With the fall of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) seemingly imminent, nearly every Iraqi political group and its associated militia have been rushing to take control of the newly liberated territories in the governorates of Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Nineveh, and Salahadin. Those that have been the most successful are the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), an umbrella of over three dozen mostly Shiite armed groups formed in 2014 to fight ISIS, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), one of the two main Kurdish political parties in Iraq. (The Iraqi government, meanwhile, has been notably slow in reclaiming its own land.)

Some of the land that is up for grabs is rich in oil, and control over more territory would mean gaining more political leverage in Baghdad. What is more, the five governorates, in which the territories are located, were disputed even before the ISIS takeover in 2014. Both the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq and the central government in Baghdad claimed sovereignty. But ISIS’ takeover has essentially reset the political and military landscape in these areas, allowing these political and military forces to put down new roots.

In seeking to govern and secure areas that are either predominantly Sunni, Kurdish, or a mix, Shiite and Kurdish groups have had to resort to crossing both ethnic and sectarian lines to win the support of locals and recruit soldiers into their military forces. For their parts, the PMU and KDP have tried to recruit Sunni Arabs, who constitute roughly 25 percent of the country’s total population and live in those nearly liberated territories. They have been left with little to no representation, political power, or security because even before ISIS, strong Sunni leaders had been pushed out from the central government’s decision-making and weak leaders had lost credibility with the local population.

The two groups are also recruiting Kurds living in the towns of northern Diyala (Jalaula, Khanaqin, and Mandali) and northern Salahadin (Tuz Khurmatu). Some of the districts are controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the other major Kurdish political group, with which the KDP has a longstanding rivalry, but is territorially separated. This region was severely hit by the financial crisis when oil prices crashed. It was also deeply affected by the war against ISIS. According to Osman Zindani, head of the Sulaymaniyah branch of a Kurdish workers’ union, unemployment is now more than 20 percent. Salaries have also decreased. For example, the salary of public sector employees have fallen by 40–70 percent and the government is still unable to pay salaries on time—it is currently two months late. 

This crossing of ethnic and sectarian lines is a pragmatic maneuver that does not necessarily portend good relations among the groups. At the moment, both the PMU and KDP need to increase their manpower to guard their new territories, but are finding that recruitment within their own groups has reached its limits. Appealing across sectarian lines has recently been their only way of expanding.

Before ISIS and the economic crises, this was almost unheard of. It was very rare to see an Arab in the Kurdish Peshmerga, or military forces, or a Kurd or Sunni Arab in the PMU. Now it is much more plausible. Although hardline factions such as the Kataib al-Hezbollah, a Shiite paramilitary group (not associated with Hezbollah in Lebanon), are unwilling to diversify out of fear of losing their main supporters, it is not a problem for more moderate groups, such as the Badr Organization, the largest group in the PMU. For example, when ISIS ambushed and killed six Badr members in northern Diyala on February 11, 2017, three of them were Sunni Kurds. According to Akram Salah, head of the 22nd branch of the KDP that is based in Garmean, “So far, more than 500 Kurdish youth joined Hashd al-Shaabi [the PMF] in Khanaqin, Tuz-Khurmatu, Kirkuk, Kalar, and Kifri.”

For Sunni Arab and Kurdish recruits, the motivation is partly financial. PMU pays its soldiers roughly $480 a month, and recruits may also receive some of the war spoils from urban areas freed from ISIS. That is an attractive offer considering the average public service employee makes less than $300 in Kurdistan. Although it is around $600 nationally, jobs with the Iraqi government are almost impossible to get. Furthermore, many Sunni Arabs are living in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps because their homes have been damaged or destroyed. The majority do not have jobs and are relying mostly on aid. In addition to the general unemployment situation, displaced Arabs have problems finding work in Kurdistan because they do not speak Kurdish.  

Many Kurds in PUK-controlled territory, on the other hand, lost their jobs during the financial crises. PUK-controlled territories have fewer IDPs so they receive less international humanitarian and military aid money than other regions. In addition, the traditional trade roads were cut off by ISIS, and are now taxed by the PMUs, which has significantly slowed down the region’s economic recovery.

There are also political reasons for Sunni Arabs and Kurds to join a cross-ethnic or sectarian group. Sunnis have neither political representation nor a strong military force, and they lack the resources to build one that could compete with the PMU or KDP. Even the PUK’s Peshmerga forces are losing fighters to the PMU since they cannot offer higher salaries. “Kurds, and even members of the PUK, come to us and say that they do not have jobs,” one PUK official based in Khanakin told me. “And the only way for them to survive is to join the PMU. We could not do anything and allowed them to do so.”

One upside is that as political parties and their armed groups become less sectarian, they have downplayed their ideologies and are actively reaching out to other communities—for example, helping feed Sunni civilians in Mosul. But the long-term consequences could be negative. The PMU and KDP’s domination over Sunni Arabs and Kurds in PUK-controlled areas in the upcoming national Iraqi elections, expected in September 2017, could change the current political structure. It may even decrease the representation and relative power of Sunni Arabs and PUK Kurds to the benefit of Shiite Arabs and KDP Kurds. Since power is currently in the hands of a moderate civilian leadership, more hawkish military types could potentially win more seats in parliament.

Furthermore, large and powerful non-state militias could seriously threaten the legitimacy of the Iraqi government. The government surely has a window of opportunity to increase its power, but it has not taken advantage of it. Because of its highly successful performance on the battlefield, the Iraqi army is well-regarded by Iraqis. And although the army is predominantly Shiite, it is viewed as unbiased and is quite popular among the Sunni population in the areas that it has liberated. Such a reputation, in addition to the healthy monthly salary (the army pays $1,000 and special forces pays $2,000) could attract those who are otherwise looking to join the PMU or KDP.

Ammar Abbd, a 21-year-old Sunni refugee from Mosul, who lives in a camp for the displaced near the ISIS frontline is one example of a potential recruit. “I saw how Iraqi Special Operation Forces performed on the ground,” he told me. “I seriously considered joining them as soon as I could ensure a safe life for my family.” Kurds in the PUK-controlled territory feel similarly. A 50-year-old resident of Sulaymaniyah explained to me, “I would prefer my son join the Iraqi army than the Peshmerga because it is more professional and less political.” There were also individual cases of Kurds paying bribes to join the Iraqi army, something that would have been unimaginable before. PUK officials are more amenable to seeing their fighters leave for the Iraqi army than the PMU because according to the PUK official, “The Iraqi army is an army of Iraq that Kurdistan is still a part of and it gets its orders from the government, not another country [like Iran].” And by taking in more Sunni Arabs and Kurds, not only would the Iraqi army have a stronger military force to prevent ISIS from returning, but it would also be more diverse, more representational of the whole population, and would deprive other armed groups of potential recruits.

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  • VERA MIRONOVA is an International Security Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. Follow her on twitter at @vera_mironov
  • MOHAMMED HUSSEIN is Deputy Kurdistan Bureau Director at Iraq Oil Report. 
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