Future of PMU complicates Iraqi politics

Future of PMU complicates Iraqi politics

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. (Reuters)

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi on July 1 issued a decree ordering all the groups that make up the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) to be absorbed into the national army and police forces within a month. This order replaced an earlier one of his predecessor, Haider Abadi, which had retained the separate character of the PMU and brought it directly under the prime minister rather than the Ministry of Defense.

But, three weeks later, after a quick visit to Tehran, Abdul-Mahdi revised his earlier instruction. He clarified that the PMU would remain a separate entity “under government control.” He also admitted that the integration of the various units of the PMU would take a “long time.”

Venerated during the battles against Daesh, the PMU — with the sectarian zeal of some of its cohorts, its lethal firepower, and its robust finances from dubious sources — is today viewed with concern by most of the country’s political leaders.

The PMU acquired its present pre-eminence by leading the fight after Daesh forces took Mosul in 2014, which prompted Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani to call on Iraqis to defend their country, particularly its holy sites. US commentator Michael Knights estimates that the militants responding to this call numbered about 60,000 in 2014. Several factions emerged from across the country to fight Daesh, coming together under the umbrella of the PMU.

It is believed that the PMU is now made up of 45 units and numbers about 130,000. About half of these are believed to be pro-Iran and close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The most powerful group in the PMU is Kata’ib Hezbollah, headed by Abu Mahdi Al-Mohandis, who is also the deputy leader of the PMU under Faleh Al-Fayyadh. The PMU is represented in the Abdul-Mahdi government through its political wing, the Fatah coalition.

As US-Iran ties have deteriorated over the last year, PMU militants have attacked US targets in Iraq. These have included rocket attacks on the US consulate in Basra in September last year, several rocket attacks on US diplomatic premises in Baghdad, and a roadside bombing in July this year that blew up a convoy carrying supplies to the US embassy.

While the prime minister has been under considerable US pressure to curb the independence and violence of the PMU, the US has also taken some direct action. On July 18, it sanctioned four Iraqis, who are close to Iran and have links with the PMU. Also in July, there were two drone attacks on PMU military facilities, followed this month by an explosion at a PMU weapons storage depot in southern Baghdad. The US has denied involvement in these attacks, but there is widespread suspicion that they are instead the handiwork of Israel, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stridently stating his commitment to attack Iranian targets in Syria, Iraq and even Iran itself, partly to boost his prospects in the September elections.

Iraq, which is making a slow and painful recovery after several decades of conflict, dreads being caught in the US-Iran crossfire, particularly when the PMU’s actions could instigate harsh retaliatory attacks from the US and its allies. Toward the end of July, Abdul-Mahdi painted a positive picture about the implementation of his decree: He said that PMU bases had been removed from residential areas. Backing the prime minister, PMU leader Al-Fayyadh said he had directed all PMU units to close their economic offices across the country, and that this had been complied with. There is skepticism in Iraq about both accomplishments.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s fractious politicians have kept up their quarrels and feuds. Former PM Abadi, still bitter about his ouster, has criticized his successor for his failure to bring the PMU under state control. During his tenure, Abadi said he had insisted that PMU members leave the militia before running for elections.

As US-Iran ties have deteriorated over the last year, PMU militants have attacked US targets in Iraq.

Talmiz Ahmad

He blamed factionalism within the PMU as the reason for some groups describing him as “pro-US” — a stigma for any Iraqi politician. This was only meant to discredit him and jeopardize his political aspirations. He described his position as “constructive opposition.”

Another disgruntled former prime minister is Nouri Al-Maliki. He got himself re-elected as secretary-general of the Da’awa party, in a move described as a “coup” by Abadi, as Al-Maliki had apparently assured in writing that he would not seek this post. His supporters say he will resurrect the party and prepare it for victory in the 2022 elections.

Ammar Al-Hakim, head of the National Wisdom Movement, called out his followers for anti-government protests across the country on July 19. And, while he did not get the numbers he had hoped for, he did project his party in important Sunni areas to obtain a national profile.

None of these maneuvers have much to do with national interest. Commentator Renad Mansour of Chatham House has pointed out that Abdul-Mahdi has continued the Iraqi political tradition of accommodating diverse interests by distributing the national largesse among them, while social and economic conditions worsen, along with the regional security situation.

It promises to be a long, hot summer in Iraq.

  • Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.
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