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These Iraqi militias are attacking protesters and getting away with it. Here’s why.

They’re supported by the Iraqi government — and by Iran.

Iraqi protesters run from tear gas fired by security forces at Baghdad's Khallani square during ongoing anti-government demonstrations on Nov. 12. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)
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Armed forces allied with the Iraqi government have used alarming levels of violence to suppress the country’s mass popular protests now entering their second month. The often-lethal tactics include firing military-grade tear gas directly at protesters’ heads and deploying snipers who shoot to kill, leading to a death toll exceeding 300. The Iraqi government has avoided identifying the groups that thus far have been operating under impunity. Clear evidence, however, has emerged of abuses and crimes conducted by anti-riot police, regular military units and militias, and parastatal groups that have direct but flexible connections to the state.

Some of these militias make up part of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and are allied with Iran. They are often mischaracterized as non-state actors, simple proxies of Iran or extensions of the Iraqi government. None of these descriptions is wholly true and results in a limited analytical understanding of such groups and their sources of strength.

As an alternative, our recent research develops the emerging concept of hybrid actors, which draw power from states and help shape state agendas, while at the same time pursue autonomous agendas. They are hybrid because they run counter to the Western policymaker’s binary of state vs. non-state actors. The concept can be applied more broadly to the region’s multiple, ongoing conflicts as well as to conflicts in other regions. Applying the hybrid concept to the case of these militias in the PMU more accurately depicts their dynamic relationships with Iraq and Iran without discounting their own autonomous agendas. Here’s how.

Qualities of a hybrid

Hybrid actors sometimes operate in concert with the state and at other times compete with it. They depend on state sponsorship, both from their host state and their foreign backers. At the same time, they enjoy the flexibility that comes with not being a state. They also generate their own revenue and possess autonomous military capability. They are among the most significant obstacles to long-term state stability in the region today.

Hybrid actors seek to harness and control some but not all spheres of the state’s authority. Those that survive over many years tend to penetrate the state and carve out official fiefdoms within its architecture. They develop structures parallel to the state, affording them extralegal autonomy.

Hybrids engage in war, diplomacy, politics and propaganda. They build and maintain constituencies, providing not just security but also services and ideological guidance. While almost all hybrid actors have some relationship with an external patron, they are more than mere proxies and have latitude to make their own policy and decisions.

Among our seven cases of armed groups in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, we found classic examples of hybrid actors, such as Hezbollah of Lebanon, and atypical examples, such as the Islamic State, that exhibit very few hybrid qualities.

We analyzed hybrids along two vectors: their “stateness,” i.e., to what extent they seek to assume state functions; and their autonomy, or the degree to which they function as proxies subservient to their patron. Conditions that correlate with success for hybrid groups include constituent loyalty; resilient state relationships, including with sponsors; and coherent ideology, in the most compelling examples converging with the sponsor’s.

Hybrids in Iraq

The Iraqi government relies on a wide array of institutions to protect the political system, from courts to communications officials who control the Internet. Hybrid actors play a unique role in this collaboration. They support the political system and receive extensive support from the government.

The Iraqi PMU played a decisive role in the military campaign against the Islamic State. Some of the militias and movements that today make up the PMU have been operating before the rise of the Islamic State. Today they have transformed from traditional non-state militias or proxies, like the Badr Brigade was during the Iran-Iraq war, into hybrids.

The PMU is officially part of the state, receiving salaries from the government under a 2016 law. PMU fighters ultimately answer not to a government commission but to their militia leaders. Some of these leaders are in turn connected to backers in Iran as well as to allies inside the Iraqi government.

In the ongoing demonstrations, protesters have blamed Iranian-connected security elements for some of the violence, which serves Iraq’s predatory political class as well as Iran’s militarized, adventurist regional policy. The hybrid militias are but one element in the state’s violent response. What distinguishes the hybrids is that, unlike Ministry of Interior or Defense troops, they are often more capable than government institutions, serve multiple interests and draw support from states as well as from their own economic structures.

In contrast to pure proxies, hybrids in the PMU seek to secure state patronage, which they use to bolster their constituents. The state is a primary resource for these groups and is also the avenue through which they pursue their own political and economic projects. Nonetheless, they are willing to undermine the state’s institutions and authority when it serves their organizational interests.

Hybrids can express open solidarity with the state without taking ownership of its governance record. To that end, militias participating in the violence against Iraqi protesters have supported a supposedly gradual reform process, whereby they can take credit for any progress and avoid blame for ongoing failures.

An obstacle to effective states

Hybrid actors cannot simply be isolated or ignored. In Lebanon today, a national uprising has brought the government and economy to a standstill. Hezbollah — the quintessential hybrid — is the essential guarantor of Lebanon’s political order. But because it is officially only a tiny stakeholder in the government, there are few ways to engage it or hold it accountable.

At the current historical moment, Iran is the power most heavily invested in hybrid actors — in part as a function of its revisionist and revolutionary agenda and in part as a practical function of its limited options for both power projection and state-to-state partnerships in the Middle East and North Africa. Others, including the United States, Israel and the Gulf Arab monarchies, have also worked with hybrids but less effectively.

Several factors have contributed to the experiments by and with such armed groups: eroded state structures and institutions; open-ended civil and regional wars; sustained interference by competing foreign powers; the resource curse; and the instrumentalization of identity and ideology by local elites. Holding hybrids accountable could help to address the challenge they pose to rebuilding the state. Inevitably, however, the most viable path for managing them, short of resolving the underlying conflicts, lies in the state: patiently integrating hybrids into the state while reasserting state authority, competence and accountability.

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Renad Mansour is research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Program and project director of the Iraq Initiative at Chatham House. Thanassis Cambanis and Michael Wahid Hanna are senior fellows at the Century Foundation. All three are co-authors, along with Dina Esfandiary, Sima Ghaddar, and Aron Lund, of “Hybrid Actors: Armed Groups and State Fragility in the Middle East” (TCF Press, 2019).