Will the Iraqi government rein in Iran-backed militias?

The PMF decree will be a serious test for the strength of the Iraqi state.
Saturday 06/07/2019
A country held hostage. A member of Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces stands near a drawing of an armed cleric in Najaf, July 2. (Reuters)
A country held hostage. A member of Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces stands near a drawing of an armed cleric in Najaf, July 2. (Reuters)

LONDON - Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has decreed that the Popular Mobilisation Forces will be integrated into Iraq’s regular armed forces and subject to the same regulations as the army. The presence of armed militias has been a key feature of Iraq’s recent history.

All militia headquarters and economic offices outside the control of the prime minister will be shut down after July 31. The decree orders that the armed groups joining the military must change their names and end their political activities.

That last point could prove controversial because some of Iraq’s most powerful politicians have strong links to Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) affiliates known as Al-Hashed al-Shaabi.

The PMF is an umbrella group for a vast array of forces that fought against the Islamic State (ISIS) alongside the Iraqi military and coalition partners. Some of the most powerful elements in the PMF — such as the Badr Organisation, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah — have long-standing ties with Iran.

Abdul-Mahdi’s move comes amid increasing tensions between the United States and Iran. There have been unclaimed rocket attacks against bases hosting US personnel and an attack on the headquarters of foreign oil firms in southern Iraq, including US oil giant Exxon Mobil.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned the Iraqi leadership in May that Washington would respond with force if Baghdad did not rein in the Iran-backed militias.

“The decree does send a message to regional actors and in some ways to Iran that the Iraqi state is eager to formalise its control over an umbrella that is mostly made up of Iran-controlled factions,” said Phillip Smyth, a researcher on Shia militant groups.

Key Iraqi politicians and militia heads welcomed Abdul-Mahdi’s decree. Muqtada al-Sadr, one of Iraq’s most powerful politicians and head of the Saraya al-Salam, called the order “a correct first step towards building a strong state,” adding that his fighters were now under the command of the prime minister.

The leader of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Qais Khazzali, posted on Twitter that the decree was welcome and a correct step to prevent the PMF from dissolving. Kata’ib Hezbollah said it would implement the order, while stating that its members fighting outside Iraq — the group is active in Syria — would not adhere to the rules.

Iraq’s highest Shia religious authority, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, demanded that PMF groups be placed under the control of the state. However, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has often said he does not want the PMF to be dissolved or integrated into the

army, wrote Ali Mamouri in Al-Monitor.

The PMF has been instrumental in fighting ISIS. Local reports said its forces recently destroyed ISIS tunnels in Diyala province. However, various PMF units have been accused of human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings.

Some observers said they doubt the decree would be implemented. “Compliance hinges on Iran’s receptiveness to these orders, if Iran is not receptive to these orders, they will be like the ones Abadi issued,” Iraqi security expert Hisham al-Hashimi told Reuters.

The growing power of the PMF has been a pressing issue. Former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi issued a decree in 2018 to make the PMF part of the armed forces but the order was not followed through.

Getting the PMF groups to sever links with political parties is “hard to do,” Smyth said, “when each Hashed brigade is usually comprised of one political group’s members.” Referring to the 2018 decree issued by Abadi, Smyth said militia brigades still advocated for certain political candidates linked to them. “Most of these groups did little more than alter their logos,” he said.

Maria Fantappie, senior adviser at the International Crisis Group, commented on social media that the most relevant part of the decree was “its potential to give Iraqi leaders additional legal/political means to insulate Iraq from US-Iran confrontation.”

Iraq has been trying to stay a neutral party in the US-Iran conflict, working to maintain a good relationship with both sides. Amid intensifying tensions between Tehran and Washington, Iraqi President Barham Salih told CNN in June that Iraq would not allow the United States to use one of its bases in Iraq to attack Iran.

The PMF decree will be a serious test for the strength of the Iraqi state.

Going forward, Smyth said: “A major issue will come down to any potential reorganisation of these brigades and how it is enforced,” adding that the PMF has claimed that it could enforce government rules on its own, without the state or the army intervening.