Could a shakeup in Iraq's PMU (Hashd al-Sha'abi) lead to greater divisions in Iraq?
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN and MECRA STAFF
Iraq's powerful Popular Mobilization Units (Hashd al-Sha'abi) are in the midst of a struggle over who will control them and whether they will remain as one umbrella-group of brigades or split apart. Recent reports that up to four key PMU brigades could pass to control by the Prime Minister's office in Baghdad have led to questions about the underlying disputes driving the changes.
A letter circulating in Iraq from the Prime Minister's office signed by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and presented as his government's decision asserts that four brigades will come under the control of the head of the armed forces and the Prime Minister. Currently the Prime Minister is Adil Abdul-Mahdi. However he resigned in November 2019 during the protests that rocked Iraq and there have now been three different prime-minister-disignates who have failed to form a government. The letter would appear to separate these four units from the control of the Popular Mobilization Commission. The letter was drafted Sunday, April 19 and appeared on April 22.
The brigades include the 2nd Brigade which is the Imam Ali Combat Division, originally based and linked to the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf; the 11th Brigade or Liwa Ali al-Akbar linked to the Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala; the 26th Brigade or al-Abbas combat division, which is linked to the Al-Abbas Shrine in Karbala and also ready has been seconded to the Ministry of Defense since 2017; and the 44th Brigade known as Liwa Ansar al-Marjaya (Ansar al Marjaiya) linked to Ayatollah Ali Sistani. These units are seen as particularly loyal to Sistani.
The PMU were created in the wake of a fatwa by Sistani in June 2014. They were mobilized to confront the rising threat of ISIS as cities in Sunni areas of Iraq began to fall to the extremists. Many of the units were rooted in existing militias and paramilitaries such as the Badr Organization, Kataib Hezbollah, Saraya al-Salam, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Saraya Khorasani and other groups such as the recently formed Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba. Other groups that were affiliated were raised at the same time, such as Kataib al-Imam Ali. The groups had different affiliations, some with existing power structures and political-religious groups. Others were regionally raised brigades and others were minority units made up of Turkmen and later Christians and Yazidis and Sunni tribesmen.
The PMU grew rapidly in size to more than 100,000 fighters and played a key role in taking back cities and rural areas from ISIS. It eventually also played a key role in administering checkpoints and controlling areas along the border with Syria. As it gained power the government of Haider al-Abadi sought to make its position official with parliament approving a law in 2016 that resulted in its incorporation as an official paramilitary force in March 2018. Abadi saw its role as important for the future of Iraq.
Abdul-Mahdi wanted to bring the PMU more under the control of the armed forces, which resulted in a decree in July 2019 mandating its integration. However that came during rising tensions with the US and explosions at several warehouses where PMU arms are stored. Key leaders of the PMU, including PMU commission head Falah al-Fayyad and his deputy Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis resisted total integration or interference in their affairs. The US accused Muhandis and Kataib Hezbollah of masterminding rocket attacks in the fall and winter of 2019, eventually resulting in his killing by a US drone strike in early January. The US targeted IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani at the same time.
Elements within the PMU who are closely linked to Iran and the IRGC have repeatedly demand US forces leave Iraq. These included not only Muhandis but also Qais Kazali, Harakat Hezbollah's Akram al-Kaabi and others. Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Badr Organization, also supported pressuring the US to leave.They joined in the December 2019 protests at the US embassy and the late January protests with Muqtada al-Sadr's supporters.
The US has also sanctioned elements of the PMU and leaders of some of its factions, including Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba in March 2019 and Khazali in December. Muhandis was already designated by the US. The US also offered a reward for information leading to Mohammed Kawtharani, a Hezbollah operative tasked with helping unite PMU factions after the death of Muhandis and Soleimani. In February a man nicknamed Abu Fadak (Abdul Aziz Al-Muhammadawi) took over Muhandis' role as deputy of the PMU and head of KH. Further tensions with the US and a rocket attack that killed three members of the Coalition resulted in new US airstrikes on PMU warehouses in March. In April IRGC Quds Force head Esmail Ghaani visited Iraq in a trip that was largely seen as a failure to advance Tehran's interests.
The inability of Iran to advance its interests or unify the PMU in the first months of 2020, combined with the continued inability of the Prime Minister's office to integrate the PMU, with brigades acting in an independent and wayward manner since 2019, left the large organization at a crossroads.
Sistani, Iran and the PMO
The April 19 letter appears to represent a break in the PMU between groups closer to Sistani and those closer to the IRGC or Iran. It raised eyebrows for including the Al-Abbas Combat Division as a Hashd brigade still, when that unit was considered to have already moved to the Defense Ministry.
The restructering would bring four brigades under the PMO, not the defense ministry directly. Haider al-Abadi would become head of the Popular Mobilization Commission, while Abu Dua Kazim Al-Issawi would be nominated to replace Falih Fayyad. Minority units could also be moved to the PMO, suggested observers. This might change the nature of the PMU in Iraq's future.
