Hierarchical rifts split Iraq’s PMF

Iran-backed actors push the organisation closer to Iran’s orbit as others, aligned with Najaf, are accused of derailing it.
Sunday 01/03/2020
Head of the Popular Mobilisation Forces Faleh al-Fayyad speaks in Baghdad, February 11. (Reuters)
Limited options. Head of the Popular Mobilisation Forces Faleh al-Fayyad speaks in Baghdad, February 11. (Reuters)

The man named to replace the former chief-of-staff of Iraq’s Iran-propped Popular Mobilisation Forces has not been met with unbridled joy. The shadowy figure is known by several names — Abu Fadak al-Mohammadawi, al Khal (“the uncle”) and Abu Hmaid.

His selection by the Central Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) Committee has proven divisive, drawing consternation from opponents Liwa Ansar al Marjaiyya, Liwa Ali Akbar, the Abbas Combat Division and the Imam Ali Brigade, all paramilitaries aligned with Najaf’s religious establishment.

A storm is feared by PMF proponents as a dispute grows between competing Shia power centres — Iraq’s Najaf and Iran’s Qom — over the organisation’s patriarch.

The opposing cohort issued a statement outlining their unified position. Their claim to “not have known of any decision” may suggest that their consent over who ought to be crowned was not requested. While the decision reached was determined by the PMF’s consultative body, the Shura Council, crows of opposition suggest the absence of consensus among all factions of the umbrella organisation over the appointment criteria.

“Such a decision demands legal steps that cannot be provided under the given circumstances,” a statement issued by Liwa Ali Akbar read, drawing attention to the current government transition. Those in disagreement about Mohammadawi are aligned with Al Atabat, a Shia religious entity that manages Iraq’s holy shrines, overseen by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

The body also covers the wages of certain factions since they rose into existence under Sistani’s 2014 defensive jihad edict. They represent an arc of Najaf loyalists who seek to hand the reins of the paramilitary organisation to men who can halt Iran’s advance into Iraqi security institutions.

The band of four underlined the rule of law to strengthen their position, as a response to Iran’s attempt to absorb all PMF components into its Axis of Resistance. Yet the ideological struggle against this is beginning to surface.

Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Allawi, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, has not issued any decree on the matter, nor did his predecessor, Adel Abdul-Mahdi. Najaf-aligned groups have nonetheless called for an alternative nominee for the highest ranking PMF post. The legal lines over the issue of who gets to command the PMF are at best blurred.

Brotherly images of Mohammadawi and Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, former head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps al-Quds Force, made expected rounds on social media following Mohammadawi’s nomination. Yet the images, when read outside of their context, can mask the ideological rifts between Iran and Iraq, threatening to push PMF factions further apart.

Political rifts have also been present in the foreground of Mohammadawi’s relations with Kata’ib Hezbollah, which he formerly commanded. This unravelled by a dispute over the ransom deal to release the Qatari falcon hunting party in 2018.

However, the rift was healed after he rejoined their ranks under Soleimani’s orders once popular uprisings spread across southern Iraq five months ago. Other ardently pro-Iranian actors with whom Mohammadawi has rubbed shoulders include Asaib Ahl Al Haq and the Badr Corps, under whom Mohammadawi was assigned intelligence-gathering responsibilities.

He is said to have formed resistance guerrilla factions, bankrolled by Badr, and forged relations between them and Soleimani in 2006, some of which became Hezbollah Brigades, a leading Shia paramilitary outfit in Iraq, allied with Hezbollah in Lebanon. The fear is that the path will be cleared following Mohammadawi's ascent to pro-Iranian groups, including Asaib Ahl al Haq and Hezbollah Brigades.

Before the announcement, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah urged factions “to work together to preserve Al-Hashed al-Shaabi,” referring to the PMF with its Arabic namesake. “It is widely known that America wants to eliminate Al-Hashed as a safeguards [of Iraq’s] power.”

The importance of its revolutionary zealousness is far greater than its organisational arrangements, Nasrallah said, emphasising the need to keep the organisation breathing.

Nasrallah’s words foretell the rips at the seams of the PMF as Iran-backed actors push the organisation closer to Iran’s orbit as others, aligned with Najaf, are accused of derailing it.