The Origins of the PMUs

The head of the Badr Organization, Hadi al-Ameri, revealed a known secret a few days ago: the formation of the Popular Mobilization Units (aka al-hashd al-sha’abi, or sometimes ‘the Shia militias’) began several months ahead of Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s momentous fatwa on June 13, 2014 following the fall of Mosul. Ameri ‘corrected’ the record during a meeting between senior PMU leaders and Maliki on June 28. Here is what Ameri said:

Why is this important?

It’s important for two reasons:

-The weaknesses of the Iraqi Army were known to the Iraqi leadership months ahead of the debacle at Mosul. No tangible steps were taken to structurally address such concerns. The decision taken at the time was to build out new auxiliary forces, hence the PMUs. We have the minutes of the April 7, 2014 National Alliance (Shia bloc) meeting during which Maliki reveals all this (see below). I received the minutes of the meeting a few days afterwards. I proceeded to look into what it revealed at the time. The anecdotal evidence that I could gather then was that the idea was first proposed and acted upon by General Qasim Suleimani.

-The weaknesses of the Iraqi Army were known to the Obama administration. By April 2014, there were already + 40 US military officers embedded at various ISF command centers as ‘liaisons’ attached to the US Embassy in Baghdad. When President Obama announced his intention to send more US advisors to Iraq in August 2014, he carefully couched his words so as to suggest that the effort was a continuation of an existing program that was already underway. To my knowledge, I haven’t seen a press report that explored the experiences of that program prior to Mosul, and whether those officers on the ground anticipated the impending collapse.

Four more things:

-By mid-April, Qasim Suleimani’s efforts to create a new auxiliary force was already entering the ‘branding’ phase. Initially, the proto-PMUs were supposed to be called saraya al-difa’a al-sha’abi (‘Popular Defense Brigades’). This was supposed to be their logo (…familiar to that of Lebanese Hezbollah’s):

saraya aldifaa

-There may be some evidence that the US government had an early relationship with at least one PMU that was close to Suleimani, an organization that was cultivated and propped-up by his adjunct Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. That PMU is Jund al-Imam. See below for notes on this organization and the possible coordination it had with US forces. The Wall Street Journal once described it (during the Tikrit operation) as “US-backed”.

-In the April 7, 2014 meeting, Maliki claims that the Americans “lied” about their armament commitments. I have seen a letter addressed to Maliki, dated April 15, 2014, from the overseer of the US weapons delivery program to Iraq. It seems to be a direct response to Maliki’s claim. It began with “We have provided you with all that you have asked for.” Again, the significance of this letter is in the clarity that was available to the US administration as to the actual conditions on the ground at the time. Very little has been written about the discussions that were occurring in DC about the situation in Iraq then. President Obama had made the jayvee analogy to David Remnick a few months earlier. It is unclear whether he amended his impression based on the escalating situation in Iraq and what US advisors on the ground were reporting back to Washington. Drone strikes were being conducted from airbases in Jordan. Clearly, there was far more direct engagement and its consequent ability to judge the potential for a wider conflict than what the administration had suggested up to this date.

-The sequence of events with Ameri praising Maliki and giving him credit for the formation of the PMUs, while Suleimani is photographed having iftar at Maliki’s home two days later, are not occurring in a vacuum. This is coming at a time when Maliki’s chances for a political comeback, in whatever form, look far better today than they did three months ago.


Translated highlights from the April 7, 2014 minutes. The meeting was primarily concerned with the actions taken by ISIS in Fallouja, such as flooding the surrounding countryside. Maliki says:

“There is a real and clear security danger that threatens the country and I have told you more than a year ago that the situation is dangerous.”

“There is a Sunni Arab-Turkish axis and a sectarian alignment against us in the Shia-Iranian axis.”

“Syria is the barrier; if it breaks then the water will [flood] us.”

“I have spoken to the Iranians and the Lebanese about this matter and they are better than us since they are strategic and they went down to the field in Syria publically and if it hadn’t been for their position, and ours, then there would not have been a Syria today.”

“Unfortunately we neglected Bahrain and were distracted by partial details among ourselves when we ought to have formed a regional Shia council to face the aggression being [waged] against us by others.”

“I have spoken to the Americans in all candor and told them to stop this Sunni Arab-Turkish axis or else there will be an Iranian-Shia axis confronting it but regrettably they couldn’t.”

