia leader Rayan al-Kildani has appeared in an Imam Ali Brigades propaganda video, apparently endorsing a pro-Iranian position. In the video al-Kildani says that after defeating ISIL the Babylon Brigade will go to fight alongside Hezbollah in support of the Assad regime in Syria and to support the Iranian-backed Houthi militias in Yemen.

The structure of the PMU coalition, with its local emphasis and paramilitary nature, reflect certain similarities with the Iranian basij model. In this model – developed during the Iran-Iraq war – localized militias are established as a parallel and auxiliary structure to traditional armed forces. Initially initially a paramilitary coalition loosely governed by the Iraqi Ministry of Interior’s Popular Mobilization Units directorate, the group is now an official component of Iraqi security forces. Many of its militias are Iranian trained and officered, and Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) Quds Force General Qasem Soleimani has led PMU operations on the ground against ISIL. The basij model has also been applied by the Quds Force in Syria, where IRGC commanders have established and trained units of the National Defence Forces, an auxiliary force fighting alongside Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army.

While constituent PMU groups – as well as their unified command – claim it wishes to protect all Iraqis, member groups have been accused of sectarian violence – including murders, kidnappings and property destruction – against Iraq’s Sunni population, and the group has been discouraged from taking an active role in liberating Sunni areas from ISIL. It’s for precisely this reason that outreach to Iraq’s indigenous Christian community may be part of specific PMU groups overall strategic prerogatives.

Since the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq the country’s mostly Assyrian Christian population have faced the darkest period of the community’s history. Targeted for violence by a wide range of insurgent and jihadi groups and blamed by some for the invasion itself, Assyrian Christians left Iraq en masse, making up as much as a third of Iraq’s refugees and Internally Displaced Persons. The community has gone from somewhere around 1 million before the invasion to around 300 thousand before the rise of ISIL eleven years later. The latest round of violence hit Assyrian Christian’s hard, as the Jihadist group took over large swathes of their ancestral homeland in the Nineveh Plain, and heralding a new round of murder and displacement. The Kurdish Peshmerga retreat that preceded the massacre has created great resentment among Assyrians, and may have compounded decades-old tensions between the two communities.

In reaching out to Assyrian Christians, including promising to protect refugees if they return to rebuild, PMU groups – and arguably Iran itself – are projecting their influence to contested areas, where Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Assyrians live side-by-side. In any future post-ISIL sectarian conflicts, a political-military alliance with the Christian community could be crucial for Shia power, influence and legitimacy.

A major precedent for Shia propaganda efforts aimed at Christians comes from Lebanon. Shia non-state actor Hezbollah – a projection of the Iranian Quds Force like multiple PMU groups – began a successful campaign aimed at Lebanon’s indigenous, majority-Maronite Christian community in the 1990s. These efforts succeeded in large part, allowing for the creation of a Shia-Maronite power bloc and the rise of Michel Aoun to Lebanon’s presidency. Hezbollah has also used the defense of Christians as a justification for its full-scale involvement in the Syrian Civil War on the side of Bashar al Assad.

The continued instability in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon is likely to see continued efforts by Iran-backed Shia groups to foster alliances with Christian communities.

 

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