Conflicting statements of Hashd al-Shaabi (PMU) reorganization in Nineveh
On Sunday August 12 a letter from the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Units) circulated online leading to rumors and conflicting statements about the PMU withdrawing from portions of Nineveh in northern Iraq. This is an area that was liberated from Islamic State beginning in 2015 and which was re-taken entirely by the spring and summer of 2017. In September 2017 the PMU had also taken over Sinjar (Shingal) as the Peshmerga withdrew. They hold important and strategic border areas with Syria as well as Rabia on the border and are stationed around Mosul and the oil facilities at Baiji.
Any changes in the PMU's deployment has larger ramifications. The PMU are backed by Iran and their presence was seen as a janus-face, on the one hand helping defeat ISIS but potentially spreading not only Iranian influence, but also potentially alienating locals and leading to another round of insurgency if they stayed to long.
The areas the PMU exercise influence over, especially in Nineveh, is a large and important area of Iraq. It was the area that ISIS was able to infiltrate in 2014 before the June and August offensives that year that conquered Mosul and Sinjar and led to mass suffering in northern Iraq. The PMU's presence is also controversial amongst the numerous minority groups, such as Yazidis, as well as the Sunni Arab population.
Rumors have persisted that the PMU may withdraw from Sinjar and other areas at some point. For instance the presence of some US military vehicles in Sinjar in June 2018 led to rumors the US and Coalition would build a base. In fact the forces were on the way to the Iraqi border to build a fire base to support Operation Roundup and other border security issues.
The changed on August 12 appear more serious. Initially the local media reported that the PMU would withdraw from Sinjar. They have successfully helped clear roads in the area. But as the fourth anniversary of the Yazidi genocide came and went many Yazidis say the situation in Sinjar has still prevented the return of around 300,000 IDPs. The PMU say that any stories about withdrawal are inaccurate and they are only "redeploying." The leader of the operations directorate at the PMU "Jawad Kazem denied on Sunday reports that the withdrawal of the PMF from Nineveh had taken place, stressing that the redeployment was in coordination with the Joint Operation Command."
So what is actually happening? The Nineveh Operations command of the Iraqi army will apparently incorporate some of the minority units that the PMU recruited over the years. Responsibility for Christian, Shabak and Yazidi groups will be transferred from the PMU.
"The local Hashd forces such as the Hashd al-Shaabi's 30 Shabak Brigade, the Hashd al-Shaabi's 50 Christian Brigade and the Hashd al-Shaabi's 53 Turkmen Brigade as well as the Yezidi Hashd Brigade, will be incorporated into the Mosul Front Command in terms of finance and administration and they will always remain as a ready supporting force,” the PMU statement noted. This was due to the apparent reduction in threats in Nineveh. The idea is to also consolidate the eastern and western operations areas into a joint command. Another brigade, PMU Brigade 40, will hand over control north of Sinjar to the Joint Operations Command. There will also be changes in Baiji and in Mosul city itself.
According to the statement, three previous operational commands will be unified under one PMU command that will come under the leadership of Ali Kadhem al-Karawi (also given as Sayyed Ali Kazim), a leading member of the PMU and an assistant to Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, according to sources.
The changes in command and structure have led to numerous rumors. Some Kurdish sources think the Peshmerga will return to parts of Sinjar, which seems unlikely. A more clear reading may also be a result of pressure from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on the PMU and an attempt to assert control.
Yazidis in Sinjar who spoke to MECRA said that they hoped things would become clearer once there is a new Iraqi government. For months Baghdad has been without a new coalition, despite numerous crises. The south has been swept with protests, north of Baghdad are ongoing ISIS attacks and there is a new crises because of US pressure for Iran sanctions. In the Kurdish region there is a dispute about local elections.
The changes in Nineveh have been met with different interpretations in Iraq. It is seen as a reduction in the PMU's influence. Reducing its command over various minority units will make the PMU in Nineveh appear even more Shi'ite than in the past when it could accurately claim to include a series of other forces, such as Badr's 'Hashd al-Shebeki' and various minority units such as the Nineveh Plains Units of Christians and the Lalesh brigade of Yazidis.
In addition there will be questions about whether this is connected to other power struggles in Baghdad between Abadi and potential coalition partners such as Badr's Hadi Al-Amiri. There will also be concerns about ISIS trying to infiltrate Nineveh. Currently the security forces, including elite SWAT teams have been hunting down ISIS at the area known as the Gates of Mosul, but changes on the ground may impact this. In other governorates there have been attempts to reorganize the security forces under a joint command which Kareem Botane's interview with the ERD illustrated. And there will be constant rumors about the role of the Coalition and Peshmerga in upcoming changes.