“Our army cannot be counted on since it is a combination of Sunnis and Shias and Kurds. Some Sunnis are unconvinced, while some Shias are there for the salary, and it is an army that has not waged such battles before and its armaments are basic compared to that of [ISIS]…”

“We have sought these days to rely on ‘Sons of Iraq’ groups [composed] of the mujaheddin and we have formed 20 groups in the environs of Baghdad so far and we are continuing to do so in Hilla and Balad and Dujail by forming such groups because they are better than the army and can fight guerrilla wars and we shall form also in Karbala.”

Arabic text of minutes:

الرسالة خاصة :
اجتماع التحالف 7 /4 /2014
بحضور جميع قوى التحالف الوطني
الموضوع / الاوضاع الامنية
تحدث رئيس الوزراء في بدية الاجتماع واشار لما يلي :
1- هناك خطر امني حقيقي وواضح يهدد البلد وقد ابلغتكم قبل اكثر من سنه ان القضية خطيرة .
2- هناك محور سني عربي تركي واصطفاف طائفي واضح ضدنا نحن المحور الشيعي الايراني
3- سوريا هي الحاجز اذا انكسر سوف يصل الماء الينا .
4- تحدثت مع الايرانيين واللبنانيين حول الامر وهم افضل منا باعتبارهم استراتيجيين نزلوا الى الميدان في سوريا بشكل علني ولولا موقفهم وموقفنا لما كان هناك سوريا اليوم
4- للاسف تركنا البحرين وانشغلنا بتفاصيل جزئية فيما بيننا وكان من المفترض ان نشكل مجلس شيعي اقليمي لمواجهة العدوان علينا من قبل الاخرين
5- تحدثت مع الامريكان بكل صراحة وقلت اوقفوا هذا المحور السني العربي التركي والا سوف يكون قباله المحور الشيعي الايراني ولكنهم للاسف لم يستطيعوا
6-اراد السنه في الانبار ان يوسعوا من حركتهم بذريعة الاعتصامات وتفاعل معهم البعض ولكننا منعناهم من ان يصلوا الى بغداد وفرقناهم في الانبار وحصل الذي حصل ونحن اليوم نواجه داعش بكل امكاناتها وتسليحها المتطور .
ومجددا اليوم احذر واقول ان القضية لم تنتهي والمعركة طويلة وسوف تطول اكثر
7- نعمل على تحصين بغداد وديالى ولكن اقول ان الوضع مقلق لان اطراف بغداد عادت حواضن للارهاببين منها ينطلقون
8- الامريكان لم يفوا بوعودهم بخصوص التسليح والروس كذلك عتاد الدبابات الذي اشتريناه من امريكا تبين مداه 600 متر فقط وكان المفروض ان يكون اكثر من 10 كم
9- جيشنا لا يمكن الاعتماد عليه كونه خليط من السنه والشيعة والاكراد قسم السنه غير مقتنع وقسم من الشيعة جاي من اجل الراتب وهو جيش لم يخوض هكذا معارك من قبل وتسليحه بسيط مقارنة بتسليح داعش وحتى الطيران الذي لدينا امكاناته بسيطة ولا يستطيع ان يضرب الا من ارتفاع 1000 متر لعدم توفر الاجهزة وداعش لديهم صواريخ ضد الطائرات
10- توجهنا في هذه الايام للاعتماد على مجاميع ابناء العراق من المجاهدين وشكلنا 20 مجموعة في اطراف بغداد الى الان ونحن مستمرون في الحلة وبلد والدجيل بتشكيل مثل هذه المجاميع لانها افضل من الجيش تجيد حرب العصابات وسوف نشكل ايضا في كربلاء .
11- تقارير الضباط لا يمكن الاعتماد عليها لانهم يكذبون وليس لدينا خزين من الضباط هذا واقعنا الذي نتعامل معه .
12- قيام داعش مؤخرا بقطع مياه الفرات

