Iraqi Prime Minister’s Decree will not Undermine Power of Iran-backed Militias

Iraqi Prime Minister’s Decree will not Undermine Power of Iran-backed Militias

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 16

By: Rafid Jaboori

The Jamestown Foundation

On July 1, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi issued a decree stating that the Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias that operate under the umbrella group of the Popular Mobilization forces (PMU) should be fully integrated into the Iraqi armed forces under his direct command (alhadath.net, July 1)

To some, the decree appeared to be a bold move to rein in the militias, whose powers have significantly increased during and after military operations against Islamic State (IS), but a thorough analysis indicates that the prime minister’s order is unlikely to make a real difference. Shia militias in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East are important Iranian assets and key militias in Iraq have direct links with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Prominent leaders of the PMU have welcomed the decree, which invited interpretation that its real objective could be to protect certain PMU groups from U.S., and possibly Israeli, attacks as the tension grows between the United States and Iran (Al-Aalem. July 3; Baghdad Today, July 1).

Another purpose of the decree is to contain any damage that might result from small fringe groups attempting to launch unauthorized operations against U.S. or Western targets at such a sensitive time.

The Iranian Context

The decree came against a backdrop of escalating tensions surrounding the role of the PMU in implementing Iranian interests in Iraq and the Middle East. On May 7, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Baghdad in an unannounced visit. He reportedly shared intelligence with Abdul-Mahdi about the allegedly increasing threat the PMU poses to the interests of the United States and its allies (Asharq al-Awsat, May 7).

Before and after Pompeo’s visit, there were a series of attacks on targets in Iraq where U.S. personnel were based that were minor but noticeable (arabi21, July 19). The attacks did not cause any casualties, but they were part of a broader picture of a growing regional and international crisis. More serious concerns, however, drew greater attention. A drone attack on pipelines in Saudi Arabia in May allegedly originated from Iraq, not Yemen as it was initially reported (eremnews.com, June 28).

Deployment of Iranian ballistic missiles to Iraqi PMU bases also emerged as a major concern for both the United States and Israel (almodon.com, May 16).

Additionally, there were two ambiguous attacks on PMU camps, the first occurred on July 19 on Camp al-Shuhadaa near the town of Amerli in Salahddin province. The second on July 22 on Camp Ashraf in Diyala province. The attacks raised many questions about the identity of  the attackers and the exact target (altahreernews.com, July 29).

Early reports suggested that the attacks were launched by U.S. drones or even IS. Further reports alleged that Iranian officers were killed in the attacks (al-Quds al-Araby, July 19). PMU statements regarding the attacks were unclear and Abdul-Mahdi ordered the formation of a committee to investigate the first attack while the PMU remained silent after the second attack (Rudaw, July 19).

Meanwhile, Israeli media reports suggested that it was actually Israel that launched the two attacks with F-35 jets (Haaretz ,August 4).

If those reports are true, this would be the first known Israeli attacks on Iranian and Iranian-linked targets in Iraq. The PMU, however, would usually announce any US, let alone Israeli, operation against its forces in order to boost their credentials as an anti-U.S. Islamist resistance force. Remaining quiet about the recent attacks might suggest that they have been in serious negotiations with the prime minister to deal with the current situation in the Middle East in light of the crisis with Iran.

Shia Relations

It is important to understand that the PMU’s endorsement was key for Abdul-Mahdi’s appointment as prime minister. After the May 2018 parliamentary elections, the Fatah alliance— the political arm of the PMU—emerged as the second largest block in the parliament, second only to Moqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon. Abdul-Mahdi became prime minister as a result of the two Shia blocks agreement with the blessing of the office of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric. Abdul-Mahdi, a veteran Shia politician and former vice president, did not stand in the elections and he does not have a block of his own in the parliament. That makes him very dependent on the three dominant Shia powers—Sistani, Sadr, and the PMU.

