Iraq’s parliament approved a law today that will confirm Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s earlier decision that will make the Popular Mobilisation forces (PMF), a mostly Iranian-backed coalition of Shia militias that played a role in fighting Daesh, into a legal and separate military corps.
Disagreements over the Shia paramilitary units are complicating efforts to pull Iraq together as forces battle to defeat Daesh, the ultra-hardline extremist group that overran a third of the country in 2014, proclaiming a “caliphate” that spans parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria.
All the Shia blocs in parliament voted for the bill in a session boycotted by lawmakers from the Sunni population who object to the existence of armed forces outside the army and police.
This is particularly that Iran’s influence is clear in the PMF, and there have been credible reports that the PMF intends to morph into the Iraqi version of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is a military structure that stands in parallel to the Iranian army.
Such an IRGC-like structure would mean that the PMF, like its Iranian parent organisation, could become more powerful than the more formal instruments of state power themselves. This is the case in Iran, where the IRGC even has its own courts.
The PMF, or Hashd Al-Sha’abi in Arabic, has been repeatedly accused of abuses against Sunni civilians in towns and villages retaken from Daesh, according to international human rights groups and the UN Human Rights Commissioner.
The PMF’s numerous sectarian violations have been termed as “war crimes” by groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
“I don’t understand why we need to have an alternative force to the army and the police,” said Sunni MP Ra’ad Al-Dahlaki. “As it stands now, it would constitute something that looks like Iran’s Revolutionary Guard,” he added.
Iraqi forces started an offensive on 17 October to capture Mosul, Daesh’s last major city stronghold in Iraq, with air and ground support from a US-led coalition. Kurdish Peshmerga and the PMF are supporting the offensive, with numerous other militias having already infiltrated the Iraqi military and federal police.
The law does not say how many fighters will be incorporated under the now legalised and formalised PMF, which currently claims to have more than 110,000 fighters, or define the breakdown between members from the different communities.
The government says between 25,000 and 30,000 members of the Hashd are Sunni tribal fighters and nearly all the rest are Shia, with a few Yazidi and Christian units. This, however, has been disputed as an attempt by the PMF to whitewash its sectarianism through the use of token Sunnis and other religious and ethnic minorities.
The law provides for the PMF to report directly to the prime minister, who is a Shia, while the army reports to the defence minister, although the position has been vacant since the sacking by parliament of Khaled Al-Obeidi in August, a move associated with sectarian Shia blocs.