ISIS Bombings Expose Shortfalls in Iraq’s Security Forces

January 28, 2021 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: IraqISISIranPMUTerrorism

ISIS Bombings Expose Shortfalls in Iraq’s Security Forces

The PMU’s ability to openly and repeatedly defy Iraqi law and disavow the interest of the country they are supposed to be protecting presents a major security challenge to the Iraqi government.


Dual suicide bombings tore through a crowded marketplace in Baghdad on January 21, killing over 30 people and injuring dozens of others. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the bombings, marking the first large-scale attack in the country in more than two years. Once a regular occurrence in Baghdad, suicide attacks have ceased in recent years after the Islamic State lost the final territories it controlled in Iraq in 2019.

The blasts emphasize the dysfunction of the Iraqi Security Forces, who have been struggling amidst the spread of coronavirus, corruption, and political divisions. Following the departure of U.S. troops in Iraq in 2004, Iraq had to essentially rebuild its entire security force structure, leaning heavily on foreign intervention and training. Over 250,000 local troops have been trained and mentored by the U.S.-led coalition, which initially intervened at the onset of the Islamic State crisis in 2014. At the same time, Iranian-supported Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) entered the conflict and also contributed to the counter-IS movement in the country. By 2018, the PMU Shi’ite militias were formally inducted into Iraq’s Security Forces.


Despite efforts to consolidate PMU militias into a singular body within the security forces, dozens of umbrella groups persisted—many adhering to Tehran’s interests. Although Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei repeatedly requested that the Iraqi government not consolidate the Shi’ite militias into the army, in spring 2019, then-Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi issued an order directing PMU factions to fully integrate into the security forces.

By fall 2019, PMU militias displayed their unwillingness to follow Mahdi’s integration decree following the anti-Iran protests that swept Iraq. Days into the start of the demonstrations, PMU leaders began to deploy militants to suppress protestors on their own volition. Some of these Iran-backed units used snipers to take out demonstrations, and others formed “death squads” responsible for dozens of murders and kidnappings. Videos circulated of PMU members stomping on the Iraqi national flag and photographs of the then-newly instated Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

In response to Iran’s malign and deadly influence in the 2019 protests, Kadhimi took a variety of measures to attempt to limit the power of the PMU in the country. The prime minister issued arrest warrants for militia members, released those imprisoned during the 2019 protests, and publicly denounced Iran’s deep entrenchment in Iraqi political and military spheres. Despite these efforts, the prominent PMU militia Kataib-Hezbollah began an incessant series of attacks targeting Baghdad’s Green Zone, home to the U.S. Embassy, in the last year. The continuation of these rocket attacks has caused tension between the Iraqi government and the United States. Iraq would benefit from a strong relationship with the United States and Iranian-backed militias are attempting to spoil that potential.

Following the twin bombings on January 21, Kadhimi announced an overhaul of the security force leadership, firing the commander of the federal police forces, the deputy interior minister for intelligence, among others. However, if the prime minister wants to enact permanent change within his security forces, he must address the PMU. These armed groups’ ability to openly and repeatedly defy Iraqi law and disavow the interest of the country they are supposed to be protecting presents a major security challenge to the Iraqi government. Islamic State cells will continue to take advantage of the massive gaps in Iraq’s security apparatus if this dysfunction is not addressed.

Maya Carlin is an analyst at the Center for Security Policy in Washington D.C. and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel.

Image: Reuters