Dominance of militias may haunt Baghdad

The Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), were instrumental in pushing back the Islamic State group from the gates to Baghdad, and later in driving out IS militants from major cities across northern Iraq.

Heeding a call from Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, an array of old and newly formed groups rallied under the PMF umbrella. In Iraq, the growing stature of the PMF reaffirms the view that the most effective forces are those motivated by sectarian or political loyalties, posing an ominous long-term dilemma for the Iraqi government.

The interests of the PMF constituent groups converged over IS, and more recently, in pushing back Kurdish forces in Kirkuk and other disputed territories – but as a disparate alliance of Shia groups with various political and sectarian affiliations, the jostling for control and influence will intensify, especially in the run up to crucial national elections.

For Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the PMF has proved to be an opportunity and a headache, allowing him to build credibility with decisive victories over IS, but at same time he ha sbeen left struggling to assert control over the force, with doubts surrounding Baghdad’s jurisdiction over the Badr Organization, Sayara al-Salam, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.

With PMF forces now legalised as an independent state-affiliated force, there are growing signs that the powerful PMF is becoming the equivalent of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), whose loyalties are political and sectarian rather than to the state itseld.

In a similar vain to the IRGC-allied Hizballah in Lebanon, these powerful parallel security structures wield significant political and security influence.

PMF fighters celebrate victory of IS in Mosul
August 2017 [Getty]

Under Abadi’s Order 91 that legalised the PMF forces, the militias are supposed to be “cut from all political, party and social frameworks, and political work will be prohibited in its ranks”.

However, this is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in reality. With the Shia community far from united, PMF groups are certain to be at the forefront of the Shia political power struggle.

With former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki determined to wrest back the hot-seat, Abadi, favoured by Washington, has been under pressure to dispel criticism of being a weak leader.

The strong-handed response to curtail the Kurdish drive towards independence was a show of force to Kurds as well as those rivals and critics in Baghdad.

In attempts to counter the growing power of the PMF, Abadi sanctioned Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service, the Golden Division, as positioned as the frontline fighters against IS.

The aim was to give Abadi more military supervision with a force under his office, as opposed to the defence or interior ministries, yet this latest military division gave the security situation yet another layer of friction and command bureacracy.

The segmented command structure opens potential new lines of conflict between the state military and the PMF, but also raises the prospect of intra-militia fighting in a quest to marginalise rival groups or provide the platform for one political party to dominate power within the PMF.

The PMF subgroups are broadly split between allegiances to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – or political groups, with Muqtada al-Sadr in particular holding large influence.

Popular Mobilization Forces march
during a military parade holding a banner featuring
Ayatollah 2015 [Getty]

Al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army had been a ubiquitous thorn in the sides of the US and Maliki, leading Maliki to reach out to Iran in attempts to rein in the influential cleric.

With the most powerful groups within PMF, such as the Badr Organization, Asaib ahl al-Haq (AAH), and Kata’ib Hezbollah, aligned to Khamenei and Iran, this provides Tehran with a significant advantage in the political and military landscape of Iraq.

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, designated a terrorist by the US, and Hadi al-Ameri of the Badr Corporation, head up the PMF. The likes of Muhandis, Ameri and Qais Khazali were primed by Iran and have strong ties to IRGC Quds Commander Qassem Soleimani, a well-known adviser to the PMF.

With these pro-Iran figures controlling the PMF, Iran-affiliated groups have garnered significant leverage in terms of salaries, arms and personnel. This was a key source of friction with Sadr’s Peace Regiments (Saraya al-Salam), who were angered at the dominance of groups linked to Muhandis and Ameri.

In turn, it gives Maliki – who has strong ties to these Iranian-affiliated groups and has the backing of Iran – an advantage over Abadi in the coming elections.

Meanwhile, al-Sadr remains intent on ensuring Maliki does not return to power, and has taken a growing anti-Iranian line in recent years. Al-Sadr has become a popular champion of the working class, with his supporters holding large protests against the corruption, lack of services and monopoly of power in Baghdad.

Maliki tried to take a hardline view on militias. His 2010 electoral bloc even went under the banner of “State of Law” [Dawlat al-Qanoon], but with pressure from IS well before their takeover in Mosul, his alliance with a number of largely Iranian backed militias rapidly grew.

As the elections in 2010 showed with al-Iraqiyya, a non-sectarian group with a loose alliance of Sunnis producing victory over Maliki bloc, the Shia front cannot take the next election’s results for granted – which will only increase political jockeying.

With many groups and divergent loyalties, coalition blocs will be difficult to form and will be susceptible to cracks.

As for the long-disenfranchised Sunnis, the same seeds of discontent that facilitated the rise of IS and other Sunni militant groups remain. In addition, the growing power of the PMF over the state security apparatus, and especially around traditional Sunni heartlands, means that Sunnis remain as wary as over.

Sunni anxiety at continued Shia domination paves the way for more militias to emerge to offset and challenge the PMF. While the PMF were given a legal status, the Sunni Sahwa or Awakening councils, instrumental in driving driving out al-Qaeda at the heart of the Sunni insurgency in 2007-2008, were largely sidelined.

Wary of empowering Sunni forces with guns and legal status, Maliki took a more antagonist view of Sahwa councils.

Sunni tribes and militias may well resurrect their struggle for a political voice, as well as work to root out the PMF in their areas, possibly forming a loose alliance with Kurds.

When Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi replaced Maliki, one of his goals was to heal the country’s long-neglected sectarian divides.

However, with Sunni discontent unaddressed, Iraqi security forces splintered along sectarian and political allegiances, and Kurds and Arabs in an increasingly violent standoff, Iraq remains at the mercy of sectarianism and violence.

First Published: New Arab

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