Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shiite cleric in Shiite-majority Iraq, inspired the PMF’s creation through a June 2014 fatwa or religious decree encouraging Iraqis to “volunteer to join the security forces” to save the country from the IS threat. Iraqi Shiites responded by joining pre-existing and new Shiite militias with the approval of then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who granted them semi-official status under the PMF umbrella.
The militias also received training and weapons from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force as they battled IS and helped Iraq’s revived military to defeat the Sunni militants in 2017.
Iraq’s pro-Iranian militias, some of whom the U.S. has designated as terrorist organizations, have increased in size by twenty times since 2010, according to a study published last month by the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center. From having as few as 4,000 operatives at the beginning of that period, the study said such militias now employ 81,000 to 84,000 personnel under the PMF umbrella.
Knights told VOA that Iran’s major rivals in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia, have been watching this trend closely and are likely to act against it when necessary.
“Israel will keep striking in Iraq until such time as the Iranians stop using the PMF to move and hide missiles. The Israelis now consider Iraq to be a part of an extended battleground— first it was Syria, and then Iraq was added to it,” Knights said, referring to a series of recent unclaimed attacks that targeted PMF groups across Iraq and Syria.