By Inna Rudolf, Research Fellow, ICSR
With the military defeat of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government has to decide the fate of the controversial Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), a state-sponsored paramilitary force consisting of some 60 predominantly Shiite militias also known by their Arabic name as Hashd al-Sha’abi.
Following recent calls for their gradual demilitarisation, speculations over the formation of a new PMU dominated electoral bloc started circulating across Iraqi, Lebanese and Kurdish media channels.
According to the initial announcements by the Hezbollah aligned newspaper Al-Akhbar, the so-called Mujahideen alliance is to be headed by Badr’s leader Hadi Al-Ameri and is to include among others the following PMU actors: Badr, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, Harakat al-Nujaba, Kata’ib Hezbollah, Saraya Khorasani, the Imam Ali Brigades, as well as several Sunni tribal forces from western Iraq.
In the midst of competing theories, Layth al-Adhari – spokesperson of Iraq’s Sadiqun bloc, affiliated with the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq militia, defended on Al Ahad TV the legitimacy of such coalition efforts confirming ongoing negotiations for the establishment of the Mujahideen alliance.
Despite al-Abadi’s efforts to prevent paramilitary leaders from running in the May 2018 elections, the legislation still leaves a loophole opening way for all pre-existing political formations to capitalise on the combat glory of their PMU affiliated military wings.
This utilisation of the fight against IS for electoral gains has raised concerns regarding the PMU’s ability to undermine the fragile legitimacy of the state challenging its role in providing security and rule of law. Despite their contribution to countering the territorial advances of IS, their autonomy and rapidly gained recognition could help them mutate into a parallel security apparatus exercising control over areas of limited statehood. A hashd coloured government coalition could push for the elimination of any legal impediments to such a scenario. Dealing with this uncertainty urgently calls for a comprehensive government strategy towards the PMU in a post-IS Iraq.
Handing out the carrot of equal salary for PMU listed fighters is not enough for imposing equal responsibilities to resist foreign meddling, prioritise national security interests and abandon compromising allegiances. Their vocal affiliation with the transnational basij resistance movement as engineered by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) threatens to result in conflicting loyalties making the prospects of a PMU full integration within Iraqi Security Forces even grimmer.
Established as an umbrella organisation, the PMU are plagued with a wide variety of internal tensions and ideological divisions. Understanding this clash of interests on the ground would require dissecting the paramilitary conglomerate.
Units such as Firqat al-Abbas al-Qitaliyah (the al-Abbas Combat Division Model) belonging to the so-called “shrine” militias wing (Saraya al-Atabat) within the PMF, are already setting a good example as a reliable counterpart. Launched in response to the 2014 fatwa by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani calling for nationwide enlistment, the units led by Sheikh Maytham al-Zaydi have been abiding by the instructions of the Iraqi national commando authorities demonstrating a degree of military capability justifying their partial integration into the Iraqi army. According to PMU affiliated media channels citing al-Zaydi, already 1,000 of al-Abbas fighters have been registered by the Iraqi Ministry of Defence.
Unlike the al-Abbas Combat Division avoiding any mingling with foreign actors as ordered by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Badr’s leadership has not shied away from parading its long-standing relationship with Quds Forces’ General Qassem Suleimani. This has not prevented Badr from filling the personnel vacuum by inserting 16,000 of its Shiite militiamen into the reinvented Iraqi Security Forcesbetween 2003 and 2005, most of whom have been trained by the IRGC in the 1980s and 1990s. Currently, Badr official Qassem al-Araji heads the Ministry of Interior in charge of the Federal Police brigades, including the Ministry of Interior Emergency Response Brigade. Further concentration of power within the hands of the Iranian backed combat veteran Hadi al-Ameri will only cement the leverage of his hybrid organisation.
An unpredictable variable remains Muqtada Sadr, whose skilfully staged thwarting of Iranian outreach efforts might cast a shadow over Badr’s parade. After attracting international attention as the first Iraqi Shi’ite leader to urge Assad to resign, he initiated a visit in July 2017 to Saudi Arabia, signalling his distancing from Iranian guardianship. Living up to the reputation of an opportunistic chameleon, he has committed to disbanding his Saraya al-Salam brigades, insisting upon the full demobilisation of the PMU following the defeat over IS. A marriage of convenience with Haider al-Abadi and Ammar al-Hakim – an Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) defector heading the newly founded National Wisdom Movement (Tayyar al-Hikma al-Watani), can thus empower him to balance the governance ambitions of Hadi al-Amiri and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
These limited illustrations reveal that any state strategies ranging from demobilisation to collusion and integration should consider the ideological fragmentation, varying organisational capacity and shifting power dynamics within the PMU.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach for containing a heterogeneous paramilitary umbrella comprised of various militias with multiple allegiances, highly contested chain of command and conflicting political aspirations. Attempts to stop the militarisation of politics are not likely to block the PMU’s path to the ballot box – with or without the debated Mujahideen alliance.
Only a cross-sectarian post-“axis-of-resistance” narrative can help curb the influence of foreign proxies and reduce Iraq’s vulnerability to subversive meddling in its internal affairs.
Inna Rudolf is a Research Fellow at ICSR. Follow her on Twitter @inna_veleva