Iran is not the only power with influence within the PMF either. Iraq’s holy shrines, which are controlled by Sistani, set up three of the best-trained and equipped units of the PMF: the Imam Ali Brigade, Ali al-Akhbar Brigade, and Abbas Division. Their officers are largely nationalists, mirroring Sistani, who is supportive of the Iraqi state. But his religious authority gives the shrines significant, competing political clout: It was Sistani’s loss of confidence in former Prime Minister Maliki that forced him from office.
The shrines also strongly oppose foreign interference in Iraq, and, unlike Faleh al-Fayad, are unafraid of criticizing Iran. The shrines have significant theological disagreements with Iran’s religious leaders, especially over the proper relationship between clerics and the state, with Sistani arguing that religious leaders must remain moral counselors, rather than political leaders in their own right.
Shortly after the shrine units were established, they were offered foreign assistance, including arms and training, from Iran. “We directed them to give the weapons to the Iraqi army to distribute to us,” Sheikh Maitham al-Zaidi, commander of the Abbas Division, told me. “Other countries should respect the sovereignty of Iraq and deal with the Iraqi government so weapons don’t go to the wrong hands.”
Sistani has directed the shrines’ units to work closely with the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. “These are the good Hash’d. We can work with them,” a senior Iraqi officer noted. For those who serve in these units, like Adil Talib, a former officer in Saddam Hussein’s army who now oversees logistical operations for the Ali al-Akhbar Brigade, “the Brigade fights for Iraq. It is a national struggle. … We laugh at the name militia. There is no difference between us and the army.” Yet in spite of the shrines’ cooperation with the Iraqi military, differences remain between the two groups. And when they arise, the shrine units listen to Sistani. “We follow orders from Sistani, we don’t just carry his name,” Sheikh al-Zaidi said.
For now, the shrines’ biggest disagreement with the Iraqi government is over the PMF’s future. The shrines supported the PMF law of November 26, and have encouraged the government to bring the PMF under the control of the state. However, if Sistani demobilizes the shrine units, the balance of power within the PMF will swing toward those units currently beyond government control. If members of Iran’s proxies continue to fight in Syria, while the PMF are an official component of Iraq’s security forces, this creates a foreign policy dilemma for the Iraqi government.
“Our existence is temporary. Our vision as the Abbas Division is to follow the fatwa and we will go back to our jobs after victory,” al-Zaidi said. “The other vision comes from the government. They see the Hash’d as an official body of the state. My personal view is that we leave when Grand Ayatollah Sistani calls for us to go home.”
Perhaps, then, it is better to treat the PMF less as institution, and more as a struggle for influence that will decide Iraq’s future, long after ISIS is defeated.