Iraqi PM’s serious test following PMU decree

Iraqi PM’s serious test following PMU decree

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. (Reuters)

As the political arena in Iraq returned to a degree of normality post-Daesh, the Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi took advantage of this opportunity to issue a 10-point statement announcing his decision to integrate the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) into the regular Iraqi army. According to this new policy, the PMU will be subject to the same regulations as the army. This decision came in light of the PMU’s activities outside the framework of the state, which have caused problems leading to adverse effects — in particular, the PMU’s sectarian orientations and its policy of settling scores with its foes and rivals violently and without due process.

Another important factor behind this decision is the PMU’s proximity and strong ties with the Iranian regime. Iran exploited the call by Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani in 2014 for able-bodied Iraqi Shiites to take up arms against Daesh, with Tehran taking full advantage to serve its own agenda in Iraq and Syria. For Iran’s regime, the PMU is an influential military and security force, as well as an aggressive unit within what it calls the “Axis of Resistance,” which aims to curb regional and international actors, particularly their influence in the region, and to implement Iran’s expansionist agenda in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.

Despite the reasons behind this decision, Iraqi lawmaker Karim Allawi, a member of the Iraqi Parliament’s Security and Defense Committee, believes that the number of PMU affiliates will now increase. He added that the number of PMU militiamen will not be scaled down in any case. Allawi further believes that Faleh Al-Fayyad will remain responsible for the PMU and will continue to run it as a separate entity, as is the case with the ministries of defense and interior, among others.

But what is the real aim of the Iraqi government in making this decision? The message is clear: In light of rapid regional developments, the Iraqi prime minister is aiming to spare his country from being embroiled in a US-Gulf-Iran conflict. This is proven by the timing of the decision, which came in the aftermath of reports mentioning how the drones that hit Aramco facilities in central Saudi Arabia flew from Iraqi territory. Also, it appears that armed groups such as the PMU are rebelling against the Iraqi state and have integrated terrorist organizations into their structures, which have carried out revenge attacks inside Iraq, especially against Sunnis, as well as killing, robbing and displacing tens of thousands of civilians. Another aim that may have prompted the prime minister’s decision is his wish to eliminate all non-state militias and to ensure arms are under the exclusive control of the Iraqi state by getting rid of all armed wings affiliated with political parties in the country.

There are many points regarding this decision that require attention and study, leading many to question the wisdom of Abdul Mahdi’s call and of his ability to implement this policy. Firstly, what will be the fate of the various economic sectors, investments and construction firms owned and controlled by the different militias under the PMU’s umbrella, especially in Baghdad and other areas under their control? In the event of the prime minister’s decision being executed, would these areas continue to be controlled by the PMU or be handed over to the Iraqi state? While it is a positive move that the decision stipulates the closure of economic offices belonging to the PMU, it does not, however, address the fate of the massive assets and funds it controls. 

The prime minister’s decision seems to indicate that the PMU will maintain its autonomy without being fully integrated into the armed forces.

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

Secondly, the prime minister’s decision seems to indicate that the PMU will maintain its autonomy without being fully integrated into the armed forces of Iraq. This is positive for the PMU, as it provides it with a cloak of legitimacy and allows it to independently form its own structures and appoint its senior leadership. This will be done under the umbrella of a newly created body named the PMU Authority. The PMU will maintain its position against the political administration of the country because it considers itself to be much more important and senior than the country’s leadership. The sacrifices the PMU has made ensure that its fate can only be decided by the top religious authority, whether in Iraq or Iran. 

Thirdly, and this is the most important, many fear that the prime minister’s decision paves the way for establishing an Iraqi entity based on the model of the Iranian regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In time, this will enable the PMU to acquire all the advanced weapons, jets, tanks, and missiles it requires for military training, while retaining its true identity as an organization shaped by an extremist sectarian ideology that guides and determines it affiliations, orientations and actions. Given the fears over the PMU reaching this stage, it may, therefore, be necessary for Iraq’s government to consider these fears and to work, from an organizational, administrative and strategic aspect, to ensure the full integration of the PMU into the regular army. It may also need to rehabilitate the PMU’s affiliates in order to change their current extremist ideological and sectarian perspectives and their loyalties to certain figures, including leaders outside Iraq. This will ensure that they pledge their loyalty to the Iraqi state, serving all its religious, sectarian and ethnic groups. 

In conclusion, the upcoming period will be a serious test for Abdul Mahdi, not only in implementing his decision on the PMU, but also in finding and fixing the gaps in his policy to guarantee Iraq pushes itself far away from the evils of ethnic-sectarian quotas for ministries, as well as establishing a cohesive nation state that can stand up to domestic and external pressures. This must be in addition to ensuring that his decision is not exploited and directed in a malign way toward objectives that will result in chaos and sectarian strife returning to Iraq once again.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami
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