As the battle grinds on against the Islamic State — also known as IS, ISIL and Daesh — there is growing concern about the mounting influence of Iran and Shiite militias known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) inside Iraq.
The Iraqi Kurds, who continue to clash with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad over the sharing of oil revenues, are feeling squeezed. Nechirvan Barzani, the savvy young prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), has played a central role in maintaining the precarious balance between his people, the central government and the big regional powers, Turkey and Iran.
The United States has re-emerged as the Kurds’ principal ally in the battle against the jihadists. As the battle to liberate Mosul from IS looms, what are the challenges that lie ahead? Nechirvan Barzani explains in an interview with Al-Monitor in Erbil, the capital of the KRG.
Al-Monitor: How is the battle against Daesh [IS] going?
Barzani: It was a big shock in the beginning. But since then it seems we have been able to push them back from the Kurdistan territories, from the areas surrounding Kirkuk, Zumar, Rabia, Mosul Dam, Makhmour and Gwer. These regions have been liberated. The initiative is back in our hands now. We feel that they don’t have the same strength to mount fresh attacks. In general the situation is much better. But the danger has obviously not subsided altogether and so long as Mosul remains in the hands of ISIL the threat will remain.
Al-Monitor: I will get to Mosul, but first I would like to discuss the role of Iran and the Shiite militias or the Popular Mobilization Units, the PMUs. Throughout my stay here, Kurds and Western officials alike have aired more worries about Iran and the PMU than about the Islamic State, or Daesh.
Barzani: There is a reality that needs to be addressed. When ISIL first embarked on this war in Iraq, Iran was one of the first countries that came forward to defend Iraq, including Kurdistan. It was felt there was a common enemy, Daesh. And the other bitter reality was that the Iraqi army did not possess the means to stop the onslaught of ISIL. As a result of a fatwa from Ayatollah [Ali] Sistani, Hashid Shaabi, or the Popular Mobilization Units, were formed. It would be unfair to deny the positive contribution of these forces to help push back ISIL. In many places they have played a positive role.