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Recent reports about the PMU's role in Iraq

Recent weeks have brought into the spotlight the role of the Hashd al-Sha'abi or Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq. This comes amid increased tension between the US and Iran as well as leadership within the PMU holding the US and Israel responsible for alleged airstrikes that have destroyed PMU munitions warehouses. At least six such alleged airstrikes since July; at Amerli (July 19), Camp Ashraf (July 30), Camp Falcon (Aug. 12), near Balad (Aug. 20), Al-Qaim (Aug. 25) and Hit (Sept. 10); have increased PMU rhetoric against the US.

For instance on August 21, deputy leader of the PMF Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis blamed the US for the attacks and claimed that four Israeli drones were responsible. This comes during a period of uncertainty about the future of the PMU's role which could see its brigades integrated further into the security forces, or see them remain more independent. Various models could result, such as the model of Hezbollah in Lebanon or the IRGC in Iraq. After the decision in Iraq in 2017 to incorporate the PMU into the security forces, the force was supposed to be integrated in 2018. But in 2019 there are still disputes about its role in places like Nineveh and its independent stockpiling of munitions.

A frequent commenter on current affairs and the PMU is former Iraqi Presidential advisor Lt. General Wafik al- Samarrai (وفيق السامرائي) warned on Wednesday, September 4, of a "third major conspiracy" aimed at Iraq's unity.

In an August 24 Facebook post he linked the attacks on PMU depots to dividing Iraq. He asserted that some countries and agendas want disunity in Iraq. "All that is said is that the Hashd depots contain missiles on their way to Lebanon, which is far from common sense." He asserted that Israel has a "strategic objective" to divide the country and also blamed specific Kurdish political leadership. In contrast he wrote that the UAE wants a unified Iraq to balance Saudi Arabia and that today Kuwait "sees a unified Iraq as a crucial regional strategic balance and is working hard to improve relations with it." He concluded that the bombing of a few warehouses does not shake Iraq, but that assassination attempts on PMU leaders would. "The [PMU] is growing stronger, more organized, developed and armed...And the unity of Iraq is a cornerstone of international security and crucial to regional security and strategic balance."

On September 10 he again wrote about the issues facing Iraq, while commemorating Ashura. He looked at relations between the PMU and the army. "Our young people, do not be disheartened by the temporary lack of (some) conventional deterrence and defense. Iraq has all the strengths of you," he wrote. He said there were fabricated rumors being spread about differences between the army and the PMU. However the army has seen "many achievements in armament, training, organization and strengthening the spirit of unity that is far from the breath of sectarianism, regionalism, chauvinism."

He notes the lack of air defense. "The defect in the air defense was the result of a previous American action. Until 2006, even the Presidential Guard was forbidden to arm a light bomber against tanks." This has implications for the alleged airstrikes on the PMU, and appears in the context of calls within the PMU for air defense and an air force. "The air attacks on the Hashd munitions warehouse were an important station in catalyzing the development of armaments." He writes that the PMU "survives and develops at record speed under unwavering leadership that has been through wars, victory and official oversight of the state." He then compares the PMU to the National Guard in Saudi Arabia "equipped with the latest weapons outside the scope of the Ministry of Defense" and "in Iran the Revolutionary Guards, which is independent of the Ministry of Defense, and in Kuwait National Guard, and in Iraq former Republican Guard forces were independent of the defense and the army chief of staff altogether." He concludes that the PMU played a vital role defeating ISIS and that the PMU are those "who are now continuing to build power in a turbulent environment and Arab and regional conflicts that will go on, and the strength of Iraq strengthens international security and humanity."

Samarrai's comments are important because senior PMU leaders such as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis watch them and share them on social media. His commentaries appear in other Iraqi media as well. This includes in the Gulf and across the region. Comments about tensions with the PMU and Israel included assertions in late August that "it is unlikely to become a (wide) confrontation at the level of open war between Israel and any other party at the current stage."

In other news Al-Ain looks at allegations the PMU operates secret prisons in Iraq. On September 10 Al-Ain also reports that the "head of the Popular Mobilization in Iraq (IRGC), did not visit Moscow in early September, but ordered Tehran to buy the Russian S-400 missile system as part of the IRGC's plan to make Iraq the main battleground for its war against Washington."

On Monday, September 9, El-Etejah reported that the "Fatah alliance called on Monday the federal government for a military response similar to the Lebanese Hezbollah against the Zionist entity after its involvement in bombing the headquarters of the Popular Mobilization in the Albukamal border area between Iraq and Syria." The same day PMU head Faleh al-Fayyad met with the Secretary General of the Nujaba Movement, Sheikh Akram al-Kaabi, and discussed the attacks on the headquarters of the Popular Mobilization, while stressing the importance of preserving Iraq's sovereignty and rejecting violations."

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