Turning PMF into elite force could backfire
BAGHDAD - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi is seeking to transform the Shia-dominated Hashd al-Shaabi — the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) — into an elite security unit, similar to the counterterrorism squads, with equally distinguished status, benefits and privileges.
Sceptics, however, insist that the move may take a long time because the PMF must first renounce its entwined relations with political or religious parties to become an independent unit serving the country rather than certain groups or politicians.
It will also need proper training to alter its militia-like demeanour and be transformed into a structured security unit.
There is also the question of trust. The group has been accused of killing Iraqis, especially those of the rival Sunni sect. PMF spokesmen insist the killings were due to suspicions that some Sunnis were collaborating with the Islamic State (ISIS).
Dismantling the PMF, even gradually, may lead some of its members to become an armed resistance that will undermine what is left of Iraq’s security and stability. Integrating the PMF into the system may end its competition with the army.
Iraqi lawmaker Kadim al-Shammari said turning the PMF into a state security apparatus could arouse concerns among Iraqis who may see the move as a sign of the government’s weakness in the face of growing Iranian interference.
“Nobody can deny that these groups are not loyal to Iraq,” Shammari insisted. He also said that undertaking such a move “will fuel sectarian and political fears in the country”.
Parts of the PMF, such as the powerful Badr Organisation, maintain a strong allegiance to Iran. That group serves under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry.
Some Iraqis fear the new force might become the local version of neighbouring Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) which maintains an assertive role in Iranian society and politics.
Shia militias have played a major role in regaining territory from ISIS which seized about one-third of Iraq two years ago. The militias joined forces and formed the PMF, answering a call by the country’s Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to stop Sunni insurgents who threatened to move on to Baghdad, the seat of Iraq’s Shia-dominated government.
The victories by PMF were marred by accusations of human rights violations and acts of revenge against Sunnis.
Another source of concern about the Shia militias is the loyalty issue as most of the militia leaders are stating clearly that they are loyal to Iran and its Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rather than to Iraq.
Spokesman for the Shia militias Ahmed al-Asadi said the new security force would include 20 brigades that would receive the same weapons and training as government counterterrorism units. The fighters in the new force would take their orders from Abadi, who is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Asadi said.
But Baghdad resident Ahmed Abdul-Raheem said he fears the new group may in fact be controlled by IRGC.
“Our government has taken a new decision that would more turn the country into Iran’s backyard. At the end, we are going to have our own revolutionary guard force, which is stronger than the army,” said Abdul-Raheem, a Sunni from northern Baghdad.
Sunni lawmaker Hamid al-Mutlaq said the decision to form the new security force is “a step in the wrong direction” in the attempts to build a strong Iraqi Army.
“Instead of wasting resources on a sectarian force, the efforts should be directed on the formation of a strong national army that represents and protects all Iraqis,” Mutlaq said.
Yet, Shia lawmaker Iskander Wetwat claimed that reorganising the PMF is a good step aimed at assisting the Iraqi Army to protect the country from “conspiracies being hatched against Iraq”.
Baghdad-based political analyst Saif al-Obeidi said he doubted that the militiamen would renounce links to political parties. Rather, the new fighters would take their political and ideological differences to the military.
“We have dozens of Shia armed groups with conflicting loyalties and this will hurt and threaten the unity of the military institutions,” he said. He warned that some officials are preparing to replace the weak Iraqi Army with the new PMF force.
Following accusations by Iraqi Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi against the parliament speaker and other lawmakers of embezzling money and bargaining with him for commissions from a colossal defence contract, it was rumoured that the army was planning a coup, similar to the takeover by the Egyptian Army in 2013.
Wafeeq al-Samarraie, former head of Iraqi military intelligence during Saddam Hussein’s rule, described such rumours as “mere dreams” with the presence of stronger Shia militias.
“The weak Iraqi Army cannot carry out any coup… The only people in charge are the PMF leaders who have the real powers in the country. They are controlling both the masses and the security forces,” Samarraie wrote on his Facebook page.