Role of Iraq’s militias unclear despite state integration plans
LONDON - The role of Iraq’s predominately Shia militias remains unclear despite plans by the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to integrate the fighters into the country’s security apparatus.
Abadi’s plan received the backing of the country’s most revered Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who said the militias’ weapons must be subjected to state control. Sistani opposed disbanding the militias, something that many from Iraq’s non-Shia communities had hoped he would call for.
“The victory over [the Islamic State] doesn’t mean the end of the battle with terrorism,” Sistani said in a statement read by his representative, Sheikh Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai, on December 15. “It is necessary to continue to use the service of [the militias] within the legal framework that exclusively puts the arm under the command of the state.”
Abadi called on the commanders of the militias, grouped under the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), to resign if they wish to take part in the elections scheduled for May 12. That call appears to have received Sistani’s backing.
“It is necessary to protect this high status and not to exploit it to achieve political goals that will eventually lead this sacred title to have the same fate as other such respected titles,” Sistani said.
Although many of Iraq’s post- 2003 political parties had armed wings, it was Sistani’s fatwa in 2014 for volunteers to take arms against the threat of the Islamic State (ISIS) that led to the formation of the PMF.
The PMF reportedly has more than 40 factions with an estimated 60,000-140,000 fighters. Many of the militias expressed loyalty to Iran, which trained them, and some have been accused of sectarian-motivated human rights violations, sparking international calls for their disbanding.
“Sistani wanted the volunteer corps to come under the control of the government and the Iraqi Army,” Jabr al-Mohammedawi, a cleric who teaches theology in Najaf, told the website Niqash.com, “but the chaotic state of the government after the collapse of the army [after the ISIS attack] allowed the formation of independent factions.”
The head of the Iran-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, Qais al- Khazali, said more than 7,500 PMF militiamen have been killed fighting ISIS.
Khazali is among the militia leaders who announced they would relinquish control of their forces, to come under the command of the national army. Hadi al-Ameri, commander of the Iran-backed Badr Organisation, said his fighters would cut their ties with the group’s political wing.
Influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called on his forces, the Peace Companies, to hand over territory they control to Iraqi security forces, keeping a few of his forces to guard a Shia shrine in Samarra.
It remains to be seen whether all the militias will join the country’s army and other security bodies or if some will remain in their paramilitary form. For example, the militia Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, led by Akram al-Kaabi, vowed to hand over its heavy weapons to the army only once ISIS was defeated.
It is also unclear how much of a dissociation there will be between the fighters and the parties they belonged to. Will fighters belonging to one faction be grouped together in their new role?
A law was passed by the Iraqi parliament last year to put the PMF under the command of the prime minister, who is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but that did not stop the fighters from taking direct orders from their own militia leaders.
For now, the government seems to be postponing those issues until it can offer the fighters an alternative.
“Given the estimated 100,000 fighters who have steady jobs in a form of law enforcement during an economic crisis, it’s going to be a financial problem for the ordinary Iraqi men who form the corps to disband,” wrote Mustafa Habib in Niqash.com.
“They would in effect be resigning from possibly the only job they can get right now. This is part of the reason why the Iraqi government is also insisting that the militias remain part of the country’s fighting force, one way or another.”