Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1373, (14 - 20 December 2017)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1373, (14 - 20 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Should Iraq disband the PMF?

Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces have been victorious in the war against IS, but the question of who their next enemy will be remains open, writes Salah Nasrawi


Should Iraq disband the PMF?
Should Iraq disband the PMF?

Iraq’s predominantly-Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) played a major role in the military campaign to drive Islamic State (IS) group militants from Iraqi cities that came to a close last month.

Some military analysts believe that the Iran-backed forces were essential in giving back-up to the Iraqi security forces in the war against the terrorist group, which Baghdad declared to be over on Saturday.

But after the end of the military campaign against the IS jihadists, many now believe that the 120,000-strong forces should be disbanded and prevented from turning into an ideological army similar to the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard.

In recent weeks, the anti-PMF drive has reached a new height both publicly and privately, with world leaders whose countries backed Baghdad in its war against IS urging it to abolish the force.

French President Emmanuel Macron called on the Iraqi government on 2 December to dismantle all the militias, “in particular the PMF,” saying that the move was “essential” for the “gradual demilitarisation” of the war-battered country.

On 22 October, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said it was time for the Iranian-backed militias and their Iranian advisers who had helped Iraq defeat IS to “go home” after a rare joint meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi and Saudi Arabian King Salman in Riyadh.

Saudi officials have repeatedly accused the Shia militias, the backbone of the PMF, as being Iranian proxies and entertaining sectarianism.

International human rights groups have also accused the tribal militias of violations such as summary executions, beatings of men in custody, enforced disappearances, unlawful detentions and mistreating residents of areas retaken from IS.

Sunni and Kurdish leaders have accused the PMF of widespread abuses against their communities and voiced concerns about the role of the Shia militias in post-IS Iraq.

Many governments are believed to have privately raised the future of the PMF with Al-Abadi, voicing concerns about Iran’s influence in the country and fears that the forces could be used as regional proxies.

Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi has defended the role of the forces and even said the “fighters should be encouraged because they will be the hope of the country and the region.”

Al-Abadi’s government denies that the PMF are engaged in a systematic pattern of abuses and has pledged to punish anyone proven guilty of violations.

Militia leaders and allied Shia politicians also went into rapid-reaction mode to condemn Macron’s call for disbanding the para-military forces after the obliteration of IS.

Iraqi Vice-President Nouri Al-Maliki, a former prime minister who is widely believed to be a vehement backer of the militias, rejected Macron’s remarks as unacceptable interference in Iraq’s “sovereignty and institutions.”

“Without Al-Hashed, IS would have reached the heart of Paris,” Al-Maliki said, using the Arabic acronyms for the PMF and IS.

PMF leaders were even more forceful in their condemnation of Macron’s statement. In their view, the call is part of a wider “DDR conspiracy,” a campaign for the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of the para-military groups.

Given the stakes in play, disbanding the PMF is seen as Al-Abadi’s most difficult test yet as he faces re-election in 2018 and needs to walk a thin line in order to avoid falling into the spider’s web of Iraqi and regional politics.

One key challenge Al-Abadi faces is an expanding and energised PMF, whose leaders are desperate to take a leading political role in running the country and deciding Iraq’s future.

The PMF is an umbrella organisation of dozens of Shia militias that were formed following a fatwa, or religious edict, by top Iraqi Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani for the country’s Shias to join the fight against IS in 2014.

The PMF militias have played a key role in the campaign to liberate Iraqi cities from IS, and they recently spearheaded the Iraqi advance to drive the terrorist group out from the western desert on the border with Syria. 

With national elections planned for next May in Iraq, several militias have been planning to participate in the polls, bypassing a ban imposed on armed groups by the constitution.

As expected, Al-Maliki, who is Al-Abadi’s staunchest rival, is betting his political future on unconditional support for the PMF in order to rally the militias’ supporters.

The Iraqi media have been rife with reports about a struggle underway between Al-Abadi and PMF leaders over the control of the force and their participation in the elections.

According to one report, Al-Abadi plans to appoint a top-brass general in the US-trained Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service as the new commander of the PMF when the present head of the units, Faleh Al-Fayadh, leaves.

Al-Fayadh, also Iraq’s National Security adviser, announced last week that he was forming a political bloc to contest next year’s elections.

The militia leaders are expected to resist any attempts to place their forces under the command of the Iraqi security forces or politicians. Many of them are believed to be trying to build the units as an alternative to the army by restructuring it on the model of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

But as the PMF is getting more international attention and demands for its abolishment simmer, it is doubtful that Al-Abadi can let the force be dismantled or even be assimilated into the army.

Part of the reason why Al-Abadi is incapable of challenging the militia leaders, who are the real force behind the PMF, is that some of them are now wielding great influence in the country following the victories over IS and even playing the role of warlords.

Indeed, many militia leaders now aspire to play a larger role beyond Iraq’s borders after their fighters participated in the fight against the rebels fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.

Last week, Akram Al-Kaabi, the leader of Hizbullah Al-Nujaba, an Iran-backed militia, said that US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel gave his groups a “legitimate reason” to attack US troops in Iraq.

Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, another powerful militia, on Saturday released a video showing its leader Qais Al-Khazali visiting Lebanon’s border with Israel accompanied by allies from the Lebanese group Hizbullah.

Al-Khazali, wearing a military uniform and flanked by assistants, declared his group’s full readiness “to stand together with the Lebanese people and the Palestinian cause” in the face of the “Israeli occupation.”

Al-Alyassiri, leader of the Al-Kharasani Brigade which fought insurgents in Syria, told the Iraqi Al-Sharqiya TV channel on Saturday that his group was ready to answer a call from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei if the latter ordered a war against Israel

While Western nations and the Sunni regional powers are increasing their pressure on Al-Abadi to disband the PMF and their think tanks continue to propose blueprints for minimising its influence, the Shia militias that make it up continue to step into the gaps created by the mistakes and follies of others. 

Now all that those worried about the PMF’s rising influence can wish for is to keep it contained and controlled. Probably Al-Abadi will still be able to do that because the force is formally under the prime minister’s control.

add comment

  • follow us on