One thing that distinguishes Iraq’s popular mobilization forces from its army units is their deep willingness to fight and to sacrifice to achieve military objectives against the enemy. They do not, however, have the professional and military training of the official forces and are not being held accountable in instances of violations.
The popular mobilization forces are in part reconstitutions of the militias formed after the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq that fought against US troops and were often supported by Iran. Some of the groups formed independently and later gained Iranian backing, such as the Mahdi Army, which is affiliated with Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Other groups were initially formed under Iranian supervision, such as the Badr Organization, Hezbollah in Iraq and Jaysh al-Mukhtar.
These forces expanded with the enrollment of large numbers of volunteers, especially following the fall of Mosul in June 2014. Their relations with Iran grew stronger as they began to operate under Iranian military guidance. Their close ties to Iran stem in part from an ideological kinship, but also from the militias’ lack of trust in the fighting skills of the Iraqi army, which failed to protect Mosul and has suffered significant subsequent defeats.
Sectarianism in Iraq has fueled resentment toward the popular forces. While some violations against civilians have been attributed to IS, others have accused the popular mobilization forces of committing them. The most prominent such incident was the August 2104 attack on the Musab bin Umair Mosque in Diyala that left nearly 70 Sunni civilians dead.
Also in Diyala province in the last week of January, an assault was reported to have resulted in more than 70 civilians being killed, including women and children. Dozens of people have also been kidnapped. The media office of the popular mobilization forces in Diyala has issued official denials of responsibility for these killings, instead blaming IS and calling for a comprehensive judicial investigation into the matter.