Role of Iraq’s militias unclear despite state integration plans

It is unclear how much of a dissociation there will be between the fighters and the parties they belonged to.
December 24, 2017
Members of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) flash the victory sign with portraits of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (R) and PMF Chairman Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in Basra, on December 10. (AFP)
Members of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) flash the victory sign with portraits of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (R) and PMF Chairman Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in Basra, on December 10. (AFP)

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.”

4