Commentators are divided on what comes next. David Witty notes "in Iraq, the breakaway of 4 PMF (Hashd) brigades from PMF Council demonstrates they don’t want to be perceived as receiving Iranian support. These are Shrine Brigades that want additional support from Najaf. They now fall under the army."
The changes come amid other reports about PMU behavior. For instance a piece of land near the PMO was allegedly given to KH recently.
The decision to move these four PMU units was in the works since mid-March when they met with the Minister of Defense. Commander of Imam Ali, Al-Abbas and other units met at the ministry on March 17. This was interpreted as a result of Abu Fadak's appointment, distancing themselves from Iran's 'axis of resistance.' One writer notes "Long story short, it's to stress Iraqi independence and keeping the state from falling into hardened alliances with regional or international actors. In other words US and Iran because Iraq refuses to fighter either." Those present on March 17 included "commanders are Ali Hamdani(Brigade 11), Sheikh Tahir Al-Khaqani(Brigade 2), Maitham Al-Zaidi(Brigade 26), and Sayyed Hamid Al-Yasiri(Brigade 44)." The commanders of these units had received support from Sistani's top aide Sheikh Abul Mahdi Al-Kurbalai for the move.
The units involved include more than 15,000 members and under the PMO they could become their own division, similar to the ICTS or other units. Their loyalty to Sistani appears key here, a growing rift within the PMU and an attempt to stabilize Iraq amid the current instability. There is a vacuum of power in Iraq without a new prime minister and with oil prices declining.
The result of the changes could see Fayyadh stripped of his role as head of the PMU and national security advisor, according to Al-Aalem news. This report on April 26 asserted that Haider al-Abadi and Adnan al-Zurfi, who recently failed to become Prime Minister, would step into the vacuum of Fayyad being pushed out. More than ten other factions of the PMU could also leave, including those of the Turkmen, Shebek, Yazidis and Sunni units as part of he re-alignment. "The source pointed out that "the factions that are dismantled will not return to the Hashd again, as long as the Hezbollah Brigades, Badr Organization, Al-Asaib and Saraya al-Khorasani impose their grip on the body." The sources told Aalem that the PMU had grown beyond the mandate of the 2014 Fatwa and that this was the reason for the current rift.
This seems to hint at the rocket attacks on bases housing US forces and turning Iraq into a proxy battlefield with the US. Abdul Madhi's attempt to please everyone had led to this problem because he had not kept Abu Fadak from assuming Muhandis' role.
A second article at Al-Aalem asserts that there are around 17 units in the PMU connected to Sistani and that overall the PMU has around 164,000 personnel. It points out that the seed of the current rift began with disputes between Muhandis and the Abbas Combat Division in 2017. Disputes also involved funding for this unit. Funding for PMU units that went to Syria, such as those linked to Khorasani and KH, was also part of the controversy that led Najaf to push for moving its units to the PMO or Defense Ministry. Allegations of corruption were also an issue, with claims that economic sectors were being taken over by those linked to other units that are part of the camp closer to Iran.
The article notes: "It is clear from the foregoing that the current formation of the structure of the PMF is no longer in line with the current political system and the changes it has experienced. The protesters against the PMU's structure today are much more than they were when it was created. It is currently facing many crises, in addition to the major Western and Arab countries urging Iraq to dissolve the crowd, or to limit its roles and powers, or to reduce its human resources, review its merger operations with the regular forces, or consider them as reserve forces called upon when needed with an equitable pension ...The structure of the current PMU does not reflect the current dramatic political and economic changes, and the effectiveness of other state groups must be strengthened at a time of multiple and complex crises, including international terrorism, internal and international conflicts, and increasing poverty, all of which affect the necessity of restructuring the PMU."
An important aspect of the rift is that the factions linked to Sistani and Najaf tend to be linked to shrines (such as those in Najaf and Karbala) and cities with a more territorial and Iraqi outlook, as opposed to an IRGC regional outlook that may want the PMU to play a greater role alongside Hezbollah in contests with the US or other Iranian adversaries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. With Iraq's current divisions, including budget disputes with the Kurdistan autonomous region and increasing ISIS activity, the new risk could lead to reduced friction with the US or more instability as forces jockey for local control.
Another aspect of the rift is concerns by those around Sistani that the PMU was confronted by protesters last year, with offices of units such as Badr targeted by the protests. The PMU was supposed to embody defenders of local communities and not be in opposition to them. When the rift became clear Hadi al-Amiri of Badr went to meet with Sistani's representative Ahmed al-Sadi. On the list of possible ways to ameliorate Sistani's concerns, the PMU might replace Abu Fadak.
The wider context is that key elements within the PMU have played a role on the border with Syria and sent forces into Syria. For instance a new report notes that Kataib al-Imam Ali has been involved in smuggling in Syria and sent some 500 of its 4,500 fighters into Syria. The US recently withdrew forces from Qaim in Anbara amid Iran tensions but Iranian media stresses that the US wants to remove the PMU from Anbar and the border. The activity of the PMU on the border has been a concern for the US and US allies in the region. This means that any shakeup in the PMU that might result in changes at the border would be of paramount importance to Iran. Iran has played up recent PMU offensives along the border with Syria and Jordan, to highlight its importance.