Moqtada al-Sadr has welcomed the decree and promptly declared the dissolution of his militia, the Peace Brigades (Al Arabiya, July 2). Al-Sadr’s position comes on the bases of his rivalry with the other Shia militias. In the past few years, al-Sadr has tried to show more independence from Iran. He famously visited Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main Sunni rival, and met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. [1] Many of the leaders of the PMU militias were lieutenants under al-Sadr in the past and the recruiting pool of those militias comes from the poorer Shia towns and neighborhoods that make up the strongholds of al-Sadr. Al-Sadr’s power and influence would not be weakened by suspending his militias while an end to the other militias would strike major blows to its leaders who have not yet been able to build the same popular movement as al-Sadr. [2]

Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi, like most of the Iraqi Shia Islamist leaders, have strong historical ties with Iran. Therefore, he is not expected to lead any major policy that could affect Iran’s strategic interests, such as weakening the PMU. A similar decree was issued by previous Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who was perceived to be more pro-American, but was never implemented. In fact, the essence of the law that legalized the PMU states that they should integrate within the Iraqi armed forces, but the past few years demonstrate how real life implementation reveals a different interpretation of the law and the decrees.

In his decree, the Iraqi PM also ordered the PMU to abandon all its economic departments, which would strip the militias of lucrative sources of income. Having dodgy business interests has always been one of the main features of corruption in Iraq. But those departments are also an important tool for the dominant parties to generate income and run patronage networks. Since IS was driven out of the Sunni majority part of Iraq, the PMU rose to a very powerful position and has profited in various ways using their control over the cities and highways.

Conclusion

By the end of July, the PMU reported progress on the implementation of the decree, but asked for two more months to achieve full compliance with the orders. The whole process looks more like restructuring than overhauling. In the past, even when militias claimed to have dissolved themselves, they remained able to reassemble quickly. After the 2003 invasion, Badr corps dissolved itself and announced that it became a civilian organization, but ten years later it emerged as one of the biggest Shia militias within the PMU. Moqtada al-Sadr also dissolved his Mahdi Army only to regroup it quickly and effectively later as al-Yawm al-Mawood (the Promised Day) and finally Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigade).

The PMU might not have the status that it aimed for within the Shia community as the honest protector of the community, but it still enjoyed significant political and military power. Also, the Fatwa that led to the formation of the PMU in 2014 is still active. Many would like to emphasize the idea that Sistani has a different view than Iran and would like to support a degree of independence for Iraq and its military forces from Iran. However, the Fatwa has never been revoked and is not likely to be, as this would cause undesired internal conflict within the Shia community. The PMU was formed during a very critical moment for Iraqi Shia. The sudden and swift advances of the extremist Sunni group IS in June 2014 was alarming. Dominating the government and the armed forces was not enough to protect the Shia community. Any attempt to rein in the PMU would take more than Abdul-Mahdi’s decree. It will take absolute and clear support and consensus from Sistani, a prime minister who is willing to overhaul the armed forces, and a lack of opposition from Iran, which currently appears quite unlikely.

Notes

[1] This does not mean that Sadr has become an enemy of Iran. He still visits Iran frequently and is unlikely to join any US or Saudi effort to hurt Iran. His last reported visit to Iran was in June. (Al-Alam June 27. https://www.alalamtv.net/news/4293911/لماذا-يزور-مقتدى-الصدر-إيران؟)

A knowledgeable source told the author that Sadr has paid another secret visit to the Islamic Republic in August (the time of the writing).

[2] Al-Sadr’s militia , the Peace Brigades is in theory part of the PMU however it has a very high degree of independence. Because of Sadr’s perceived moderate approach in recent years his group is more accepted in the Sunni community. Unlike other Shia militias deployed in Sunni areas, The Peace Brigades are less tainted by accusation of human rights abuses and corruption.

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Photo source: The image uploaded from the original article by The Jamestown Foundation comes from: (source: iraqinews.com)

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