من خلال سدة الفلوجة امامنا عدة خيارات اما ان ندخل للفلوجة وهذا فيه تداعيات كبيرة او نفتح سد حديثة مما سيؤدي الى غرق الفلوجة واجبار الارهابيين على فتح السدة او نقوم بضرب السدة بصواريخ وقد جربنا ضربها باربع صواريخ ولكنها لم تؤثر فيها ونحن نفكر بضرب السدة الترابية في الفلوجة ولكن ليس لدينا السلاح المناسب لذلك .
13- قمة النجاح الذي حققناه في الانبار والفلوجة اننا اوقفنا التداعي في الجيش .
المناقشات :
حصل بعض الاستفسارات والاسئلة عن اوضاع مناطق بغداد وحماية الجسور ومخازن العتاد واقتراحات بشراء سلاح من دول اخرى وتحدث امير الكناني عن ضرورة الحسم في العمليات لان الاطالة سوف تستنزف الدولة وامكاناتها
وتحدث ابوجهاد في قضية سدة الفلوجة واكد على خيار ضرب السدة الترابية اولا واطلاق تحذيرات من اننا مضطرون لذلك لالقاء الحجة واستنفاذ العذر من دون اللجوء الان للخيارين الاخرين وان القضية ليست فوتيه لان الفرات فيه مياه كافية الان
السيد الجعفري اكد ان رئيس الوزراء ابلغه سابقا ان العمليات امدها متوسط وتحتاج الى اسابيع ولكن الظاهر ان الامر تطور بحيث يحتاج الى مدة طويلة كما يقول رئيس الوزراء
دكتور خضير اكد على حماية الجسور ومخازن الاعتدة
علق رئيس الوزراء على عملية الحسم قائلا ليس لدينا قدرة على الحسم لنقص السلاح واوضاع الجيش ولا نريد خسران السنة الذين معنا كما ان استخدام القوى المفرطة غير صحيح ولو كنا نستطيع على الحسم لما انتظرنا .
انتهى الاجتماع بالتعامل بالخيار الذي اكد عليه ممثل المجلس الاعلى والتاكيد على ضرورة حماية العاصمة بغداد وباصدار بيان اكد على دعم القوى الامنية في حربها ضد الارهاب وادانه العمل الجبان للارهابيين بقطع المياه والتاكيد على اللحمة الوطنية .



-Headed by Ahmad Jasim Sabir al-Asadi (AKA Abu Ja’afar al-Asadi, b. 1971, Australian citizen). Official spokesman of the PMUs.

-Org first established by Mehdi Abdul-Mehdi al-Khalisi (AKA Abu Zainab al-Khalisi) in Iran in the early 1980s.

-Al-Khalisi was one of the founding members of Badr Corps; he is credited by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis with the idea of the creation of Badr. Al-Muhandis headed Badr in the mid-1980s until shortly before 2003. The US military arrested al-Khalisi in 2003 and released him in 2005. He died shortly afterwards; his lieutenants claim that the Americans injected him with cancer. They also assert that cadres of Jund al-Imam were targeted for assassination by the Americans.

-Al-Asadi becomes general secretary of Jund al-Imam in 2009.

-In May 2015, al-Asadi was in the United States, ostensibly attending an event to raise money for the PMUs in Michigan organized by the US-Iraqi Youth Institute. I believe he was also in Washington for talks. No evidence.

-Jund al-Imam was tasked and bankrolled by Maliki to mobilize a militia in early 2014, ahead of Mosul and Sistani’s fatwa. Al-Asadi had asserted that in a TV interview that was aired a year ago.

-Al-Asadi was a candidate for parliament on Maliki’s slate in 2010 and 2014. When Abadi was picked as PM, he took over the latter’s parliamentary seat. Abadi insisted that al-Asadi become spokesman of the PMUs.

-Jund al-Imam claims that they have thousands of fighters that constitute the 6th and 15th brigades of the PMUs. They take credit for destroying Saddam’s tomb in Auja, Tikrit, as well as securing the Speicher Air Base, which they have renamed Abu Zainab al-Khalisi Air Base. One credible source claims that they are responsible for burning down Albu Ajeel village to the east of Tikrit.

-There is plenty of circumstantial evidence that Jund al-Imam receives special attention and support from Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

-At the time of the Tikrit operation, the WSJ described Jund al-Imam as “US-backed”. See here and here.

-A member of Jund al-Imam (Kadhim al-Battat) attended the INC’s NYC meeting in Oct 1999, and then testified before the US Congress. Another, Kareem Mahoud al-Muhammadawi (‘Abu Hatem’), was a member of the Governing Council under Bremer. I don’t know what is the nature of al-Battat’s and al-Muhammadawi’s relationship to the organization now.

The following link from my Arabic blog has some pictures of al-Asadi in the US, as well as pictures taken alongside Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

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