New Iraqi law legitimising militias sparks controversy
London - The Iraqi parliament has passed a controversial law that makes the country’s Iranian-backed predominately Shia militias independent military entities officially part of the Iraqi armed forces.
The legislation is specific to militias grouped under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), which was formed following a fatwa by Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, calling on volunteers to take up arms against the Islamic State (ISIS) after the militants captured Mosul in June 2014.
The PMF has been a potent force in the fight against ISIS but some of its fighters have been accused of committing serious human rights violations, including summary executions and torture, against Sunni Arab civilians.
The bill was supported by 208 of parliament’s 327 members despite strong objections from the country’s Sunni Arab lawmakers, who boycotted the voting session, saying the law encouraged sectarianism and division in Iraq.
The fact that most Sunni Arab members of parliament objected to the law indicates how unpopular it is within the country’s Sunni community in general. For Sunni Arabs who have decided not to take part in the political process in Iraq since the US-led 2003 invasion, the law vindicates their claims of being discriminated against. They view the post-2003 political and military set-up as skewed to their community’s disadvantage.
Many of them accuse the PMF of having a sectarian agenda that goes beyond fighting ISIS, pointing to instances in which Shia militia leaders engaged in anti-Sunni rhetoric or openly expressed allegiance to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
With the new bill, however, even Sunni Arab lawmakers who are part of the political process and have accepted dealing with the Shia-dominated government, are crying foul: They say that as Iraqi law recognises both the Kurdish peshmerga forces and the predominately Shia PMF, why not legislate for an independent Sunni Arab force made up of locals to protect their own areas?
Some Sunni Arab members of parliament did not object to the bill in its entirety but wanted a 40% quota to be reserved for Sunni Arab forces to protect their areas.
Supporters of the law say that there are already 30,000 Sunni fighters in the 140,000-strong PMF force but critics dispute that figure, saying that not only are the Sunni numbers inflated, but they have less say in decision-making on the ground.
Those in favour of the law say the sacrifices of the PMF should be rewarded and their fighters must be eligible for proper salaries and pensions, like members of the armed forces. Justifying the need for a long-term presence of the PMF, its supporters say that militias will always be needed, even after victory against ISIS because the threat of terror will remain.
They also point to the weakness of the army in dealing with ISIS and to its alleged corruption and lack of experience in street battles. Some supporters add that the law will help regulate the PMF as it brings it under tighter government control, requiring the militiamen to drop any political affiliations.
Some observers, however, foresee several challenges that could result from the law, going beyond the Sunni-Shia divide.
“At the moment, PMF fighters have proved highly capable in the fight against ISIS because of their high ideological motivation in addition to having a less restricting chain of command, which allows them to operate more freely and swiftly than the regular army” said Sadeq al-Taai, a London-based Iraqi writer and researcher.
“But once victory against ISIS is achieved, these fighters are not going to be content with being on standby, idly waiting for new orders like the army,” added Taai. “Some of the senior commanders may want to go into politics, but many other fighters will find themselves ending up in war-free areas in the south, where they’re not welcome to meddle in the population’s peacetime affairs.”
There are no guarantees that the newly incorporated PMF militia fighters would cut ties with their original financial and ideological backers, some of which are Iranian military and intelligence institutions, noted Taai.
“Not only is there a threat of having a split between the PMF and the Iraqi army when it comes to following orders, but there are also fears of divisions within the PMF as it is ultimately made up of a number of rival factions, which are often at odds with each other outside the fight against ISIS,” said Taai.