Pro-Iran militias remain Iraqi PM Al-Kadhimi’s biggest challenge
Only a few years ago, Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) were considered an ally of the US-led international coalition fighting the terrorists of Daesh, who were at that time close to toppling the Iraqi government after occupying almost a third of the country. Today, however, the US is one step closer to designating the umbrella organization — under which a handful of mainly pro-Iran militias function — as a terrorist entity.
The US last week imposed sanctions on Falih Al-Fayyadh, the leader of the PMU and a key Iraqi functionary, for his role in the killing of unarmed pro-democracy protesters last year. The move has fueled an already fraught situation in Baghdad, where the government of Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi is struggling to contain rogue militias that are vying to bring down the government and force US troops out of Iraq.
“During protests beginning in October 2019, Iran-aligned PMU forces attacked Iraqi civilians protesting against corruption, unemployment, economic stagnation, poor public services and Iranian interference in Iraq’s domestic affairs,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a press release last week. Al-Fayyadh “was the head of the PMU when its forces fired live ammunition at protesters, resulting in the deaths of Iraqi civilians,” he added.
Pro-Iran Al-Fayyadh, who served as national security adviser to former Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and Al-Kadhimi, is the most influential Iraqi Shiite official ever sanctioned by the US. He was the head of the country’s National Security Agency until July last year. Washington also accused him of being a member of a crisis cell supported by the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Last January, a US drone strike killed Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani along with de facto PMU head Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis.
The US has warned against any attempt by Iran and its proxies in Iraq and elsewhere to avenge the killing of Soleimani, as tensions have escalated between Washington and Tehran in the final weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency. The US has been decreasing its military presence in Iraq, while Al-Kadhimi has vowed to bring all arms under state control — a move that was rejected by some PMU militias, particularly Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq.
Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah have been accused of targeting the US Embassy compound in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone with Katyusha rockets. Pompeo has pressured the Iraqi government to control the PMU militias and threatened to close the embassy if further attacks are carried out. In response, the government arrested a well-known member of Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, triggering a crisis with the group. At one point, Kata’ib Hezbollah, which has already been designated as a terrorist group by the US, threatened to kill Al-Kadhimi.
The PMU, with a force of more than 180,000, was officially formed in June 2014 through a fatwa issued by Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani after Daesh terrorists took over the city of Mosul. It has since been incorporated into the state’s official forces. The Iraqi government has been trying to merge PMU militias into the regular army, but Iran’s control of most of these militias remains a big challenge. Despite the government’s attempts to extend its authority over the organization, many of its affiliated groups continue to operate outside of state control. Members of these militias are the prime suspects in a series of killings that have targeted activists and critics of Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs, including counterterrorism expert Hisham Al-Hashimi last July.
With tensions rising between Iran and the US, Al-Kadhimi has warned that he does not want Iraq to turn into a battlefield. He has sent an emissary to Tehran to deliver a message that Iran should restrain its proxies. However, in response to the US action against Al-Fayyadh, Iraq’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Al-Sahaf described the sanctions as an insult to the Iraqi government and people. He added that the move was unacceptable and that Baghdad would follow the matter up with the US.
Despite the government’s attempts to extend its authority over the PMU, many of its affiliated groups continue to operate outside of state control.
In reality, the PMU has become a major hurdle for Al-Kadhimi, who finds himself trapped as US pressure mounts and his ability to control the pro-Iran militias fades. Public anger is brewing as Iraqis continue to suffer from a lack of public services, unemployment and poverty. Rage against Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs is increasing, especially as the pro-Iran militias manifest their loyalty to Tehran and its agenda.
The latest US move is yet another notch in the rising tensions between Iran and the US ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. It remains to be seen how the new administration will act in relation to the downsizing of the US troop presence in Iraq and in dealing with Tehran and its regional agenda. But Washington will surely continue to support Al-Kadhimi’s efforts to push back against rogue pro-Iran militias, which today pose the biggest challenge to the government and its mission to assert sovereignty.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010